Here is an excerpt from an email I recently received from a professional package and ship company when I made specific recommendations on how my purchase of antique dolls should be shipped to ensure they arrive safely. They declined my suggestions with excuses on why it would be impossible, implausible, and/or ‘cost a small fortune’ etc. “Let me detail how we've successfully packed and shipped dolls like this in the past. The torso, head, and extremities will be bubble wrapped separately to avoid contact with each part. We will be using numerous layers of wrap (both small and large bubble). This box will have room for 3-4 inches of packing peanuts around both dolls. Our boxes are rated for up to 200 pounds.” Sounds good, right?
Wrong. The single greatest cause of damage when shipping an antique doll occurs from contact within the packaging, not from external points of impact, rough handling or crushing. The culprit comes from within the doll’s head itself – the eyes.
Antique glass doll eyes on rocker with lead weight
If your antique bisque doll has sleep eyes that open and close when the doll is moved from a prone to standing position, there is a mechanism inside the doll’s head that is creating this movement. In most cases the eyes are attached to a rocker arm with a center pendulum and a heavy lead weight at the base. This eye assembly is held in place inside the doll’s head with plaster at each temple. During shipment as the package is handled, the doll’s eyes can open and close rapidly and violently and often this action will dislodge the old dried plaster. That leaves the super fragile blown glass eyes and a heavy lead weight (think large fishing lead sinkers) to clang about inside the doll’s head for the remainder of her shipping time. This usually causes the eyes to break and often the lead weight will fracture the head as well.
Doll's eyes broken inside head & head cracked
It is always heartbreaking as a collector to open a package and find an antique doll in this condition – a doll who survived countless children, ages in a closet, attic or barn and untold ravages of time only to be decimated by careless shipping.
So, what can you do to ensure your doll arrives safely? First, ASK YOUR BUYER. Most collectors and dealers have very specific instructions on how they would like their dolls to be shipped, up to and including removing the doll’s head.
Ideally, the doll’s wig and pate should have been removed and the inside of the head checked and light-tested for hairlines, damage or restoration before listing the doll – we can cover that another time. For this article, we will address only the safe shipping of the doll; however, if you discover damage or repairs once the wig and pate have been removed, STOP! and immediately contact your buyer.
View of the inside of a doll's head showing sleep eye mechanism -
note plaster holding the eyes in place on the sides
The typical process for preparing the doll’s head for shipping includes removing the wig and pate if this can be done safely without ripping or tearing the wig or damaging the head by carelessly prying with sharp tools. Once the pate (a cardboard, plaster or cork disk shape piece covering the head opening under the wig) is removed, the interior of the head is exposed and you will be able to see how the eyes are attached inside the head.
Example of a Kestner plaster pate covering the head opening
My preference is to package the dolls with the eyes open. With the eyes open, the pendulum on the rocker is in a down position and the lead weight should be resting on the cork stopper or pad inside the doll’s head around the area of the chin. If the eyes are closed, the doll is laying face up and the lead weight is suspended toward the back of the head with no support.
Start by laying the doll face down (the eyes will be open) on a soft padded surface and gently but firmly stuff the inside of the head with tissues or soft paper towels. Small pieces of tissue or paper densely packaged is preferable to large hunks of thick paper jammed in – it is possible to dislodge the eyes if this is done too roughly. The idea is to immobilize the eyes and to provide some extra cushion to the back of the eyes and to the plaster at the sides. If the eyes and plaster do come loose, they will not be able to bang around inside the head cavity.
Now that you have the inside of the head properly packaged, take care to protect the outside of doll’s head. A significant part of the value of an antique doll is in the head; chips, cracks and ‘hairlines” (very fine cracks the width of a hair) in the bisque or china all reduce the value. First, the entire head should be wrapped in soft tissue or paper. Many dealers use clean disposable baby or adult diapers for this as they provide excellent padding. You may also chose to place cotton balls or gauze pads over the doll’s open eyes. Please never tape over a doll’s eyes to keep them open or closed in shipping – if the plaster holding the eyes in place inside the head comes loose, the back of the eyes will detach and only the front of the eyes will remain affixed to the tape.
Prepare the doll’s body by wrapping each limb in tissue and/or bubble wrap to protect the fragile fingers, feet and shoes. Next, securely wrap the entire doll in clean bubble wrap and tape it closed. Literally mummify her - nothing should be moving, nothing should be loose. I also prefer to place the wrapped doll face down in the well padded box which further minimizes stress on the eye rockers and weights.
Improper packaging - note how INSIDE head is not stuffed
Then by all means use strong boxes and plenty of clean packing peanuts and/or packaging paper. Recycled newsprint is acceptable as long as it does not come in contact the doll or doll clothing. Before closing the shipping box include a copy of the invoice with your name and address and the buyer’s name and address. I purchase sheets of shipping labels (only $3 from the Ruby Lane Store) imprinted with my shop name and address which I affix to the mummified doll – if the doll at any point becomes separated from her box in some shipping mishap, the shipping company will have the resources to get her back home.
Finally, if you have questions about shipping an antique doll not covered here, ask one of the many Ruby Lane doll shop owners. Or ask me. Most of us are more than willing to help someone with questions about safely shipping these treasured antique dolls. And if you are buying an antique doll for the first time from a seller, ask them if they have experience shipping dolls. Make sure they know about protecting the doll’s eyes and head in shipping – many first time sellers do not know and truly appreciate the advice. Insurance can help recoup your losses from damage but it will never restore a fragile antique lost to preventable carelessness in shipping.