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The Doll That Made Me Cry

Connections Between Collections and Generations in an Internet World

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The Doll That Made Me Cry

Michael Lee Doll, Hong Kong

Denise Van Patten
As an owner of a doll shop, many doll collections walk through my door. They come to me from people who decide they want money more than they want their dolls, they come to me from collectors who still love their dolls but have downsized their living quarters, and they come to me from families of doll collectors who have died. Most of the collections, even the ones that I cannot purchase, have something of interest to them--a unifying theme, or they will represent an era of collecting. But, its rare that I see a collection as interesting as the collection that walked in my store last week.

The lady who brought me the dolls wanted to sell them--they were her mother's who had died recently, and the lady didn't have any children to give them to. We sat on the floor, and as I unpacked the 3 cardboard boxes, I realized there was something special about the collection. Not the monetary value--although there were several valuable dolls, many of the dolls were worth only a few dollars each. What was special about the collection were the meticulous records that the collector had kept, and how the dolls told her life story.

Each doll had a yellowed, hand-written tag attached that told the date the doll was purchased, and the source of the doll. The oldest two dolls in the collection were dolls given to her by older aunts. Two German bisque dolls, originally from 1905--one a tiny doll with a crude 5-piece body but original clothes, the other a Schoneau and Hoffmeister.

The majority of the dolls were from the 1930s and 1940s, and they told the story of the travels of her family. People often look down their noses at International or Travel dolls, and so they don't have much monetary value. The travel dolls in this collection, however, verged on antique--many from 1937 or 1938--and they were in pristine condition. Dolls from India. Norway. Russia. China. So many times, you see these dolls, and you can't place their date, but, this time, I could! Then, there were the war dolls, which her father who was in WWII had sent her. One papier mache doll from Belgium still had its crepe paper slip and pantaloons intact. One crude, cloth doll from Great Britain was sewn on felt. An American composition bed doll was decked out in the red, white and blue of war time.

And then there was the doll that made me cry.

The lady let me take the dolls home overnight so I could further research them. That night, I felt a real connection to the collector as I looked over her beautifully cared for dolls. I was down in the bottom of the last box at about 1 in the morning, and I pulled out a cloth doll with an original paper label, which indicated the doll was by Michael Lee in Hong Kong. Hmm. Here was a doll that I had not ever seen before in any of my doll travels or reading. So, I searched on the Internet. I found ONE article about Mr. Lee, from a church web site, entitled "Dollmaker Lit Candles For Hope." The article was fascinating--it told of Mr. Lee's life making dolls in his 700-square foot apartment in Hong Kong. After being in a camp as a war refugee, Mr. Lee started making dolls in 1947, until his death in 1996. I sat there, with the doll in my hand, thinking about how this doll had found its way to me, from this careful collector and Mr. Lee in Hong Kong--and how it had almost reached its end at a Good Will.

I don't know if it was the late hour and exhaustion. Or the beautiful collection and its history, and the fact that the family of the collector didn't want it. Or the wonder of the Internet, and how it allowed me to connect with the now-deceased dollmaker in Hong Kong. It may have been all of these things--but the doll made me cry.

A week has passed, and I've purchased the collection. I will find good homes for all of the dolls, but the Michael Lee doll from Hong Kong is going to have to stay with me.

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