Last year was a good one for dolls’ houses. These temples of tiny delights were celebrated at two exhibitions in the UK: Small Stories at the V&A Museum of Childhood in east London featured examples from the past 300 years, while Small Worlds at No 1 Royal Crescent in Bath presented 10 historic houses from collector Liza Antrim’s private archive.
Then in April, at London’s Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair, celebrated interior designer Rose Tarlow, who counts Oprah Winfrey among her clients, bought a fine Queen Anne dolls’ house from Jill Palmer Antiques to display alongside another one in her hallway. “Early dolls’ houses appeal to me most as they have a naïve and sculptural simplicity,” says Tarlow. And where celebrity interior decorators lead, trends will surely follow.
“There does seem to be a resurgence of interest at the moment,” says Small Stories co-curator Alice Sage. “The show has been incredibly popular and is now touring internationally. The appeal is partly voyeuristic – the houses provide a glimpse into bygone people’s lives – and partly due to a fascination with the craftsmanship involved in the making of small things.”
It is the finely crafted dolls’ houses, made by estate carpenters during the first half of the 19th century, that are currently fetching the highest prices, says Daniel Agnew, doll and teddy bear specialist at Special Auction Services, a British auctioneer that sold a furnished 1850s house made from an old mahogany cabinet for £17,000 last year.
The original furniture was key to the high price. “There are collectors interested in buying empty houses they can furnish themselves,” says Leigh Gotch, a doll and toy specialist at C&T Auctions, “but in terms of investment, the money is in furnished ones. Buyers should look out for original features and furnishings, such as carpets, paintwork and wallpaper. At my last sale at Bonhams [the auction house closed its toy department in June] we sold an unchanged, fully furnished 1848 house for £9,375.”
The first recorded dolls’ houses appeared in the mid-16th century, when the German aristocracy began to commission them as collector’s pieces or as a way of educating their daughters in stately-home management. “Sixteenth-century houses rarely come on the market these days,” says Gotch. “And most 17th-century examples are now in museums.”
The houses went on to capture the imagination of the merchant classes, who found furnishing a scaled-down version of their homes an absorbing hobby – and an ideal way to show off their surplus wealth. Antrim’s collection, for example, includes a c1840 house made for the children of chocolate maker Francis Fry. “It has all its original decor and furnishings and is a wonderful example of a 19th-century English baby house [as they were known in the UK until around 1850],” says Antrim, author of Family Dolls’ Houses of the 18th and 19th Centuries.
“Really good stuff like this is becoming harder to get hold of,” adds Agnew. Forthcoming sales by Special Auction Services (bimonthly) and C&T Auctions (May 25) are a good place to start.
The mass-produced houses that began to appear in the mid-1800s are easier to come by. Examples by respected names such as German manufacturers Morris Gottschalk and Christian Hacker, British maker G&J Lines (which later became Tri-ang), and US company Rufus Bliss can still fetch four figures at auction if in good condition. Specialist US auction house Theriault’s sold a c1900 Bliss house last year for $1,000, while London dealer Sue Killinger, who exhibits at Berkeley Square art and antiques fair Lapada, has an unfurnished late-19th-century Gottschalk house, for £2,300. “There’s always a market for these,” she says. “I would advise against restoring any of the original designs, though, as this devalues them.”
Such dolls’ houses tended not to have the maker’s name, so collectors need to learn to recognise their styles. Gottschalk houses, for instance, are notable for their coloured roofs – blue (the most sought-after, according to Killinger) from 1800 to c1900, then red. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lines/Tri-ang produced a range that reflected British architecture of the time, including mock-Tudor houses from the newly burgeoning suburbs and flat-roofed buildings for modernists. Readily available and more affordable, they are popular with new collectors. “The largest can make £150-£250, while a furnished modernist house in good condition can cost up to £800,” says Agnew.
The finest dolls’ houses were never simply playthings for children, but today it seems they are for adults only. Tarlow uses hers as objets d’art, while for collector Susan Dossetter, who lives in San Francisco with her husband David, the senior managing director at Bernstein Global Wealth Management, and their five children, the pleasure comes from furnishing her miniature houses and researching their provenance. “It’s like painting, with furniture as the paint. I view my collection as a looking glass that mirrors social history. However, these old houses are incredibly delicate and valuable [she recently paid $30,000 for a furnished mid-18th-century English model], so I have taught my children to touch with their eyes.”