Barbie fascination – meeting a collector
PortraitToys

Barbie fascination – meeting a collector

Natalie Hemengül
Zurich, on 24.08.2021
Pictures: Thomas Kunz
Translation: Octavia Hurst

Beate Rau owns about 4,000 Barbie dolls. It’s an expensive hobby that she finances in part from the purchase and resale of rare Barbies. My visit to another world.

Pink pantsuit, long brown hair, blue eyeshadow and a perfectly winged eyeliner. Beate Rau could easily pass for one of the Barbie dolls she has been passionately collecting for ten years. Here in her realm – a pink paradise on 95 square metres – showcase after showcase, doll after doll, childhood memory after childhood memory is lined up. Among them is Barbie in the fondue parlour, Barbie on stage with Kiss, Barbie in Hawaii. A real-life game of «Where is Barbie?»

Or rather: where is Barbie not?

Beate’s store has the makings of a museum.
Beate’s store has the makings of a museum.

With «Think Pink», her store in the middle of the border town of Kreuzlingen, the native German has fulfilled her dream. Here, Barbie collectors, children and curious cats like me meet.

Beate, when and where did you develop your fascination with Barbie? In the nursery?
Beate Rau: As a child, I played a lot with Barbie. At some point, the obligatory phase of growing up came when playing with dolls became lame. My dolls disappeared into a box. Then, ten years ago, my mother asked me if she should throw the box away. So I took another close look at the contents. Each doll was more awesome than the next. And then the beautiful dresses... I couldn’t bring myself to do it and kept them all.

The beginning of your collection...
Exactly. Out of interest, I started googling. I wanted to know if these Barbies are even available for purchase today. In the process, I came across a market dedicated solely to the trade of Barbie dolls, where some insanely expensive pieces are sold. My interest was piqued. But the whole thing really started in 2009, after my vacation in Florida. Our hotel happened to be the site of the Barbie Convention. I was confused and thought to myself: why are adults walking around with Barbies in their hands? A few of the almost 2,000 visitors then kindly enlightened me. Among them was Elisabeth, one of the few German attendees. She later became my collector friend. This store also came into being thanks to her.

How so?
Sadly, Elisabeth passed away two years ago. Cancer. She left me part of her collection under the condition that I would make something out of it. She didn’t want her long-standing collection to be sold overnight and scattered to the winds. The thought hurt her. I promised her that I would fulfil her wish. So I wrote to museums. But they found the Barbie theme too niche.

The fashion royalty Afro-Fashion Doll in the pop art room.
The fashion royalty Afro-Fashion Doll in the pop art room.

When I look around here, it seems anything but one-sided...
I see it that way, too. I realised that I had to take matters into my own hands.

Not only do you collect Barbies, but you’re a reseller on your webshop and here in the store. Wouldn’t it be easier to make your sales exclusively on the Internet?
Online is what everyone is doing. The store requires a personal meeting. I don’t get to know people over the Internet the way I do when they come to my store. Personal contact with like-minded people is very important to me in my hobby. It’s easier to do that with a physical store. On the Internet, I’m one among many. When interested people drop by my place, we chat, and I can show and explain things to them. It’s a completely different thing. It’s also nice for the clients to buy something that they have held in their hands and could examine beforehand. The meeting place creates added value.

Living the slogan: Think Pink.
Living the slogan: Think Pink.

You always refer to Barbie as a hobby. Very few people rent a store space for their hobby. How do you finance the whole thing?
Not through sales alone (laughs). I work part-time at the University of Zurich as a laboratory assistant. I’m only in the store on Saturdays or on customer request.

I assume most of the dolls from your collection are here in the store?
Quite the opposite, in fact. Most of my collection is at home. Except for a few displays and unique pieces, most of what you see here is for sale.

I imagine your home a bit like your store.
No, it doesn’t look like that (laughs). I have a special room for my Barbies. There are people who like to have their passion around them all the time. I prefer to distance myself. And when I’m here on Saturdays, I have Barbies around me all day anyway. I don’t need the same at home. It’s like a nursery. You also only have that so that the toys aren’t lying around everywhere. But I admit that every now and then something makes its way into my apartment, too, of course.

English original: Barbie and the Ghost Town Mystery.
English original: Barbie and the Ghost Town Mystery.

What feeling does collecting give you?
It’s pride first and foremost when one Barbie becomes two, then three, four, etc. And suddenly you have a group or assortment together and enjoy the big picture. And then there are the feelings of happiness that arise when I get to share my joy with like-minded people and exchange ideas. When I see that someone has a doll that I really want too, that’s great. I can hardly contain myself and photograph them.

How do you get your Barbie dolls?
I go to Barbie exchanges and fairs all over the world. For example, the collectors’ convention in the US lasts a week. There I buy, sell and trade dolls and participate in workshops. Mattel, the manufacturer of Barbie, is also there. This year, unfortunately, the event took place only virtually. That was troublesome because of the time difference. I sat in front of my screen at midnight. But it was worth it, because I learn something new every time about the historical background of Barbies. This time, the topic of diversity was in the limelight. That’s what I find exciting about Barbie. Ultimately, it always reflects the zeitgeist.

Barbie as a mirror of society? You’ll have to explain that to me...
So much has happened historically since the ’60s, when Barbie came into existence. Barbie has always been a reflection of society and has evolved with it. In each decade, manufacturers have asked themselves the following questions: what kinds of dolls do we produce? What kinds of clothes? What kind of campaign? We can see Barbie throughout the years. Let me give you an example: the collection «Barbie and the Rockers» was inspired by the ’80s. Back when Madonna and Cindy Lauper were cool. Everything was colourful and neon. So Barbie was also pictured like that.

Some of the few non-Mattel dolls in Beate’s store: the 1977 band Kiss by Mengo.
Some of the few non-Mattel dolls in Beate’s store: the 1977 band Kiss by Mengo.

Which Barbie are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my one-of-a-kind doll. It’s the only one of its kind in the world.

How is it that you own it?
There’s more than one type one-of-a-kind doll. Here, the uniqueness refers to the dress, which was hand sewn by a Roman designer. I got it at a convention for 2,000 francs. There are many collectors who say they want a very special doll that no one else has. There is also a niche for this in the market.

This Barbie is one of a kind. At least in that outfit.
This Barbie is one of a kind. At least in that outfit.

Why are some Barbies harder to find than others?
The number of copies produced plays a major role. Mattel assigns different labels to its collections: Pink, Black, Silver, Gold and Platinum. Platinum is the most valuable label. No more than 1,000 copies are produced under this label. The Pink label, on the other hand, is the play line, featuring the commercial play doll. So mass-produced goods. The labels create a gradation. Besides, stores usually carry only the latest merchandise. Anything older than one year is thrown out. For that, there are then resellers like me who can track down older models.

So the older and rarer a doll is, the more expensive. Is the equation that simple?
Of course, its condition also plays a role. Every now and then, people hold an ancient, bitten and tattered doll under my nose and assume it’s worth a lot. I then refer them to my trash can. A Bild-Lilli with a broken foot and without nails is no longer worth anything.

What on earth is a Bild-Lilli?
Barbie’s predecessor. Barbie has been around since 1959. Mattel copied the idea from the German tabloid newspaper «Bild». There was a cartoon character named Lilli in the Bild newspaper at the time, visually based on Brigitte Bardot. Bild decided to publish Lilli as a stand-up doll for its male readership. Thus, the Bild-Lilli was the very first female doll for sale. At the time, it cost 1.50 German marks. Today, depending on the condition, it sells for between 2,000 and 5,000 francs.

The Bild-Lilli with a Bild newspaper in miniature. Pretty and creepy at the same time.
The Bild-Lilli with a Bild newspaper in miniature. Pretty and creepy at the same time.

How did a Lilli become a Barbara?
Mattel caught on to this and bought the rights from Bild to design something similar as a play doll for children. The «Number 1» Barbie was born. At that time it was still sold in a cardboard box. There was no plastic. And it was «Made in Japan» because it was hand painted there. That’s why the eyes of each Number 1 Barbie look different.

I could have sworn that the first Barbie was blonde? Why is yours brunette?
This model was also available in blonde. But because there are three times as many blonde models as brunette models, I decided to go for the rarer doll. Today, these can be worth up to 25,000 francs. To own a Number 1 is the dream of every collector. That’s where saving money is important.

The original Number 1 from 1959.
The original Number 1 from 1959.

How many dolls do you own today?
I haven’t counted them. I stopped at 100. But if I had to guess, I’d say around 4,000.

Why did you decide to sell Barbies in the first place? You could also just collect them.
At the latest, after I owned practically each model twice, the decision was obvious.

Wait, why would anyone want to own the same doll twice?
For example, because the one is in better condition than the one you already own. I started my collection with pieces that were less than perfect. Chewed limbs, unsightly hair. I refurbished and sold them and got the money for my next purchase. And so on. My collection has grown through this cycle of buying and selling. Another reason could be that you want to own a doll in its original unopened packaging – that one’s always worth the most – and then a second one so you can unpack it. I also like to tinker with dolls; to style them and do their hair and make-up. I also make «mini-me» dolls on request. All I need is a photo of the person the doll should resemble.

The scientist Barbie from the «We can do anything» series.
The scientist Barbie from the «We can do anything» series.

Do you ever sell pieces that you don’t own twice?
Yes, I do.

Doesn’t that make your collector’s heart bleed?
It’s always a trade-off. If I see something that I would rather own and that is closer to my heart, I sometimes part with a good piece to be able to finance it.

Have you ever accidentally sold a piece heavily under value?
So far, I’m not aware of such a case. To be honest, I wouldn’t want to know that in retrospect either, otherwise I’d just get annoyed (laughs). But that can happen from time to time. Mattel has produced Barbies in a wide variety of regions: Taiwan, Japan, Brazil, etc. All these markets had lines and collections that were only available there. For example, if you don’t know each of these individual Barbie clothing items, you may find yourself unable to match a piece and sell it below value.

Anniversary shoes for Barbie’s 60th birthday.
Anniversary shoes for Barbie’s 60th birthday.

By now, you can find pretty much anything with a Barbie logo. Make-up, aprons, books, even your shoes are from a Barbie collection. Does everything to do with Barbie make your heart beat faster, or do you shake your head every now and then?
In the back of the showcase, you’ll see «Pur» brand make-up items from their Barbie collection. I liked the design, the colour choice and the vegan, animal-free concept of the brand. For me, there’s a bit more to it than just the Barbie logo. I like to buy things that I can do something with. Like a barbie bag for my conventions or the shoes I’m wearing right now. I bought these for Barbie’s 60th anniversary. I draw the line at useless things. I don’t need every Barbie hair clip or sock that comes on the market. This is also related to the fact that I have a regular job. I’m not running around as a living Barbie, and I don’t want to be constantly asked about my private hobby.

One last question: why is there a big model train in the middle of Barbie paradise?
People who visit my store often come with companions who aren’t necessarily interested in Barbies. The railroad provides variety. I want this place to have something for everyone and to invite them to linger. By the way, my husband is responsible for the railroad. This is his great hobby. He’s more than happy to show interested people how it all works. Like this, everyone is happy.

Mattel’s first Barbie house from 1961. At that time, it was completely made of cardboard.
Mattel’s first Barbie house from 1961. At that time, it was completely made of cardboard.

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Natalie Hemengül
Natalie Hemengül

Editor, Zurich

As a massive Disney fan, I see the world through rose-tinted glasses. I worship series from the 90s and consider mermaids a religion. When I’m not dancing in glitter rain, I’m either hanging out at pyjama parties or sitting at my make-up table. P.S. I love you, bacon, garlic and onions.

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