This is the time of year -- before the art fair season has begun and while museums are in between exhibitions -- when coming up with interesting and timely blog topics can become a challenge. In anticipation of exactly this situation I have a "back-up" list of potential stories and I would like to share one of these with you now.
Some time ago I made the on-line acquaintance of a collector in California who is a great doll enthusiast. We corresponded regularly and last October we had the opportunity to meet face to face in Paris. We chose a Sunday afternoon to get together and visit a few exhibitions one of which was at the Maison de Victor Hugo on the Place des Vosges. While the theme of the show, the influence of Victor Hugo on the Surrealists, was not exactly Lori's cup of tea, she gamely came along and was rewarded with a tour of the writer's private apartments where he lived from 1832-1848.
While we were having a coffee at the end of the day, she began to tell me an amazing story that juxtaposed her world of doll collecting with the museum we had just visited - the tale of "The Great Man's Doll".
The "Great Man", as you might have guessed, was none other than Victor Hugo, considered one of the greatest poets and novelists of the Romantic Period, if not in all French history. It turns out that while he was writing "Les Travailleurs de la Mer (The Toilers of the Sea)" in the 1860s, he commissioned a doll from the Parisian manufacturer Adelaide Huret, to serve as inspiration for Deruchette, the heroine of the novel.
This was an exquisite poupée. 17" (43 cm) tall, she featured a beautifully painted bisque head, real strawberry blonde hair, a fully articulated body and a trousseau of stylish clothing and accessories. When Monsieur Hugo had finished the novel he gifted the doll to the daughter of his friend Alfred Asseline who christened her new plaything "The Great Man's Doll". When the Hugo family returned from exile in 1872, the doll, after a little refurbishing in the Huret ateliers and a few additions to her wardrobe, was passed on to the author's favorite granddaughter, Jeanne.
The doll and her accoutrements remained with Jeanne for many years until she was given to Jeanne's god-daughter in whose possession she remained until 2010 when she was consigned for sale to Theriault's, a Maryland-based specialist in antique doll auctions. The description of Lot # 19 in their sale of July 18th is extensive, to say the least. This example of a Huret poupée was not only an exceptional antique doll, she was a collector's dream-come-true. Beside the actual French bisque poupée with the extraordinary provenance, the lucky bidder would also come away with a full compliment of original habiliments and furnishings.
When I say "full compliment" I am not kidding. The lot lists "seven additional dresses and gowns of couturier quality from the early/mid 1860 era and one superb silk fashion gown from the 1872 era", several sets of undergarments and petticoats, signed "Huret" accessories including bonnets, a bone folding-fan, parasols, opera glasses, gloves, needlepoint slippers, a purse containing a lock of baby hair, playing cards, a "necessaire", a snood and a muff, as well as a porcelain tea service in its original box. The lot also included a first edition of "Victor Hugo Intime", the 1885 memoire written by Alfred Asseline, and a letter from the most recent member of the Hugo family to have possession of the doll.
Needless to say, "The Great Man's Doll" fetched a price far exceeding any pre-sale estimates with the gavel coming down at a jaw-dropping $160,000. What spurred this bidding frenzy is very clear, and the reason I am writing a blog on the topic. This "doll" is far more than a toy or an antique - it is a work of art with a soul. A unique creation with a marvelous story of beauty and romance, an insight into the mind of a literary genius and a link between the 19th century and our time.
P.S. With many thanks to Lori Santamaura for a wonderful afternoon and for sharing this enthralling tale.