Fran Clinkscales, 67, does not look like a woman you would call “the hawk.” Upon first seeing her perfectly coiffed hair and bright green sweater-set, I would have said she was more like a lovely parakeet, but at the auction of Candy Spelling’s vintage Madame Alexander doll collection last Sunday, November 20, “the hawk” is what auctioneer Stuart Holbrook called the soft-spoken North Carolina woman. That’s because every so often Fran would coyly nod her head or lift her paddle — in the shape of a doll’s head (an “antique doll,” not an Alexander) — and swoop in to come away with another new friend. Fran ultimately spent around $6,000 on 11 dolls between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. (She went $1,000 over budget.)
I went to the auction already a Madame Alexander-convert: my mother and I collected the dolls when I was growing up. But if my mom and I were like passive churchgoers in the religion of Alexander, purchasing a new Wizard of Oz collectible every now and then, Fran and the coterie of ladies with whom she sat were the high priestesses of Alexander-land. The auction was like a tulle-filled pilgrimage to which they and others ventured from near (Connecticut) and far (Tennessee).
Before the auction at the Waldorf-Astoria started there was a preview from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., wherein the guests — mostly women in their late middle ages and some men — crowded around tiered cake-like structures adorned with Alexanders of all shapes and sizes. The potential buyers asked employees to lift up the dolls, spin them around, and pull up their skirts. “She’s got droopy drawers,” exclaimed Barbara Lamb, a collector from Nashville and general eight-inch Alexander know-it-all, upon seeing one doll's nether regions.
Barbara, Fran, and their cohorts poked, prodded, and criticized, checking the dolls' condition and authenticity. Barbara gave an eight-inch girl named “Alexander-kins ‘All Ready for a Garden Party’” the once-over, gently moving her flowered bonnet aside to check the stitching on her curled bob. “Are they fuzzy sole?” Barbara asked, examining Garden Party’s shoes (above). (Barbara and fellow collector and row-mate Pat Burns have more dolls in the company’s Heritage Gallery on 131st Street than any other collectors, Barbara told me in an email.)
I caught Diane Galante looking at the late 1960s 21-inch “‘Renoir’ Portrait” doll with her matching mini-me “portrette.” (I had been drawn to the adjacent doll, a 1965 “Cissy” wearing an entirely sequin Ice Capades get-up complete with antennas and jeweled stockings.) Diane, who had come in from upstate New York, told me she preferred the Renoir doll’s “Jacqueline” face, which was modeled after Jacqueline Kennedy, even though the doll’s red hat and blue dressed mimicked an Impressionist painting. Diane doesn’t like the dolls the company has made in more recent years, however, saying the quality has gone down. She gestured to a doll on the adjacent table with a white pompadour and an embroidered Marie Antoinette-style dress, a model made exclusively for Candy Spelling herself. The older face is “more classic and naturally beautiful,” Diane said.
Candy materialized in the middle of the preview to take a spot in front of a camera crew, posing in front of various dolls. The story she told me at a gala reception the night before goes something like this: a friend gave Tori some 1950s dolls and Candy started looking for more, but they gave Tori the creeps, and so they became Candy’s thing. Now, Candy is moving to a condo and the collection is “too big” to take with her.
The auction itself was a test of dedication for the true Alexander fans. Lasting over five hours, with no lunch break — around 3:30 p.m. had to excuse myself to go get a pretzel and a Diet Coke — only a few remained by the end. As the day went on, the atmosphere in the room relaxed. Fran and Barbara’s row got progressively more talkative, responding to teasing (like the hawk comments) from Holbrook, the president of Theriault’s, which is a firm that mainly auctions dolls. “You must have two of everything,” Holbrook said from his podium to Barbara. A man in the audience yelled out, “She does.”
Among the parade of items up for auction, the “Superb and Rare ‘Rachel’ from Biblical Series 1954” was an attention-grabber. “These are extremely rare,” said founder of the firm and author of the auction’s catalogue Florence Theriault, who was manning the auction at the time some of the biblical dolls showed up. “Like once in a lifetime even just to see them,” she said. The Joseph was a “steal,” Florence told the room, and Barbara came away with one of the two Ruths available, but the Rachel was the hot commodity. A bidding war started between a phone buyer and an Internet buyer, with the Internet buyer finally putting up $11,000 for the tiny tunic-ed figure.
The dolls had a hold on the people at the auction. As employees paraded them down the aisle in the appropriately rococo room, they'd lift the dolls up to interested audience members’ faces. And they do possess a certain power — I texted my mother eagerly when a doll modeled to look like Mary Martin in South Pacific came up for bidding, but it was out of our price range.