First Published: July 21, 2023 at 9:31 a.m. ET
By Charles Passy
Prices for all things Barbie are soaring because of the new ‘Barbie’ film
The first Barbie Doll from 1959 was displayed last month at the interactive exhibition, “The World of Barbie,” in Santa Monica, Calif. MARKETWATCH PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/GETTY IMAGES, ISTOCKPHOTO
With the release this weekend of the new “Barbie” movie starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling, there’s growing attention being paid to the world of Barbie collectibles. As in the hundreds of dolls that have been released over the years, to say nothing of such accessories as Barbie outfits and furniture.
But there’s one collectible above all — the holy grail of Barbies, if you will. We’re referring to Barbie No. 1, the first doll ever released by Mattel to bear the Barbie name, dating from 1959.
Barbie fanatics speak of it in reverent terms. “I lost sleep over this doll,” one collector said in a YouTube video that documented the arrival and unboxing of a Barbie No. 1. Watch on YouTube https://youtu.be/3tBToT1v7LY
Needless to say, collectors will pay a pretty penny for a Barbie No. 1. Prices can easily reach $10,000-plus, according to Barbie experts. The original doll sold for about $3, but there’s a Barbie No. 1 doll on eBay currently going for $25,000.
But before you plunk down five figures for an investment-grade doll, we figured you might want to know a little more about this one-of-a-kind Barbie. Here goes:
What makes the ‘Holy Grail’ Barbie so special?
Obviously, it’s all about being the first of its kind, not unlike a baseball player’s rookie card (the 1952 Mickey Mantle card is often considered the holy grail of sports collectibles, though that can sell for millions of dollars). It’s also about rarity. Experts say around 300,000 to 350,000 of those debut Barbies were sold in 1959, but the number of Barbie No. 1s that survived throughout the years — dolls are sold as toys, after all, not necessarily collectibles — is considerably less.
(Mattel MAT reportedly now releases about 60 million Barbies annually, but the company didn’t respond to a MarketWatch request for comment and information.)
There’s also something to be said for No. 1’s distinct look, marked by what veteran Barbie appraiser Dr. Lori Verderame describes as its “deep profile” with a protruding nose and high forehead. It’s a design very much inspired by the German-made Bild Lilli dolls that intrigued Barbie creator Ruth Handler.
Are there any really rare examples of the original Barbie?
Red-headed Barbie No. 1s are known to exist. Marl Davidson, a Barbie dealer based in Bradenton, Fla., says she once sold one for $50,000, and perhaps the holiest of holy grails is a salesman’s Barbie sample case dating from the doll’s early years. Davidson says she believes only two or three are around. And one surfaced? “It could go for $1 million,” she says.
And what makes some Barbie No. 1s more valuable than others?
As with almost any collectible category, it’s all about condition. Barbie buyers are looking for a No. 1 that’s as close to mint condition as possible, with all the original items — namely, the box, black stand, sunglasses, shoes, brochure and zebra-striped swimsuit. (There are also outfits and accessories dating from Barbie’s early years, but these were sold separately; Verderame says a popular outfit from this period can sell for $150 to $200.)
Ironically, if the Barbie has stayed in the original box, it may affect the condition — Verderame explains that the packaging is acidic so it can “damage the piece over time,” but she says collectors still “want it in the box.”
Then, there’s the hair color. The original Barbie came in both blonde and brunette versions. Verderame says the blondes are generally more sought after since that’s what most people think of as the Barbie classic. But Davidson says brunettes can actually have value since there were fewer made of them. Then again, she says, the collectors “who can afford it will have one of everything.”
How can you tell if a first-edition 1959 Barbie is a fake?
There are various elements that will signify an original Barbie — most notably, a marking on the doll’s, um, right buttock (this also applies to later Barbies, though). Also look for holes in the feet and what the Doll Reference site describes as “tight curly bangs,” among other identifiers. It’s worth keeping in mind that you might find an original No. 1 doll, but with other parts that are not original — say, a replacement stand.
What’s the current market for the original Barbie?
It’s soaring because of the movie, Verderame says. She notes that Barbie No. 1s that went for $10,000 as recently as three months ago are now selling in the $15,000-$25,000 range. Verderame anticipates the market will cool off after the fervor for the Warner Bros. film dies down. But Davidson remains bullish on Barbie’s longer-term prospects because of the doll’s iconic appeal: “The price can only go up,” she says.
Are there any affordable alternatives to a first-edition Barbie?
Davidson says collectors can also consider Barbie No. 3 as a collectible. It’s a very early model, but it has a far more approachable price — Davidson says collectors can find one between $1,000 and $3,000.
If you want something way more affordable that still has potential to appreciate, Verderame says to consider iconic Barbies from the 1990s and 2000s that are currently selling for between $50 and $150.
But if you insist on a Barbie No. 1, Davidson says you can always buy one in lesser condition for a lesser price. Still, even a bald Barbie No. 1 won’t come cheap, she warns. “It’s going to go for a couple of grand,” she says.