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ON 9 MARCH 1959, at the New York Toy Fair, a star was born: Barbie Millicent Roberts, universally known as Barbie. From day one, her somewhat precocious use of make-up, her breathtaking hourglass figure (39-18-33) and her fondness for dressing-up made Barbie a smash hit the world over. And so she has remained. More than 1 billion Barbie dolls have now been sold. Like a rock megastar, Barbie has sustained her success through constant reinvention: she has been model, Olympic gymnast, business executive, paediatrician, television news reporter, presidential candidate, unofficial goodwill ambassador for Unicef - even (under the label "Baywatch Barbie") lifeguard. But now she has made a career move whose boldness has surprised even her most devoted fans. Barbie has become an art object.

Last year, the German arm of the US toy giant Mattel decided to celebrate Barbie's 35th birthday with "Art, Design and Barbie", an exhibition of work by some 133 renowned German artists and designers. The exhibition made a highly successful tour of Germany and, two weeks ago, more than 60 of these works were sold at a glittering charity auction at Schloss St Emmeram, Regensburg, Bavaria, home of Her Serene Highness Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis. Simon de Pury, chairman of international art auctioneers Sotheby's, held the gavel. The sale of the works, which were kindly donated by the artists themselves, raised DM257,400 (pounds 111,913) for the German Children's Cancer Fund, and Mattel, Barbie's manufacturers, gave another DM257,600 (pounds 111,100). As befits a Unicef ambassador, Barbie is a tireless worker for charity.

But is she art? There are certainly those who think so. One art-lover, for example, paid DM20,000 (pounds 8,620) for the privilege of owning Peter Engelhardt's King Kong und Barbie (far right, bottom), in which she is shown gazing lovingly into the eyes of another great symbol of all things American. As for the artists themselves, their enthusiasm for the subject (or the form?) seems to know no bounds. One young artist in the exhibition, Frank Lindow, called his piece Barbie, ich hab dich zum Fressen gern! ("Barbie, I love you so much I could eat you").

Like all the best cultural icons, Barbie evokes widely differing responses in different people. Rido Busse tied her up in silver paper and string for his untitled interpretation of a Christo piece (far right, top). Silke Tessmer posed her topless for Aphrodite von Barbien ("Aphrodite of Beauty"; far right, centre). Ricardo Wende saw her image as an opportunity to interpret various elements of modern American art - conceptual art, ready-made art, pop art - in his painting Barbie in the Cosmos (above).

But aren't some of these outpourings of the Teutonic soul a little strange? Perhaps; but it is not, as some may imagine, an exclusively male strangeness. The main photograph shows Formgestaltung ("Experimenting with Form"), by two young women artists, Diemann and Meyring. "Barbie loves luxury and elegance," they say, and so they created a surprise champagne party for Barbie to throw for her friends on her birthday. The china-stemmed glasses and the champagne cooler, oddly reminiscent of one of Audrey Hepburn's hats, were made specially for the occasion.

Barbie has occasionally been accused of frivolity, but she is, clearly, prepared to suffer for her art. And, by staying still for hours on end and contorting herself into the most unlikely poses, she has proved that, as an artist's model, at least, she is a natural.

What next for Barbie? As usual, she will not be drawn. She is 36, and some might feel that retirement beckons, or at least wedding bells (she and Ken never married). But it seems unlikely that her restless soul can be satisfied as easily as that. Watch out for yet another reinvention: perhaps as pop star, perhaps - who knows? - as ghosted novelist. !