In Pontassieve, a small town outside of Florence, Pier Luigi Cecioni sits on a veritable treasure trove: around 300 works of North Korean art, spanning paintings, posters, embroidery, and woodcuts, purchased well before the U.N. tightened its sanctions on North Korean export in 2017. For more than a decade, Cecioni has been the world’s preeminent dealer of North Korean art outside of Asia, and the escalating tensions between the world and North Korea in the news have only heightened art collectors’ interest in his holdings.
“I’ve had more requests,” Cecioni says, but despite this growing interest in recent years, “I’ve been reluctant to sell.” Unsure of when he’ll be able to acquire more works, he’s put the brakes on his sales, hoping that soon the sanctions will be lifted and business can resume. The Italian native came across this line of business almost by happenstance in 2005. He was a publisher by trade, and when he visited the North Korean capital of Pyongyang in 2005, his reason for travel was music, not art. At the time, as president of the Florence symphony orchestra, Cecioni was traveling with a delegation of musicians who were invited to perform at a festival. While there, he asked to see North Korean art, and tourism officials were happy to oblige. They introduced Cecioni to Mansudae, one of the largest art production centers in the world. Founded in 1959, Mansudae sprawls with more than a million square feet of studio space and production facilities, where supplies like paintbrushes and paper are made on-site. It boasts 4,000 employees, a quarter of whom are practicing artists who range in age from their 20s to their 70s, many educated in the Pyongyang University's art program. Mansudae specializes in a wide range of media, from works on paper to ceramics to metal sculpture.
“At least 90 percent of all major North Korean art is made there, particularly all the large statues and all the monuments and institutional buildings,” Cecioni explains, and in 2006, he began buying North Korean woodcuts, paintings, and embroidery en masse. Thanks to the DHL office inside the Mansudae campus, works could be mailed from Pyongyang to Florence in as little as a week.
Part of his interest was in the rarity of these works. “Nobody had heard of Mansudae in the West,” he says, nor shown what it produces. In 2007, he and his brother, the artist Eugenio Cecioni, mounted an exhibition in Genoa of more than 100 pieces, and began selling the works online. In the hundreds of works on Cecioni’s website, there’s a limited range of both subject matter and look; there are images of pastoral landscapes, flowers, and smiling workers in a Socialist Realist style that brings to mind Cold War–era Russia, or vintage Chinese portraits of Chairman Mao.
“They show the country in a positive light,” says Cecioni, whose best-selling works have always been the hand-painted propaganda posters. They pair portraits of workers or soldiers with messages that vary in political subtlety, from “Let’s Plant Trees and Make Our Mountains Forests,” to “Do Not Trust Americans.” Abstract and conceptual works are simply not part of art school curriculum, Cecioni says, recalling the time he brought a group of 12 Mansudae artists on a tour of different institutions in Florence and the Vatican. “I took them to a contemporary art exhibition with conceptual works, and they looked at them and laughed.”
While humanitarian crisis and nuclear proliferation put the North Korean government at odds with the U.N., that exchange and others like it is one of the bigger reasons Cecioni eagerly waits for the sanctions to be lifted.
“My position is that I deal only with the art of North Korea, not with its government,” he says, citing the art of Russia, countries in the Middle East and Africa, and Ancient Egypt as also having formed under autocracies. Moreover, “When I hold exhibitions of North Korean art, many Westerners are surprised that North Korean artists even exist—more or less they think that North Koreans are in the army or in concentration camps or practically enslaved, which of course is not absolutely the case. Art has always been a great vehicle of understanding a situation that is usually presented only through stereotypes. I think that meeting through art, as through sports, might favor peace.”
The Barbie doll is of the most popular and recognizable dolls ever created, and not just among young girls. This doll is highly sought after by collectors, especially well-preserved, vintage Barbie dolls. Since the first Barbie, named Barbie Millicent Roberts, was introduced to the world in 1959, new editions have been unveiled with each subsequent decade, wrought with added accessories and changes that reflected the times in which the dolls were produced.
Before her late-1950s debut, America hadn’t seen anything quite like the Barbie doll. Prior, only infant doll designs were available on the toy market, but Barbie brought something new and different. The dolls were designed to allow young girls to dream about their futures as career-driven, posturing women. They quickly became some of the best-selling dolls of all time, with over a billion sold to-date.
Vintage Barbie dolls on the market from 1959 to the late 1960s are especially prized among collectors. Often, these Barbies had bendable legs or red hair, and they are considered some of the most rare and valuable. Today, the price of a mint condition Barbie from this era can run close to $25,000. Barbie has continued to evolve since its inception, and undoubtedly changed the modern toy industry forever.
Barbie dolls were invented by Ruth Handler, co-founder of Mattel, Inc., an American toy manufacturing company founded in 1945. After observing her daughter play with paper dolls, Handler was inspired to create a three-dimensional version of a career-minded, adult doll. She even bought the rights to the German-made doll Bild Lilli, and modeled her version after the figure. By 1959, the first Barbie doll made its official debut at the New York Toy Fair.
Barbie Millicent Roberts was named after Handler’s daughter. The doll was said to be from Willows, Wisconsin and held a prominent career as a teenage fashion model. She could be purchased for $3, with add-ons ranging from $1–$5. Originally, the first doll was available in brunette or blonde. Not until 1961 were red-haired Barbies available on the market. That same year, the Ken doll was introduced, a male doll model named after Handler’s son. In 1980, the first African American and Hispanic Barbies were sold.
Barbies were a divisive topic and received much criticism from the beginning. While some focused on Barbie’s leisurely lifestyle that seemingly lacked ambition, others were unhappy with her challenge of traditional gender roles. Despite the controversy, over 300,000 dolls were sold within the first year alone. This is due in large part to the Mattel’s sponsorship with the “Mickey Mouse Club” television program: Mattel became the first toy company to broadcast commercials to children, helping to promote the toy tremendously.
Barbie has undoubtedly transformed the modern toy industry with a variety of dolls that feature over 180 different careers. A number of variations of collectible Barbies are highly sought-after and collected by individuals across the globe today.
Most Expensive Barbies Ever Sold
The most expensive Barbie ever sold, although not vintage, was fashioned by designer Stefani Canturi in 2010. The doll featured emerald-cut Australian pink diamonds and three carats of glittering white diamonds. The Barbie was sold for $302,500 at an auction organized to raise money for Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The chart below lists other Barbies that have sold for lofty price tags; some vintage and some issued in the last decade, created by prominent designers within the fashion world.
Stefano Canturi Barbie
De Beers 40th Anniversary Barbie
Pink Diamond Barbie
Marie Antoinette Barbie
Devi Kroell Barbie
Pink Splendor Barbie
Types of Vintage Barbie Dolls
Since the release of the very first model, a wide variety of Barbie dolls have been created by the designers at Mattel, pursuing new offerings and opportunities. Each new model was designed to appeal to different markets, focusing on contemporary fashion trends that defined each decade. These fashion trends, coupled with each doll’s unique, defining characteristics help collectors identify types of Barbie dolls today.
Vintage Barbie dolls are grouped by “The Vintage Era” and “The Mod Era.” The first were different variations of vintage Barbie ponytail dolls, but other more glamorous versions emerged as the years went on.
The Vintage Era (1959–1966)
#1 and #2 Vintage Barbie Ponytail Dolls
These were the original Barbies, introduced to the world on March 9, 1959. That first year, over 350,000 were made. Version #1 and #2 were more or less the same model, with the only difference being variations in the design of the legs. The first had copper tubes in her legs with holes in her feet to fit the stand, while the second did not feature tubes or holes, but had a wire stand instead.
These models donned a zebra swimsuit, had big eyes with white irises, heavy black makeup, gold hoop earrings, and red lips and blush. They were only available in blonde and brunette and are considered the most valuable Barbie doll since they were the first and original models made.
Vintage Barbie dolls from #3 to #7 had slight variations that help determine the year in which they were produced. The #3 model still only came as blonde or brunette, but now had blue eyes with either blue or brown eyeliner. The doll still wore the original black and white zebra bathing suit, but offered the option of wearing either gold hoops or pearl stud earrings. She also featured white sunglasses with blue lenses and black open toe heels. Some even displayed braided ponytails.
The main difference of this doll compared to its earlier counterparts is that #4 was the first to be made with a vinyl that retained color and reduced fading. The doll was still only available in blonde or brunette, but now had a hard curl at the end the ponytail. Some had factory-braided ponytails as well.
The #5 ponytail doll was the first available with three different hair styles. Buyers could purchase one with blonde, brunette, or titian which was a hue of red. These dolls had subtler face paint and a tan-hued vinyl that left their faces looking shinier. It was the first year Barbies had a hollow body with the registered trademark, Barbie®. Those with hollow bodies tended to have more rigid body parts that weren’t as easily bendable.
Often, #6 and #7 dolls are considered interchangeable and simply referred to as “#6s.” These dolls, mass-produced between 1962 and 1964, were the first to have the name “Midge” as a part of their markings and included the word “patented.” They featured larger neck knobs with fuller-looking faces and “watermelon” colored lips and nails as opposed to the stark red lips of earlier models. They were also the first to have various shades of blonde hair and a slightly darker brunette, rather than black. They wore red open-toe heels and a red jersey swimsuit. #7 was soon replaced by the Swirl Ponytail doll in 1964.
These dolls had a new look inspired by Jackie Kennedy, one of the most prolific style icons of the 1960s. Vintage Barbie Bubblecut dolls are characterized by a short hairstyle referred to as a “bubblecut,” which progressively became fuller over the years.
These Barbies featured molded, painted hair with three interchangeable wigs: a red flip style, brunette pageboy, and blonde bubble. They wore gold-and-white striped, strapless swimsuits with matching turbans. In 2010, Mattel issued a Fashion Queen Reproduction as part of the My Favorite Barbie series.
Barbie Swirl Ponytail
The “swirl” refers to the hairstyle that replaced Barbie’s previous bangs. For collectors, these are some of the most highly prized and sought after models. These dolls are among Barbie’s most glamorous early models, and remained this way until Barbie went Mod in 1967.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Barbie’s glamour is most evident in the American Girl Barbie. Her 1600 series ensembles are some of the most elegant and coveted by collectors. Thus, they are highly valuable. These Barbies had bendable legs and a fashionable new hairstyle in the form of a chin-length, sleek bob. They donned heavier, brighter makeup and had a variety of colorful features.
These Barbies were released in limited runs, and because they’re difficult to come by, they’re often very expensive and rare. These vividly colorful models came with Golden Blonde or Midnight Black hair that changed to Scarlet Flame or Ruby Red when a solution was applied.
This is the first Barbie that started the Mod era and received a total makeover from previous vintage models. Often referred to as “TNT” Barbies because of their twistable heads, these dolls had rooted eyelashes, bendable legs, waists that turned in various directions, and changeable clothes.
These Barbies became the new standard, offering a fresh face that featured painted eyelashes rather than the previously rooted ones, blue eyes, and pink lips. This would remain a constant for future models to come.
Talking Barbies came in three different variations of hair and clothing. They were the first to feature individual, divided fingers. They spoke when a string was pulled at the back of the neck. Though most no longer talk, if you can find one that does, it’s considered extremely rare and valuable.
Flip Hair Barbie
Drawing inspiration from popular trends, the Flip Hair Barbie is thought to be modeled after Marlo Thomas who starred in the hit TV show “That Girl” during this period. They are often referred to as “TNT Flip,” “TNT Marlo,” or “TNT Marlo Flip” dolls.
This model came with two wigs and a retractable ponytail. The wig options included tiny loop braids and long, ringlet curls. This doll also featured extras like a brush, comb, and other hair accessories.
This Barbie was extremely popular throughout the 1970s as it represented the idea of summer vacation. The doll came with pink sunglasses, a bathing suit, and towel with a bronzed skin tone.
Barbie Hair Happenin
Because this Barbie was only produced for a short, brief period, it is extremely rare and sells at a premium price. She features red hair and dons a short sleeve, peasant-style blouse with a thick, black belt, and pink ruffled skirt.
By far, the easiest way to determine the value of a Barbie is by identifying the version and time period in which the doll was produced. You can do this by easily referencing clothing, hair styles, and colors using the guide above. While some, depending upon the rarity, might only be worth a couple hundred dollars, others that weren’t produced in large quantities can be worth thousands of dollars. Below are some general ways to identify a Barbie’s value.
How to Identify Your Barbie
Primarily, Barbie doll markings are found on the right side hip. Any other markings on the back, inside of arms, and inside thigh were used by the manufacturer for assembly, and do not reflect the date of issue. The trademark date is the first date of patent or copyright.
Barbie ponytail dolls numbered 1 through 4 all have the same mark: Barbie ™. Barbie ponytail dolls 5 through 6 are marked with “Barbie ®.” You’ll also find markings such as “Midge T.M.,” “Patented,” and other additions as the decades progressed.
Often, the bottom of a Barbie doll’s feet will offer clues as to which decade it’s from. The first ponytail Barbies had holes in the bottom of their feet. Barbies were made in Japan from 1959 to 1972 and have “Made in Japan” or “Japan” stamped on the bottom of their feet. After that, they were mostly created in Mexico, Hong Kong, or Taiwan. Those made in one of these areas are not considered vintage. Use these distinguishing factors to place your doll within a specific time frame.
Similar to feet, hands evolved as Barbies continued to be manufactured. Earlier vintage dolls used Barbie mold for hands, which gave them divided fingers. After 1968, fingers weren’t completed divided. The hands vary from doll to doll, so study the fingers and materials used to get a better grasp on a model’s scarcity.
Hair color and style are big determinants of a doll’s value and price. Compare standard blondes, brunettes, color magic, platinum, and other variations of hair pigment. Check to see if your doll has factory braids, side bangs, etc. It’s also important to note that many collectors re-root Barbie’s hair to their specifications. Below are some defining characteristics of the most valued vintage Barbies’ hairstyles:
Vintage Barbie Ponytail Dolls #1 through #4 came in only blonde or brunette, so if your Ponytail Doll features red hair, she is a #5, #6, or #7. These later Ponytail Dolls’ bangs were also a more wiry material instead of the softer “poodle” bangs that came before 1961.
From 1964 on, Swirl Ponytails had a sweep of hair coming over the forehead and wrapping around a knot on top, rather than the curly bangs that preceded it. Ash blonde and platinum hues were added into the mix.
Bubblecut Barbies in the mid-1960s had side-parted hair with a “thatched” part that was difficult to unpart.
After 1965, American Girls appeared with pageboy hairdos.
Throughout the early 1970s, we saw trendy hairstyles hit the market like Color Magic Barbie’s straight, sleeker hairdo.
Interestingly enough, the neck knob can be an extremely helpful characteristic when identifying your doll. Many of the later ponytail doll models have larger neck knobs and fuller faces than earlier dolls.
Vendors often describe Barbies using specific abbreviations. Here are some common abbreviations that collectors should know:
NRFB: “never removed from box””
NMIB: “near mint in box”
OOB: “out of box”
A/O: “all original”
TLC: “this item has seen better days”
There’s no denying the success that followed Barbie’s inception in 1959. As the best-selling toy in history, it has attracted the likes of children and nostalgia-seeking collectors alike. In fact, today, three Barbies are sold every second. For those looking to expand their vintage Barbie collection, remember to look for dolls that are unique in features. Understanding Mattel markings and other identifiable characteristics can help collectors spot some truly rare and special finds in the market today.