Val Ripley’s approach to her hobby is to emphasise social history rather than any financial gain. Ripley, who lives in Sussex and who spent her working life in book publishing, began collecting dolls’ houses seriously 18 years ago.
A member of the Dolls House Society, she now gives lectures to local organisations, schools and history societies on social history through the dolls’ house. “In my talks I cover 450 years,” she says.
However her unusual investments are making a profit. “Over the last few years dolls’ house prices have gone up all the time, and held their value remarkably well. You would be almost certain of getting your money back and more, but I don’t know of a single collector who thinks of buying dolls’ houses for profit.
“It is a hobby that becomes an addiction, and is not easy to finance in retirement. The most I have ever paid for one house that was empty was £2,500.”
Ripley owns about 30 dolls’ houses but she also collects allied toy buildings such as warehouses, shops and stables, that boys would have played with in Victorian times.
The trigger for Ripley’s passion came when she unpacked her own childhood dolls’ house which had been in the loft for 40 years.
“They wanted something to amuse the children in my village, but as soon as I saw the house I knew that no children were going to come near it!” she says. “It is a Triang house, given to me at Christmas 1932, when it was new. There is every tiny accessory you can think of inside it, absolutely everything a house would have in the early 1930s.”
Before you buy a dolls’ house, Ripley has some words of caution. “A well-known collector used to always have three questions, and she said if the answer is ‘no’ to any one of them don’t buy it. They are: Do I really like it? Can I afford it? Have I got somewhere to display it?”
Besides provenance, the features that give a dolls’ house its value are the outside decoration, the original fittings, wallpapers, floor papers and state of repair. Original features are everything. If you buy an old dolls’ house, never re-paint or re-paper it because it will completely lose its value.
The leading collector of dolls’ houses was Vivien Greene, wife of the author Graham Greene. When she died in her 90s several years ago, her collection was sold at two sales in Bonhams. Ripley says: “For some idea of value, just one 17th century dolls’ house with some contents went for £22,000.”
She reckons the best way to start collecting dolls’ houses would be to concentrate on commercially-made ones, because it is easy to research them.
In England, G & J Lines made dolls’ houses from 1890 until the 1930s. Their best ones are replicas of Edwardian villas that are very collectable. Prices vary from £500 to low four figures.
Moritz Gottschalk was making dolls’ houses in Germany from 1865 until the second world war. A large, elaborate early house by Gottschalk in its original condition could go from £800 to several thousand pounds.
The other German maker, now highly sought after, is Christian Hacker, who was producing dolls’ houses in the style of French villas from 1870 until the first world war. Ripley owns one of these French-style houses and has furnished it throughout. A good Christian Hacker house in its original condition and empty would cost £1,000-£4,000.
Ripley says: “For each of our houses, my sister Pam and I collect the furniture of that period. We never buy reproduction stuff. Our oldest dolls’ house came from a manor house in Cornwall dating from 1840. As we bought it empty, we have had to find furnishings, so everything in it is early Victorian.”
It is unlikely these days that you will find a house with furniture, and Ripley says you should be prepared to pay considerably more than the cost of the house for contents. “You are not going to get one good piece of early furniture for less than three figures,” she says. “For a basic piece of 1930s Triang furniture you would pay £30 to £50.
“There is the recently discovered Wolverhampton firm, Evans & Cartwright, who produced some of the earliest English commercially-made tin furniture from the early 1800s. At Vivien Greene’s sale three dining room chairs made by this Regency firm went for £3,000. If you are talking about a 1920s or 1930s chair by a good maker, it might cost £20 to £30.”
In May Ripley was a keen observer at a Christie’s sale of dolls’ houses. “There were two Hacker houses. One went for £2,500, the other, considerably restored, for just under £2,000. Early furniture by Evans & Cartwright is very sought after. One lot, a rare table and two dining chairs, went for £1,900, though the estimate was £500 to £800.”
Ripley successfully bid for a tiny dolls’ house, nine inches high, made by the US firm Bliss. “It dates from about 1890 and the price was in the low hundreds,” she says. “I’m delighted to have this as it’s one make I hadn’t got.”
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