Miniature homes at maximum prices

Some dolls' houses can fetch as much as a full-size home. By John Windsor
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOLLS' HOUSES could be the latest smart investment. They originated as adults' toys and the forthcoming auction of the world's finest collection - owned by the novelist Graham Greene's widow, Vivien - could create a vogue for them as interior decoration.

Instead of a hall stand, or a dining-room sideboard that no longer serves its purpose, why not a Georgian dolls' house, full of tiny furniture and silver, in which the inhabitants entertain guests, celebrate a birth - or squabble over the remote control of the television?

Vivien Greene, now aged 94, was an intrepid seeker-out of dolls' houses, and wrote the definitive book about them. Her collection was housed at her Oxford home in a specially built Rotunda. Her notes cover 1,500 dolls' houses that she visited in Europe, America and South Africa. She even crossed Checkpoint Charlie into Communist East Germany to track down the 19th century makers of miniature furniture.

Her collecting, a seemingly genteel pursuit, began during the dark days of the war, after the marital home containing her possessions, on the North Side of Clapham Common, had been destroyed by bombs, and when her husband was formulating his sombre novel The Ministry of Fear. He left her for another woman, while she spent the evenings sewing tiny curtains and carpets.

The roots of her quest to create homes - in miniature - have an even earlier origin than those traumas. She hated the impermanence of her childhood, during which her father was constantly moving house, both in this country and abroad. Her happiest times were when, aged eight, she stayed with her grandparents in the elegant Regency area of Bristol, where the activities of the antique-filled household were not unlike the tableaux enacted in old dolls' houses. Her grandfather, a true Victorian, read morning prayers for the family and its two maids.

She describes her collecting as "nest-building". "To me", she says, "the word `house' has the same valued and beloved sound as the word `home'. Home means one's loved place."

Bonhams' auction of her collection of over 40 dolls' houses is in two parts. The first, in December, will offer 20, and is expected to raise pounds 200,000. It includes 100 lots of miniature chattels - furniture, silver, pots and pans, pictures, a cup-and-ball toy, even a tiny bowl with real Christmas mincemeat in it - estimated from pounds 80 to pounds 300 the lot. The dolls' houses are estimated between pounds 3,000-pounds 4,000 and pounds 12,000-pounds 16,000. The rest of the collection will be sold in May next year.

There was a craze for dolls' houses among rich merchants in 17th century Holland that was reminiscent of tulip mania. The Dutch King William brought the craze to Britain after the Revolution of 1687. The rich commissioned dolls' houses of impeccable craftsmanship with minutely detailed interiors showing charcoal irons, dried fish made from the real thing, or a half- completed inch of lace, hung with bobbins, that demanded a magnifying glass to reveal its intricacy.

By the mid-18th century, they were placed on elaborate stands - and had become accurate inventories of the rich man's household, a lasting record of his good judgment and taste. It was not until the 19th century, that they became children's playthings.

Today's adult collectors have undergone a sort of infantilisation, placing in glass cases, away from the children, Dinky toys and vintage tinplate railway trains, and competing at auction for the original reels of Disney movies. How long before dolls' house mania?

Demand is already outstripping supply. Both Bonhams and Christie's South Kensington receive only a couple of dolls' houses a year that equal the quality of the Greene collection. Christie's got pounds 30,800 four years ago, for the magnificent Gordon House, made for a child's third birthday in 1870 and still with original wallpapers and hand-made carpets.

Another, Titania's Palace, designed in the Twenties by the architect Sir Neville Wilkinson for his daughter, sold at Christie's 20 years ago for a fantastic and exceptional pounds 150,000. Now on show at Legoland in Denmark, it has a Peacock Throne studded with imitation jewellery, a crystal bath, and miniature paintings by artists of the day.

Market prices are hard to arrive at - they may be crammed with jewels and original artworks that raise their value to that of real houses. But they may also be badly treated. Collectors may not think twice about slapping a new coat of paint on a dolls' house.

Most of those in the Greene collection have avoided such abuse. Bonhams' Alexander Crum Ewing says: "They are now regarded as works of art, wonderful 3D objects that will sit happily in a wide hallway in a town or country house - or even in a hotel. Of the last three I have sold, one was a present for the buyer's daughter, one went to a hotel, and the other went to a collector."

Among the miniature mansions on offer from the Greene collection: The Balustraded House of about 1775, with some windows bricked up to avoid window tax. It has six rooms framed by a proscenium arch and a finely modelled staircase: estimate pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000.

Quantock Oak is a miniature stately home in Palladian style, dating to 1730-40, designed from architectural manuals of the period: pounds 12,000-pounds 16,000.

Marble Hall, about 1800, is being sold with its original contents, including a fine brass fender and cast-iron chimneypiece, a mahogany cupboard with mirrored door, and a four-poster bed with chintz hangings: pounds 8,000-pounds 12,000.

In Shell Villa, a guest house of about 1870 advertising "refined board residence", a family of cats resides - Tabitha, Selina and Branwell Twitchett. The house, estimated pounds 4,000-pounds 6,000, was owned by the Oxford historian A J P Taylor. During the war, he used to accompany Mrs Greene to auctions to replace the furniture she had lost in the bombing - it was at a wartime auction that she bought her first dolls' house. She was offered them then at pounds 10-pounds 12 each.

The Vivien Greene Dolls' House Collection, Part I, Bonhams, Montpelier Street, London SW7, Wednesday, 9 December, 2pm (0171-393 3900)