She may be 11 inches tall and made entirely of plastic, but Barbie is a global icon. Having held positions as an astronaut, pilot and even President, she's now set to be a movie star, with the new Barbie film, directed by Greta Gerwig, hitting cinemas on 21 July.
Barbie is also a woman who knows her worth, with some vintage and specialist dolls fetching tens of thousands of pounds at auction. So, how did a childrens' toy catapult to global stardom? And why is she so pricey? We chart the rise of this small but mighty model and ask the experts what the old dolls sitting in our attics might be worth today.
Barbie first burst onto the scene in 1959, created by Californian toy company Mattel. Ruth Handler, the doll's inventor, was inspired by a Bild Lilli doll - a blonde bombshell based on a German cartoon, marketed as a novelty gift for men. Barbie, meanwhile, was aimed at girls, offering a more aspirational alternative to the baby dolls of the day. Formally known as Barbara Millicent Roberts (after Handler's daughter), she was an instant hit.
A decade later, in the late Sixties, Barbie was given a makeover. "She entered her 'Mod Era' with a new face, 'twist 'n' turn' waist and Sixties wardrobe," says collectible toy retailer Simon Farnworth, who runs the online shop dollstoysngifts.co.uk. Barbie's British cousin, Francie, was soon introduced, alongside a Twiggy doll (inspired by the eponymous model.)
Next came the popular "Pink Box Era" (when Barbie came packaged in a hot pink box), during the Eighties and Nineties. This was when, in the UK, Barbie overtook Sindy as the best-selling doll. "Many collectors have huge nostalgia for this time," says Simon.
Barbie has come a long way in the past six decades and now comes in a variety of skin tones, hair colours and body types. The Barbie Role Model collection includes dolls made in the likeness of space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock and presenter Clara Amfo. Meanwhile, dolls with prosthetic limbs, hearing aids (Strictly star Rose Ayling-Ellis launched the first Barbie with hearing aids) and wheelchairs stand alongside Barbie versions of celebrities ranging from Cher to J-LO to Queen Elizabeth II.
Ever the fashionista, Barbie has collaborated with over 75 global brands including Balmain, Moschino and Karl Lagerfeld. These rarer dolls are highly prized by collectors, as well as being pricier than their non-designer counterparts.
"The most valuable dolls tend to be the very limited edition or 'one off' editions," Simon says, citing the 2014 Karl Lagerfeld doll, of which only 900 were made. These retailed for £135, but since the designer's death in 2019, they have sold for over £8,000.
More expensive still is the diamond-clad De Beers 40th Anniversary Barbie, which retailed at £85,000 when it was released in 1999. Then, in 2010, a special edition doll by Australian jewellery designer Stefano Canturi - complete with real diamond jewellery - sold for a whopping £300,000, raising money for Breast Cancer Research.
It's not all about diamonds and designers: an original 1959 doll, which originally retailed for $3, could fetch as much as £25,000 at auction if in mint condition.
"As a general rule, the older the doll, the more valuable it's likely to be," says Tim Weeks, owner and Toy Specialist at Wessex Auction Rooms, and expert on BBC Bargain Hunt. "The Barbie dolls I mostly see at auction are from the Sixties to the Eighties and all perform extremely well," he says. Simon agrees. "Dolls such as the 1977 Superstar Barbie can command high prices," he adds.
Still, Tim concedes that the Barbie dolls of the Nineties are starting to grow in value. "Collectors tend to start collecting toys they had as children about 25 to 30 years later. That means that women who were 12 in 1995 will hit the collecting market over the next decade, seeing prices of Nineties Barbies go up," he says.
One such collector is Clare Rawling, who owns over 1,000 dolls and uses them to make stop-motion videos on Instagram (@vintagebarbieclare). Clare's obsession began with Barbie Benetton - a collection created in collaboration with the eponymous clothing brand. When originally released in 1990, these dolls retailed for around £20. Today, when boxed, they fetch around £170.
Likewise, the best-selling Barbie of all time, Totally Hair Barbie, released in 1992, can sell for £150 if complete and in good condition. Meanwhile, the Totally Hair Whitney (Barbie's friend) can sell for £800.
"Condition is king when it comes to collectibles," says Simon. Tim agrees: "The ideal collectors' Barbie is mint, boxed and unopened, like it was just taken off the shop shelf" - although he concedes that these are rare.
"Once they're out of the box, they lose 50 per cent of the value," Clare adds. Still, she, like many collectors, enjoys giving unloved Barbies a "spa day" - cleaning them up and re-dressing them in their original outfits.
This means that unboxed Barbies could fetch hundreds of pounds. Indeed, Tim highlights that an original 1960s Barbie, in a "well loved" complete condition will fetch over £100 at auction.
"Original clothing is important," he adds. "Is the swimsuit original? Is there only one shoe? Should there have been a handbag? Even loose accessories like clothing, stands, and shoes can be worth hundreds of pounds when sold as a group at auction."
"Popular releases, such as the Peaches and Cream or Malibu Barbie appeal to a collector's sense of nostalgia," adds Simon: "And some of the more 'gimmicky' dolls like the 1968 Talking Barbie can be very valuable. When boxed, this doll can reach upwards of £700!"
"Dolls released through the Barbie Signature label are the most valuable," says Simon, explaining that they tend to be marketed to adult collectors. "Dolls that are part of limited edition or special edition collections tend to have higher value, too," he adds. "They often feature collaborations with designers or celebrities, or commemorate significant events. The 2019 Gold label Ziggy Stardust-themed David Bowie Barbie is a great example: it originally sold for around £50 and can now command over £300."
"Mattel have produced some very high-end collectors' dolls in recent years," adds Tim. "When compared to other major toy brands who have also released 'special edition' models, the contemporary Barbie dolls have certainly seen a faster profitable return on investment."
Naturally, there is huge excitement around the Barbie film collection. Clare has ordered the entire set, while Simon stocks them in his shop. "I love the retro-inspired branding and box design," he says. "The dolls have been flying off the shelves: collectors can't get enough!"
Simon recommends doing your research before selling. "Don't be fooled by the markings on the doll," he warms. "Even if your doll is stamped with '©1966/Mattel, Inc.' it could have been made at any time from the Sixties right up to the present day. The date refers to when this particular design was patented. You must do a bit more research if you're unsure when it was released. Facebook groups are a great source of advice."
While many sellers flock to eBay, if you're confident your Barbie could be worth a few bob, Tim suggests listing items at a specialist auction. "There is no better place to buy and sell," he says. Indeed, Wessex Auction Rooms hold ten two day specialist Toy Auctions every year, attracting buyers and sellers from around the world - many willing to pay a premium.
"If you want to start a collection of Barbie dolls as an investment, I advise buying boxed Nineties examples in as near perfect condition as possible. Do it quickly before all the new collectors coming through do!" says Tim.
Clare began her collection by buying dolls on eBay. "It was very accessible and easy to search on," she says. "Now, she often buys from other collectors on social media. "People show you what they're selling and you can get first access," she explains. She also enjoys car boot sales: "You never know what you'll find. There's a good mix of modern and vintage."
While Clare has spent thousands on her collection, she'll never sell it. "It brings me so much joy and connects me to the child I once was," she says. "I'll sell everything I own before I ever sell my dolls!"
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