The Barbie Boost? – How a pioneering Mattel designer created a superstar sensation and how a recent No. 1 Barbie’s sale defined the doll’s new moment.
About The Episode
A coveted 1959 No. 1 Barbie was appraised for GBH’s Antiques Roadshow in 2016 with a value of $3,500-$4,500. But with today’s Barbie mania following the release of the mega-hit movie, has a nice pink glow washed over the market for the stylishly superstar doll? Join host Adam Monahan as he toys with the question, speaking with Barbie historians, market experts and analyzes recent auction activity to reveal whether Barbie collectors will see a boost or a bust!
Adam Monahan When you were a kid, did you play with Barbie?
Marsha I played with so much Barbie for so many hours.
Adam Monahan My boss at GBH's Antiques Roadshow, Marsha Bemko.
Marsha My sister, who's only 16 months younger than me, we spent days and weeks with our patent leather Barbie cases that you open up and you could hang clothes in it and put her shoes in it and dress her and undress her and dress her and undress her. Well, only thing I regret now is that I didn't have the wisdom to say to my mother at that ripe little young age, buy me two so I can keep one mint in box.
Adam Monahan When Barbie first hit the shelves in 1959, she revolutionized the toy aisle with her black and white swimsuit, her perfectly quaffed ponytail, and her bright red lipstick. Barbie was the epitome of style. Barbie has remained a hit toy ever since, but with the success of the recent Barbie movie, she's having a new moment in the spotlight.
Movie soundbite Hi Barbie.
Movie Soundbite Hi Barbie. Hi Barbie.
Movie soundbite Hi Barbie.
Movie soundbite Hi Barbie.
Adam Monahan The Barbie movie had the biggest opening weekend of 2023, raking in $155 million during its first three days in theaters. Its Warner Brothers Discovery's highest grossing domestic release ever. And personally, I can say that it was next to impossible to get tickets for this thing. Barbie mania is everywhere. And that got us here at Roadshow thinking. Now the film just came out last week, and this is the question that I want to know. If Barbie goes up for sale right now, Barbie number ones, what is it going to sell for immediately in the aftermath of the movie?
Marsha So did this pink wash all, which is everywhere, we are awash in pink. Did it wash a nice glow over the estimate so that now are they worth more than they were before the film? That's the question.
Adam Monahan So there's a couple auctions coming up and the most immediate one I could find is on August 3rd. So next week there will be 10 Barbie lots going up. Vintage Barbie stuff. This one's a 1959 blonde number one Barbie doll in original box.
Marsha What's the estimate?
Adam Monahan The estimate is $6,000 to $7,000. The other lots they have are 1959 first issue brunette number one doll in box, a number three brunette Barbie doll in original box. I want to see if these stay with their estimates, or does this go nuts?
Marsha Well, you know what else I want to know? And like I say, the doll collectors are some of my favorite sweetest people. What kind of fool spends that money on a Barbie? I don't mean it like that, you know, I'm joking. But really, find out.
Adam Monahan In this episode, we'll see what kind of impact this mega blockbuster has had on the Barbie doll market, which dolls collectors are most excited about, and who pays that much or more for a Barbie doll? I'm Adam Monahan, and this is Detours. Today, the Barbie boost. Back in 2016, A Barbie number one, a first edition Barbie doll, landed on the table of one of our doll appraisers, Marshall Martin.
Marshall Shelley, I first wanted to thank you very much for bringing your doll in. Tell me about how you got it when you got it and something about it.
Shelly Well, I first got her when I was nine years old. My dad worked for a drugstore as a pharmacist. New toys came in and I have a feeling that he either brought her home for me because she was brand new or bought her for my birthday that year.
Adam Monahan This Barbie appears on-screen in her black and white bathing suit, a blue and red dress and long red coat, white purse, gloves and handkerchief displayed beside her. There's a small catalog that shows these are part of the Roman holiday outfit set. Marshall, of course, knew about Barbies, but he's not a Barbie specialist and neither am I. So before we get into the details of this appraisal, let's get up to speed on Barbie's history with a leading Barbie expert.
Bradley My name is Bradley Justice Yarborough. I am a historian. I operate my business, the Swell Doll Shop, and I love to research and learn all about things dolls, but with a primary focus on the Mattel Barbie doll.
Adam Monahan Can you just give me a background of how you get started? Why Barbie? When did this happen for you?
Bradley At around age 11 or 12, there used to be a television show that was synÃ dicated called PM Magazine. And one evening they did an interview with a lady named Sybil DeWine who had published a book called The Encyclopedia of Barbie Dolls. And I saved my allowance and bought that book, and it was sort of like my Bible. I sort of memorized it cover to cover and used it as the ultimate tool and resource to kind of discover all the different Barbie dolls and their nuances. So I kind of felt like I wanted to hunt them all down and have an example of each of them.
Adam Monahan Do you remember when you got your first Barbie number one? Yeah,
Bradley I was 16 years old and we were at a flea market in Greensboro, North Carolina, and a doll dealer friend of mine just reached under the table, pulled it out, handed it to me, and I was just speechless. And I think I paid at the time, so this was around 1986, around $400, which as a 16-year-old high schooler, it was a ton of money, but I was so excited to find that doll. It was just really incredible. She was a blonde and was in great condition. She didn't have original box or stand, but I didn't care.
Adam Monahan Did you hold onto it?
Bradley At some point, I traded up and got a better one and sold that first one to a friend of mine, and probably about five or six years ago, she turned around and sold it back to me. So that doll has kind of made the rounds, but she still hangs out with me.
Adam Monahan Wow, that's amazing.
Adam Monahan These first edition Barbies were the brainchild of Ruth Handler. Ruth was born in Colorado in 1916, the youngest of 10 children in a Jewish Polish immigrant family. She married her high school sweetheart, Elliot Handler, in 1938, and the two soon launched into business together. First they made furniture, then jewelry, then picture frames, and finally toys. In the 1940s, they created Mattel Creations with their business partner Harold Matson. The company's name was a fusion of two of the founders. Matson and Elliot. Ruth's name wasn't included in that mashup, but she was the company's first president. Mattel quickly found success selling toy instruments, toy guns, dollhouse furniture, jack in the boxes, the magic eight-ball, all sorts of things. The dolls of that era tended to look like babies or young kids. But then in 1956, Ruth got a new idea.
Bradley Ruth had watched her daughter Barbara play with paper dolls, and she was inspired by the adult situation she sort of created in the fashion, and she wanted to three dimensionalize that. So on a trip to Lucerne Switzerland, she discovered the Build Lily doll, which was a doll created in Germany, and she used that as sort of the model to create the Barbie doll.
Adam Monahan The Build Lily doll is remarkably similar to the original Barbie in her look, but not her character. She was based on a German cartoon character who was a high-end call-girl. She was sexy, flirty, and marketed to adult men, but Ruth thought a version of this doll could fill a hole in the American toy market.
Billy Harris So basically dolls at that time when you bought them, the outfit that they had on is what you got. And if you wanted another outfit, you had to buy a different doll that had a different outfit on. Barbie, she came up with, well, let's make this doll and just like a paper doll, she'll have all these outfits to wear.
Adam Monahan This is Billy Harris, an appraiser on our show and owner of Ashley Dolls and best friend of Bradley Justice. Barbie wasn't the first fashion doll, but she was different because Barbie was an adult. She had a wedding dress, a negligee, and high heels to go with every outfit. Barbie debuted in 1959 at the New York Toy Fair, a major industry convention, but she wasn't the smash hit Ruth might've hoped for.
Billy Harris They go to Toy Fair and of course Elliot's selling spaceships, realistic looking machine guns and all kinds of military stuff for little boys. And she brings Barbie. Barbie was a huge flop at that. They hardly got any orders. They're on the phone stop production, stop production. This isn't going to work. And Elliot's telling Ruth, "I told you so, I told you so." So anyway, they get home and through the magic of Saturday morning TV, they got on the Mickey Mouse show as commercials.
Travis Landry (singing)
Adam Monahan Little girls soon fell in love with Barbie, but parents weren't so sure about this newfangled fashion doll.
Billy Harris We all wanted a Barbie and all the mothers in America did not want us to have a Barbie. She was sexy and curvaceous. And did you know at one time, I don't know, this might be G-rated podcasts, but she had nipples. And that went over really badly. So you can occasionally pick up an earlier Barbie and see that the nipples were sanded back off.
Adam Monahan As the nipple drama shows, Mattel was learning and innovating on the go.
Bradley We always like to think, oh, well in 1959 they made this style and then they stopped and then they made this style. Well, no, what they would do is they started making them and when there was a problem or there was a glitch or something wasn't working out, well, you know what? They changed that and moved on. So that first year, Mattel made 350,000 dolls. That included the number ones, the number twos, and the number threes. So we don't really know the exact number on each, but we know that there was an evolution in details in each of those dolls that helps us distinguish the difference between them all.
Adam Monahan Our appraiser Marshall pointed out those distinguishing features during his television appraisal at our 2016 event.
Marshall And there are three main things that you can tell that she's a number one Barbie. One is she has very arched, triangular shaped eyebrows. She also has a white iris that's very distinctive, and she has the holes in the bottom of her feet. So the two prongs of the stand will hold the doll.
Adam Monahan Those holes in the feet are the main tell that a Barbie is really and truly a number one. She came with a little stand you could slide her feet onto. It's a black circle with two prongs sticking up.
Bradley When everybody talks about, oh, the most painful thing is stepping on a Lego in the middle of the night. All I can say is, well, apparently you've never seen a number one Barbie stand. The number two doll is essentially the same as the number one doll, except she doesn't have those holes in the feet. The third doll very similar, but she has blue eyes and her eyebrows are slightly more curved.
Adam Monahan In many of these early dolls wore the iconic ponytail and black and white swimsuit just like the number ones.
Bradley There's really about six dolls from 59 to 62 that are ponytail dolls that came in that black and white swimsuit that kind of evolved with subtle little differences. So a lot of collectors were like, I had a ponytail Barbie, she was in a black and white swimsuit. I had the first Barbie. And it's always kind of like, well, let's hope so. But chances are you don't.
Adam Monahan But that doll that came to our event in 2016 was an original black and white bathing suit, holes in the feet, number one Barbie. There was just one question left.
Marsha Well, I'd like to know what she's worth.
Bradley Your number one Barbie would probably sell on the market today for $3,500 to $4,500.
Wow. Oh, I had no idea. She's well-loved, but maybe I love her even a little more now.
Adam Monahan $3,500 to $4,500, not bad for an 11 and a half inch doll, but not nearly the estimate for those dolls. At the upcoming auction at Morphys. Those are listed at six to $7,000 and that estimate was given before the movie debuted. I called up one of the Morphys auction reps to get some more details on the dolls they're offering. First of all, can you introduce yourself and what you do?
Linda Maley I'm Linda Maley and I've been selling antique and vintage dolls, especially Barbie, for over 40 years.
Adam Monahan And what's your background? How did you get so into Barbie?
Linda Maley When I was born, I had a 15-year-old sister and mother that already collected dolls, and I got to play with my sister's Barbies and she had the very first number one Barbie. And I was about 15 or 16 the first time I sold at a doll show.
Adam Monahan Did you sell a Barbie number one?
Linda Maley No, I still have that doll. That was my sister's. It doesn't have any hair, but....(laughing)
Adam Monahan So what can you tell me about these 10 lots that Morphys has coming up?
Linda Maley Oh, they're really great. I mean, most collectors don't even have on, number one, and whoever can sign these had two number ones and a number two and all these gorgeous number threes. And several of them have these what's called a pink silhouette box, which those are really rare. So this collector had a good eye and a really nice collection.
Adam Monahan The one that you would expect to do the most at auction, would it be one of the number ones? What would your expectations be?
Probably the brunette number one would be the highest. The brunettes were not made in the same quantity as the blondes, so they're definitely harder to get.
Adam Monahan Really? I was going with the blonde ones going to sell for more, even though it's less rare because everyone thinks of Barbie as a blonde.
Linda Maley Well, if it's new people that aren't really collectors bidding, which is always possible, there's people with money and they're just like, oh, I just want this thing because of the movie and it's the best one. And then maybe you might be right because that's true. But if it's collectors bidding, it'll be the brunette.
Adam Monahan Before we hear what our experts predict Morphys number ones we'll go for, we need to talk about another era of Barbie. These Barbies aren't in the Morphys auction, but our appraiser, Travis Landry, thinks they're the ones to watch.
Travis Landry Where I feel you're going to see some exponential jumps in the next six months is going to be 1970s, eighties Barbie. Because when you look at the theme of the movie, it's hot pink, everything, right? But Mattel didn't get on that pink trend with Barbie until the 1970s.
Movie Soundbite Superstar Barbie. Hi, I'm Judy. I want you to meet new Superstar...
Bradley We always say that the sort of first Pink Doll was the 1977 Superstar Barbie and she was in this hot pink like day glow pink satin evening dress with this lacy kind of sparkling bow and this rhinestone jewelry, and that was sort of the first pink moment. But the rest of her world sort of had normal colors. Her Corvette was yellow, her dream house was like burnt orange and gold. I mean it was sort of realistic. But along about '83, '84, we call that the turning pink. Like her car was pink, her house was pink, all the furniture was pink. There was no differentiating in anything because everything for Barbie was some shade of pink.
Adam Monahan In this Barbie movie moment, pink is everything. So it makes sense that the pink era Barbies will see the biggest price bump. Dolls like the 1979 Kissing Barbie who comes in a totally pink outfit with a girl size tube of fake lipstick. When you push a button in her back, her face pushes forward in a kissing motion.
Travis Landry Prior to the movie release, I'd say a Kissing Barbie in factory sealed condition always tended to float around $200 to $400 depending on box condition. And I just saw that happened to sell online less than a week ago and it brought like $820, which is almost double the previous expected result. And I give that the credit to people just saying, wow, I grew up with these Barbies and now let me go see if I can buy them back.
Adam Monahan Bradley has seen the same trend.
Bradley We just returned from Barbie convention and what was interesting was a lot of the collectors are coming in a little bit younger and they were looking for the eighties stuff and the nineties stuff. And as a person that's been in this since 1982, the fact that someone's actively seeking this nineties stuff kind of blows my mind because I'm like, why? But what my friend kindly reminded me is when I started collecting, that was literally 23 years after Barbie was introduced, these kids that are buying the nineties stuff, 1990 was 33 years ago, and there's a nostalgia for that era, and I think the movie kind of reflected that generation of the superstar and the glamor that was what we've come accustomed to kind of identifying what Barbie look is.
Adam Monahan The Barbie movie is already changing the landscape. There are new younger collectors paying more for the seventies, eighties, and nineties dolls they remember. But what about those Barbie number ones? The Morphys presale estimates were six to $7,000. My extremely unexpert guess is that they'll go for $9,000. Here's what the experts think. Bradley Justice.
Bradley I'm going to see your $9,000 and raise you to between 98 and $10,200.
Adam Monahan Linda Maley.
Linda Maley 10 wouldn't shock me for sure.
Adam Monahan Billy Harris.
Billy Harris You're looking at probably, wow, eight to $12,000.
Adam Monahan Travis Landry.
Travis Landry Would 12 to $15,000 be out of the question? I don't believe so.
Adam Monahan And while we're making predictions, as I was interviewing for this episode, I found out about one other Barbie number one up for auction at a company called Theriault's.
Bradley They have a number one Barbie that's like perfect, pristine in a store display box with the three earliest costumes. And I think we're all kind of waiting to see what that doll is going to go for because it's the ultimate Barbie.
Adam Monahan So before the movie a year ago, let's say, what do you think a doll like that would've gone for?
Bradley I think it would've probably maxed that around 10. Right now, I am anxiously waiting to see what it will go for because I think this could be 17, $18,000. And quite honestly, it could even be more than that. It's just a matter of what two people are willing to pay when it comes to auction, but it has all the bells and whistles, all the right things.
Adam Monahan After the break, we find out if the Morphys dolls hit or exceed their estimates and just how much this Theriault doll will go for.
Travis Landry I literally screamed when I saw the results.
Adam Monahan When it finally came time to watch the Morphys auction, I called up Marsha to take the journey with me.
Marsha Adam, here's the deal. We got to have a contest going on this podcast.
Adam Monahan What do you got?
Marsha I'm a brunette through and through. You're a brunette too, but your wife, your Swedish wife is-
Adam Monahan Blonde.
Marsha Blonde as she can be. So let's have a contest. You take the blonde doll, I'll take the brunette. I think the brunette's going for more because I'm a brunette.
Adam Monahan And the rarity.
Marsha Well, I'm just going with emotion here. I'm not going with any expertise. I'm taking the brown haired doll.
Adam Monahan I'm turning up the audio. Here's the blonde.
Auction soundbite Different story here.
Adam Monahan Our part of the auction opened with the blonde Barbie number one.
Auction soundbite Number one Barbie in original box.
Marsha It already has a bid of $7,500.
Auction soundbite I have left action. What have we got over here? Three, four, five. I have $7,500 here. I need $8,000.
Auction soundbite Who's going to $8,000?
Adam Monahan Give him $8,000.
Marsha Come on, get to eight. Let's go.
Auction soundbite $8,000, how about $8,000? I have $7,500. Who wants $8,500? $8,000, bid 85. Give me 85. $8,000, 85, 85, 85, how about $8,500? I have $8,000 here, looking for $8,500.
Adam Monahan What a bummer.
Auction soundbite 85.
Adam Monahan Yay, all right. Go to nine.
Auction soundbite How about $9,000?
Adam Monahan It's still a lot of money.
Auction soundbite How about $9,000? I have 85. Been looking for $9,000. $9,000, $9,000. Last call. $9,000. Anybody at $9,000? Going to sell it. How about $9,000?
Adam Monahan He's working for me.
Marsha He's working it.
Auction soundbite Sold, $8,500 for our member.
Marsha Sold it. It's done.
Adam Monahan I was off by 500 bucks. It's hammered at nine.
Marsha Is this the brunette?
Auction soundbite What have we got here? Another purse.
Marsha This is my doll. Let's go, let's go.
Auction soundbite Brunette, number one.
Adam Monahan Next up, the brunette, which Marsha predicted would sell for more. The bidding started at $8,000.
Auction soundbite I have $8,000 to my right. I need $8,500.
Marsha I need $8,500 too, mister.
Auction soundbite $8,000, 85. Give me 85. I have $8,000 here looking for $8,500.
Marsha Oh come on, that blonde can't beat me.
Adam Monahan Everyone knows Barbie's a blonde, and that's why.
Auction soundbite I have 85. Give me $9,000. $9,000, $9,000. Neither one of you.
Marsha Wait, it just...
Auction soundbite Give me $9,000. I have 85 on the floor.
Adam Monahan They're going to go for the same. Just go for the same.
Marsha We'd have a tie. Final call, final call.
Auction soundbite 34. Congratulations. $8,500.
Marsha Oh, it's a tie.
Adam Monahan $8,500 tie, all right.
Marsha Tie, okay.
Adam Monahan Our two Barbie number ones, one blonde, one brunette, both hammered at $8,500. Their buyers paying $10,200 with the buyer's premium. So over their auction estimates, but not so insanely high. But then there was that other auction, the Thereold's auction that Bradley talked about. In there, the results were shocking as was the doll itself.
Bradley That particular doll was what we call a dressed silhouette box doll. The first year Barbie store retailers could order display dolls that would come dressed in the original fashions. And they came in a box that was different than the regular packaging. It was a pink box that had silhouettes illustrated a Barbie on it, and they were only sold to retailers. So this particular lot had the bride in the pink silhouette box. Some slight variations as to some of the details that was probably done because it was a display doll, and it had what we collectors call the big three.
There were three original outfits done in 1959 that were only available that year that had a lot of little details. And they're extremely rare. Gay Parisian, Roman holiday, and Easter Parade. And it even had the ultimate accessory for a collector, which is a tiny brass compact that's engraved with the letter B, which just got sucked up into every mother's Hoover in 1959. It never turns up. And the thing that was really interesting about that doll is the original owner's mother had strong recollections of going to New York on Easter weekend for the Easter parade and remembers that the doll was purchased at a store and she received it on Christmas. But there were home movies and photographs all documenting all of this. I think that really played into creating a provenance and magical story for this particular doll.
Adam Monahan So yeah, it's pretty much the best Barbie ever. The pre-sale pre movie estimate on this doll was 11 to $15,000.
Billy Harris We realized she was going to fly past $20,000 with no problem because I see them sell for $20,000 retail, but $48,000, I literally screamed when I saw the results.
Adam Monahan The hammer price was $42,000, $48,000 with the buyer's premium. It was a world record for a number one Barbie doll.
Bradley The winning bid went to the Berry Art Museum, which is in Norfolk, Virginia, and they will be adding that to their collection of dolls and art, and they're on the Old Dominion University. So I'm kind of excited that it's close enough that I can go pay that doll a visit.
Adam Monahan And it does speak to the fact that Barbie is ingrained in our public consciousness. It's important to have her represented in institutions.
Bradley Absolutely, and I will tell you, because I'm one of the movers and shakers in the Barbie world, I was contacted by another museum that was interested in adding that to their collection. So I think there were a lot of collectors and museums that were all vying for that particular doll.
Adam Monahan We can now say for certain onscreen and off, Barbie is bigger than ever.
Bradley For many, many years, the doll world, the antique doll world, the toy world, all just kind of dismissed Barbie as like, yeah, she was a great selling doll. And yeah, she performed well, but I don't think she got the street cred that she deserved. And I think Barbie is showing up and kicking tail and taking names. I think she's finally getting her due.
Adam Monahan She's taken over the last few weeks. It's just taken over.
Bradley I think this is just Barbie's world and we're all just living in it.
Adam Monahan Detours is a production of GBH in Boston and distributed by PRX. This episode was written and produced by Galen Bebe. Sound designed and mixed by Jack Pombriant, our assistant producer is Sara Horatius, and our senior producer is Ian Coss. Jocelyn Gonzalez is the director of PRX Productions. Devin Maverick Robbins is the managing producer of podcasts for GBH, and Marsha Bemko is the executive producer of Detours. I'm your host and co-executive producer, Adam Monaghan. Our theme music is Once in a Century Storm by Will Daley from the album National Throat. Thank you all for listening. Have a good one.