A Jeweled 19th-Century Doll Sets a Record and Heads for a New Museum

The Rochard doll that sold to Carolyn Barry for $333,500 and will go into the Barry Art Museum’s collection.

Theriault’s, an auction house in Maryland, sold a 19th-century French doll created by Antoine Edmund Rochard for a record $333,500 last month. The buyer: Carolyn Barry, a doll collector who, with her husband, Richard, provided the funds to create Old Dominion University’s new Barry Art Museum, which is set to open in October. She has given 81 dolls to the museum, and in January she had set out with a purpose: to add the Rochard doll.

Pale, delicate and elegantly dressed, the 30-inch-tall Rochard doll is unlike any of its porcelain contemporaries, said Theriault’s president, Stuart Holbrook.

Working with a doll manufacturer of the era, Rochard, a crafter prized for his dolls’ rarity, designed the lips to be parted (unusual for that time). Peering through the mouth, one sees a kaleidoscope effect. The doll’s breastplate has a necklace of 28 Stanhope gems, all but two still intact. Twenty-four of these contain microphotographs — some only a millimeter wide — showing images of Paris and surrounding France and Europe.

Mr. Holbrook believes there are only six or seven Rochard-patented dolls in the world. The Barrys’ prize figurine came from a private collector’s home in East Texas.

The Barrys are the creators of the Old Dominion University Museum Foundation, which will operate the new museum. The museum’s executive director, Jutta-Annette Page, said that dolls are not out of place with the institution’s focus. Its glass art collection, also containing Barry family gifts, features works by the likes of Dale Chihuly and Harvey Littleton. “Mrs. Barry became interested in these early dolls because of the glass eyes,” Ms. Page explained. “Many of them were made by an ocularist in Germany that specialized in making prostheses for human beings.”

Ms. Page said that the dolls would be exhibited chronologically alongside interpretive materials and art objects. For example, a “Philadelphia baby” in the collection would be displayed next to a George Luks painting that features that doll type. The Rochard sits at an interesting intersection, potentially titillating Old Dominion’s fashion and photography students as well as nascent art historians.

As to whether this doll’s new house — with its record-setting porcelain resident — would up the ante for future doll bidders? “Unfortunately a lot of museums look down on dolls as being a collectible, not a work of art,” Mr. Holbrook said. He hopes that the Barry will change that.

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