Into the valley of the dolls

Collecting: All dressed up and somewhere to go: vintage Barbies can fetch thousands of pounds

She's 45 years old, had a number-one pop song written about her and recently dumped her long-standing boyfriend - not bad going for a 12-inch-tall doll.

She's 45 years old, had a number-one pop song written about her and recently dumped her long-standing boyfriend - not bad going for a 12-inch-tall doll.

Untouched by Botox, Barbie's pulling power remains defiantly undiminished. After bursting, fully formed, on to the scene in 1959, the toy made by Mattel and christened Barbie Millicent Roberts is today a business worth almost £2bn a year.

One of the most recognisable 20th-century toys, she is also the biggest-selling in history: three Barbies are sold every second.

Despite being recently deposed as the top-selling UK fashion doll by rival Bratz, her continuing commercial success has been shored up by her value as a collectable. That is because she appeals to both kids and adults, and especially those who, as youngsters themselves, were deprived. "Part of it is to do with having something you didn't have as a child," says avid collector Avril O'Reilly, a picture editor who has been collecting Barbies for six years. "When I was a child, I had a [rival] Sasha doll, [whereas] my sister had a Barbie.

"Now I can afford to buy my own Barbies - so I do, and now have around 30."

So-called "vintage" Barbies made before 1972 can fetch astonishing prices, particularly in the US. A pristine doll that rolled off the production line in 1959 selling for $3 recently went for $47,500 (more than £25,500). That was an exceptional price but on internet auction sites many models from that era, in very good condition, change hands for thousands of pounds.

"She was a real style icon and followed all the fashions," says Daniel Agnew of the auction house Christie's.

"Where Sindy was the girl next door, studying ballet and going horseriding, Barbie was much more glamorous with her sun specs and high heels."

Barbie's ability constantly to reinvent herself and reflect the times has made her attractive to the style gurus: designers from Vera Wang to Versace have worked with her.

Outfits range from life as a mod in the 1960s to a disco diva in the 1970s. And when aerobics caught on in the 1980s, Barbie donned legwarmers. Rock star, medic and astronaut Barbies have appeared too; for investors, the question is one of focus.

The sheer range of Barbie products means that collectors tend to specialise in one small area - and most choose from vintage "Pink Box" and special- issue "Collectors" dolls.

If you want to make money, stick with old models. An original 1959 swimsuited and boxed Barbie, in mint condition, can now fetch around £8,000. Look for holes in the feet to see if she is one of the earliest models.

Outfits and accessories are collectable too: you can spend around £45 on a pair of tiny, vintage Barbie sunglasses.

Check the country of manufacture to give you an idea of a doll's age: pre-1973 Barbies were made in Japan, the US, Mexico and Taiwan.

Pink Box Barbies are toys specially made for children and are widely available; they are not as valuable. The trick here is to predict those that will become collectable in the future.

As a rule of thumb, go for the models most prized by today's little girls. They are the ones who will pay over the odds in 20 or 30 years' time for the dolls they were denied as children.

Lastly, there are Barbie Collectors, designed for display rather than play and available since the 1980s. These range from dolls dressed by top designers to "television" models (Barbie and Ken as Mulder and Scully from The X Files).

When it comes to picking up bargains, the dedicated collector may still track some down at auctions and car boot sales. Even the odd charity shop will have a good-quality version, but it is unlikely to be very valuable.

If you discover a collection in the attic, Christie's will value Barbie items from photographs.

Once you have decided which part of the Barbie universe to concentrate on, there are a few basic collecting rules. Scour specialist magazines and websites first to see what is available and compare prices (see the box below).

Look for dolls with a variation in eye colour or hairstyle; this can make them more valuable. And try to keep your dolls and outfits boxed; in other words, don't play with them.

Although unboxed dolls are still saleable (one was recently auctioned at a London saleroom for £2,500), boxed examples always fetch more.

TOYS FOR THE GIRLS

Prices

An original 1959 Barbie in mint condition can fetch £8,000. Barbie Collectors cost £100 or more. The Versace Barbie is exclusive to Harrods for £120.

More information

www.barbiebazaar.com (the official Barbie doll collectors magazine).

www.barbiecollector.com (official site for collectors. Includes doll value guide and collecting terminology).

www.britishbarbie.co.uk (has useful links to Barbie retailers and collectors' groups).

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

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