Hard to believe, but in one small sector of the property market prices are actually going up

Sarah Jane Checkland reports on the latest passion to grip the imagination of collectors: doll's houses
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The Independent Online
THE big-time property market may be moribund, but business in the land of Lilliput is booming. The doll's house is popular as never before - with adults - and becoming one of the fastest-growing leisure pursuits.

Collectors have been piling in by the thousand to the regular doll's- house fairs at Birmingham's National Exhibition Centre - Lilliput's equivalent of the Ideal Home exhibition.

So great is demand that the modest specialist magazine, International Doll's House News, is going nationwide next month, extending its readership to browsers at John Menzies and W H Smith.

That, its editor, Nick Forder, hopes, will be one in the eye for his competitors at Doll's House World, recent newcomers to the market.

Articles in Forder's latest issue include "through the keyhole" views of unusual houses or rooms, and suggestions as to which candlesticks or curtains the proud house-owner should buy.

Prices for desirable mini-residences, complete with original features, have been far outstripping many real houses, reaching pounds 150,000 in the auction rooms. Tiny models of residents can fetch up to pounds 3,500, particularly if they are male and equipped with handlebar moustaches.

This week alone will see what is being billed as the largest doll's house in the world going under the hammer at Bonhams in Knightsbridge, a full 7ft 6in high.

"A perfect craftsman-built home in miniature with 12 cosy rooms, fascinating furniture, cunningly contrived vistas and charming nooks," the blurb goes. The relatively modest estimate of pounds 10,000-pounds 15,000 is only because potential purchasers might be put off by its "haunted tower".

Meanwhile, the Queen's nephew, furniture maker Viscount Linley, is confident that someone will come up with pounds 17,000 to buy the villa in sycamore and cherry he has just had created by his staff. Fashioned in the Victorian Gothic style, it is on offer at his shop in Pimlico.

The current vogue is largely thanks to the spadework of Vivien Greene, the 91-year-old widow of the novelist Graham Greene, and doll's-house collector extraordinaire.

During the war, when Graham was in London working for the intelligence service, Vivien was out scouring the country for examples of this unloved art. At the time their owners regarded them as worthless rubbish and had a habit of disposing of them without ceremony.

"Before I became interested," says Vivien Greene, "people dumped them on the bonfire."

But for Mrs Greene they were fascinating time capsules of social history, mirroring contemporary architecture and design - and unlike their full- scale equivalents, they were often still intact. Despite a distinct lack of support from her husband, she soon found backing from the historian A J P Taylor, a friend who used to go on hunting sprees with her, not to mention the poet W H Auden.

Gradually she pieced together a history of the genre as well as an outstanding collection of doll's houses which she keeps at her home outside Oxford. Both are written up in the Vivien Greene Doll's House Collection, a lavishly illustrated coffee-table book she has now produced and which is scheduled for publication by Cassell next month.

The earliest doll's houses were made for 17th-century Dutch and German homes, and resembled conventional cabinets on the outside, while opening to reveal elaborate interiors. Very much the province of adults, they were often so tall that steps were needed in order to view the attics.

During the 18th century the idea caught on in England, only by now the "baby houses", as they were called, were simpler and smaller, and made for children. The first real boom, however, came in the 19th century with the rise of the middle class and the corresponding demand by their children for toys.

The Germans became the main manufacturers, producing furniture in five different sizes and answering the child's need for the contents to be in operating order.

"It is maddening for a child when they can't open the drawers," says Olivia Bristol of Christie's. "The house that Bonhams are selling next week is not really a proper doll's house for children, for that reason."

In fact, Mirror Grange, as it is called, was a gimmick by the Daily Mirror, which commissioned the building of a "home" for their popular Twenties cartoon characters Pip, Squeak and Wilfred.

Now, with the second great doll's-house boom in full spate, the market has divided as demand for antique examples far outstrips supply.

"There are two distinct categories," explains Miss Bristol. "Collectors of old houses made for children, and the collector of modern miniatures wanting everything to scale."

As a result, a thriving new cottage industry has been born. Emerging craftsmen include Peter Mattinson of Yorkshire whose speciality is stone- and-timber houses meticulously made in traditional materials.

Another of the leading craftsman is Ian Holoran of Crieff in Scotland who produces tiny scaled-down versions of art- nouveau furniture in the style of the Glasgow architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

So attractive - and prosperous - is Lilliput fast becoming that we may all soon want to emigrate there.