Back in the 1920s, Kewpie dolls were famous for their adorable eyes, budding wings, and small, lovable hair tufts. While a lot has changed since then, bisque Kewpie dolls are yet prized antique dolls, especially the originals created by the illustrious Rose O’Neill herself. But with the profusion of production dolls (copied from original Kewpies), how can you identify a genuine Kewpie doll?
A genuine original Kewpie doll should be produced under the original Kewpie copyright license. Traditionally, such dolls are furnished with the signature O’Neill foot mark. In other cases, the doll’s body is further decked with a red and gold paper heart. Later versions of authentic Kewpie dolls produced around 1914 have their backs embellished with an additional paper label specifying details of the copyright.
This is just a synopsis of how to identify original Kewpie dolls from knockoff models. Further in this guide, we will dive deeper into insightful techniques to tell original bisque Kewpies from celluloid makeovers and reproduction models.
But to better appreciate these techniques, let us first learn about the original versions of Kewpies and how the material design trend has evolved since the 1910s.
How can you identify the material design of original Kewpie dolls?
The first set of Kewpies – specifically those exclusively designed by Rose O’Neill – were made strictly from bisque. This category is what is commonly referred to as genuine Kewpie dolls.
Bisque here is a form of porcelain and was preferred by Rose O’Neill for the realism it gave her dolls. Bisque’s matte finish strongly mimicked the human skin. What’s more, the bisque was the material of choice for producing dolls back through the 1860s to the early 1910s.
By the 1920s, composition models of Kewpie dolls were introduced with consequent progression to celluloid models and even vinyl versions by manufacturers like Jesco and Cameo.
While not having the esteemed commercial value collectors associate with the exclusive bisque Kewpie dolls, composition Kewpie dolls are yet valuable and worth way more fortune than the latter celluloid versions.
Particularly, composition Kewpie dolls Rose O’Neill signed herself yet command a fortune in the antique doll market and can arguably yet be classified as among the original Kewpie dolls.
Having laid this foundation, let us now learn specific techniques in identifying the various versions of Kewpie dolls in circulation today.
How to identify genuine Kewpie doll models
You must be thoroughly investigative when ascertaining the originality of your Kewpie doll. There are hordes of celluloid knockoffs in the market today. While they closely mirror the original, they don’t hold as much value in the collectible market.
Identifying Kewpie dolls from the manufacturing license
Commonly, I see amateur collectors associate just any doll with Kewpie’s signature googly eyes as an original. No, there remains one definitive way to tell a genuine Kewpie doll.
Was it produced under the copyright holder’s license?
A German porcelain company, J. D. Kestner, was the first to manufacture Kewpie dolls, with a patent being consequently issued in the U.S on November 4, 1913. Thus, the bulk of the first set of Kewpie dolls was engraved with the company’s marking.
Kewpie dolls produced under licensed copyrights are characteristically furnished with blue-tipped wings. These wings made with premium quality tended to have hands shaped like stars.
In most cases, these licensed Kewpie dolls had the bottom surface of their foot engraved with © O’Neill. In other scenarios, their backs were marked with Rose O’ Neill-related labels.
Take note that while a significant number of celluloid Kewpie dolls were produced in Japan, none of the original licensed Kewpies were manufactured on Japanese soil. Original Kewpies are not marked Nippon either.
You can tell from the size and design
The original set of Kewpie bisque dolls were produced within the size range of 6cm to 31cm. This is distinct from the bulk of vinyl Kewpies you readily see around today within the size range of 69cm.
More than that, the clothing and overall architecture of the dolls are valid ways to identify original Kewpies.
Kuddle Kewpies – typically cloth Kewpies – were made with fabric bodies. This felt really plush. Now, original Kewpies enhanced with wings barely came with clothing. The clothed models commonly didn’t come with wings either.
Some antique doll appraisers say original action Kewpies always come with accessories. But this is not entirely correct. There are yet original Kewpie figurines that have no accessories. Take the Antique Rose O’Neill German Bisque Action Kewpie Doll The Thinker, for example.
You can tell Composition Kewpies from the manner of their leg molding. The first models of Composition Kewpies were designed to stand on molded bases, usually a blue pedestal.
After this set, the next batches of composition Kewpie dolls stopped coming with bases. Instead, their legs were jointly molded.
Composition Kewpies made in the 1940s would revert to a separated leg design with both legs coming together at the hips.
You can identify a Kewpie doll from the marks and labels
The originality of Kewpie dolls can also be confirmed from the markings. But given that these are old dolls from the 1900s (and have consequently aged across the years), you need sufficient illumination to identify the markings.
As said, the foot of the Kewpie is the best place to check for the paper labels. Aside from bisque Kewpies, take note that celluloid kewpies also come with the Rose O’Neill paper labels (shaped like a heart) with the associated autographs.
However, celluloid Kewpie dolls don’t usually have markings. Nonetheless, some come with their date and patent numbers brocaded on them.
While vinyl Kewpies are traditionally marked with the Cameo name, hard plastic kewpies (especially those that are fully-jointed) don’t have markings.
You can identify a Kewpie doll by researching the manufacturing details
The fact that your Kewpie doll has no markings doesn’t automatically make it fake or a production doll. There are cases where genuine Kewpie dolls could lose their marking due to aging (and suboptimal usage).
Therefore due diligence would help. Yes, research. First things first, we would need the manufacture date of the doll if yet available.
If you can source that, you can research through the internet, eCommerce websites like eBay and Etsy. You may further dig into specialized doll platforms like Doll Reference.com, Doll Shops, and Antique Doll Content to see if you can find photos as close as possible to your Kewpie doll.
The bulk of these online directories for researching your doll are free. Others could require you to part with a one-time fee for a search query.
Admittedly, this process can be grueling. There is the last option of paying a professional doll appraiser to help identify your Kewpie doll.
Let us talk about this.
Getting a professional appraisal to identify your Kewpie doll
There are a handful of online (or in-person) professional doll appraisals you can leverage to help you identify your doll. This way, you can tell if it is genuine Kewpie and if the doll is worth keeping or tossing away.
A professional appraisal can help you interpret the label, even as far as accurately determining the era, the type of the Kewpie doll, and what it could be approximately worth in the collectible market.
Some of these appraisers charge a fixed flat fee. This is common when you have a sizable stack of dolls to evaluate. Those that charge hourly has their rates oscillating between $80-300/hr.
Factors influencing the variations in rates include location, skill, and doing the appraisal in person or online.
Why is it difficult to identify genuine Kewpie dolls?
By now, you may have been wondering why all this fuss in identifying just a Kewpie doll. I will tell you. Kewpie dolls hold a strong sentimental value due to the rich cultural history attached to them.
Since the original Bisque models are no longer in production, many celluloid knockoffs have been profusely poured into the market. These are reproduction Kewpie dolls.
At first, reproduction Kewpie dolls were created as a diversion or on a limited studio production scale. But by the 1970s, there was massive adoption of production dolls across the United Kingdom and the whole of Europe.
This was such that by the 1980s, these reproduction Kewpie dolls began to be produced on an industrial scale. It, therefore, becomes paramount to be informed on identifying genuine Bisque dolls and differentiating them accurately from reproduction dolls.
How to identify genuine Bisque Kewpie dolls from reproduction dolls
Aside from the label and markings, a keener investigation of the make of your Kewpie doll can help you identify if it is genuine bisque porcelain or a reproduction doll.
Start your inspection by using your teeth to inspect the texture of the head. If it feels significantly cold and hard, the chances are very high your doll is bisque.
A bisque Kewpie doll normally has tiny pores. This is because bisque – being unglazed ceramic porcelain – doesn’t have a perfect finish.
Old and genuine bisque Kewpie dolls should have collected dirt or dust into these pores over the decades. The commonest place to inspect for dirt in an aged Kewpie doll is behind the ears and the spaces between the feet and hand digits.
You can also tell a genuine bisque Kewpie doll from its color fading. A doll made in the early 1900s must have inevitably experienced some deterioration despite how optimally used it was across the years.
Remember, it must have passed through many hands if real. Therefore, it is natural to expect a measure of color evanescence.
Check the lips of your Kewpie doll closely. The color should have dulled a bit. The same color fading applies to the cheeks and eyes of the doll if original bisque.
Lastly, you can tell a genuine bisque Kewpie doll from a reproduction doll from the body. The former commonly comes with double holes situated close to the shoulders.
This is because antique bisque dolls are produced from a single mold. Accordingly, the double holes in the shoulder region are reflective of the attachment points where the head was fixed to the body. While rare, you can find some dolls with these two holes at the base of the doll’s neck.