“You’re not a weirdo because you collect Barbies,” Marl Davidson, who recently sold a vintage, hand-painted Barbie for $20,000, tells PEOPLE
By Wendy Grossman Kantor | Published on July 28, 2023 01:19PM EDT
Ilana Volain standing in front of part of her collection of loose and boxed dolls in her home.
PHOTO: NOAH VOLAIN
Barbie is having a hot pink moment thanks to the release of the blockbuster film — and Barbie collectors are reaping the benefits!
On Tuesday, Marl Davidson, sold a vintage, hand-painted first edition Barbie for $20,000 — and the last collection she sold on consignment went for $600,000. (Her cut? 40% of the sale.)
Davidson, who started collecting Barbies 36 years ago and has “hundreds” to her name, tells PEOPLE she got into dealing vintage dolls “to support my habit.”
“And then of course one thing led to another and I became big in the world of Barbie,” she adds.
Barbie values have gone up about 25 percent since the release of the movie, according to the expert, based in Bradenton, Fla.. And the rarest and most sought after dolls of the moment are the first three Barbies that Mattel released in 1959.
“The holy grail is the number 1,” Davidson says. “It’s hand-painted by a Japanese artist.”
“When Mattel first started out producing their dolls in Japan, they had the faces put on individually by artists,” she explains. “And that got to become too much and too much money, and so then they started airbrushing them all.”
“Number one” is also Davidson’s personal favorite. “It’s the icon,” she says. “To find one in good condition is really difficult.”
Marl B. Davidson and “Number One Brunette” Barbie that recently sold for $20K.
MARL B. DAVIDSON from MARL & B INC. (MARLBE.COM)
“Yellowstone Kelly,” which was released in 1971, is another collector favorite — “They didn’t make very many of her,” Davidson says.
The expert, who loves that her job makes “other people happy,” says that there’s always been “a lot of closet Barbie collectors” but now the market is “really in the open.”
“Don’t be embarrassed if you collect Barbies,” she adds. “I think the movie has helped that. You’re not a weirdo because you collect Barbies …. Barbie’s just fun.”
Vintage 1959 Barbie
Dolls mentioned in the movie are selling fast, says dealer and doll historian Bradley Justice Yarbrough. The owner of The Swell Doll Shop recently posted eBay listings for Allan and pregnant Midge — and within two days after the film came out, he was sold out.
The Barbie community is also eagerly watching an auction of an original Barbie from 1959 with a “hand-painted face” and “very lush hair.”
“Every collector has dreamed of this type of doll,” he says. It’s in the original box, with the original stand, and has remained in the possession of the same owner, whose mother purchased the doll during a trip to New York City for the Macy’s Easter Parade, according to the listing. (In fact, a family video of the owner with the doll is available to the buyer upon request.)
“We are all waiting to see what that job goes for. Because the sky’s the limit. It’s the ultimate doll,” Yarbrough says.
As of Friday, the current bid is $12,000.
Of course, being a collector is about more than just the money.
Yarbrough, 53, grew up playing with Barbies while his brothers opted for GI Joes. He learned to sew making patterns for his Barbies and paid his way through college selling duplicates of the dolls he collected at yard sales and flea markets.
“What I love about collecting is it’s this portal into my childhood,” says Yarbrough, of Durham, NC. “When you were a little child and you dreamed of having all of these dolls and all of these toys and it wasn’t realistic for your parents to give them all to you, but you dreamed of having all of them. And then as an adult you can reconnect with that little kid in your brain, and have all of these things that bring back all of those memories.”
Bradley Justice Yarbrough, Barbie Collector. COURTESY OF BRADLEY JUSTICE YARBROUGH
Yarbrough focuses on Barbie and her cousin Francie in his personal collection. He doesn’t count how many he owns.
Neither does Bebe Geis, who displayed her Barbies at her Victorian home in Davenport, Iowa.
“We made it our dolly mansion,” Geis says. The 60-year-old retired English teacher’s real name is Barbara, and she went by Barbie when she was little. She sells dolls, and her personal collection, she says, is in the “thousands.”
Ilana Volain, a first grade teacher in Philadelphia, has always felt a close connection with the classic collectable – they even share the same birthday, March 9!
“Barbie is really the only toy I played with,” says Volain, 31. “I was always a girly girl. I loved sparkles and colors.”
During pandemic lockdown, Volain did what she did when she felt lonely and bored as a child: played with Barbies.
She went online and rebuilt her childhood collection – and now has about 350 Barbies in her Philadelphia home. They are in shelves and cabinets in her basement Barbie room and throughout her house. She connected with other Barbie collectors, formed friendships and started going to conventions and posts on her Instagram.
“It brings joy,” she says. “That’s what makes me happy, sparks joy, gives me life.”
Ilana Volain. PHOTO: NOAH VOLAIN
Melissa Hunter still plays with Barbies – for a living. The YouTuber’s channel, My World is focused on dolls.
“To me, they’re art,” she says. “They’re just so beautiful.”
Like the Smithsonian Institute, she regularly rotates her collection in her Woodbridge, NJ home. She doesn’t count her collection, but she has hundreds. “I want them all, but then I would have thousands of Barbies,” says Hunter, who has already seen the new movie twice.
Melissa Hunter. PHOTO: MELISSA HUNTER
Sara Petty, who dressed up to see the film with her 8-year-old daughter Sophia, says the blockbuster hit “reignited my love of Barbie.”
“The new movie embodied what is awesome about Barbie – she can be anything,” adds Petty, 42, who sells vintage clothing in Southbend, Indiana.
Barbie Collector Sara Petty. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SARA PETTY
The movie even inspired Frederick, Maryland-based optometrist Samala Khan to go to her parents’ home and retrieve her Barbie collection.
“It’s like a time capsule,” says Khan, 45, who shares she always thought about her favorite day-to-night Barbie when planning outfits in her 20s.
She also loves that Ken is really just an “accessory” in Barbie world.
“I think just the message that for women and girls everywhere, no matter what you look like, you can be anything that you want to be. And it’s not connected to the Ken in your life, though it’s nice to have the Ken in your life,” Khan says. “You’re not bound to him. Your options and your life and your ideas can be limitless.”
Samala Khan. PHOTO: SAMALA KHAN
As for the future, collectors and dealers hope the Barbie bubble isn’t about to burst anytime soon.
“I hope it lasts,” says Davidson. “Right now there’s a lot of jazz going on with the movie…everybody’s selling pink.”
“Well, what’s it going to be like in the winter?” she asks. “Let’s hope we keep all those new collectors that come in.”