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To the untrained eye, she might resemble a typical but high-end antique bisque doll. Like those unglazed porcelain figures, which began to appear in France and Germany in the 1850s, this one is pale-skinned and daintily painted. But she’s incredibly rare — one-of-a-kind, even — standing as a well-preserved example of a Rochard doll. Named after their creator, Antoine Edmond Rochard, these poupées are especially prized for their ornate necklaces that astoundingly double as photo archives.
This Rochard doll, which dates to 1868, is so rare that it fetched $333,500 at auction in January, setting a new record for an antique doll. Sold by Theriault’s, the 19th-century figure was picked up by doll collector Carolyn Barry. Barry and her husband Richard have donated $35 million to Old Dominion University to construct a new art museum, most of which will house their personal collection. The Rochard doll will be on display in a wing devoted to antique dolls and automata.
It’s a work of art, indeed. Standing 30-inches tall, the doll boasts eyes of cobalt blue glass, pierced ears, blonde human hair, and an antique silk dress. Its main treasure is its gold necklace, where gilt circles known as Stanhope jewels hold microphotographs. These images measure about one to 1.4mm, and can be viewed with a magnifying lens, according to Michael Sheibley, a leading expert on Stanhopes.
Microphotography was just emerging as a novel form of documentation when Rochard began designing dolls in the 1860s. Dolls then were not only for children, and artists were often contracted to create detailed designs. Rochard, the godson of a jewelry maker, clearly intended to produce a masterpiece that was highly fanciful, intriguing, and reflective of new technologies.
“He was utilizing a doll figure in a way that would become an intrigue and promote the idea of microphotography,” Stuart Holbrook, president of Theriault’s, told Hyperallergic. “It was a novelty. Rochard was likely imagining that it might become something that would be a unique fancy for an adult.”
Rochard patented his doll design in 1868, although the figures were clearly difficult to make and never became commercial products. Holbrook knows of seven or eight that were realized, each unique. The doll that Barry bought is “probably the best we’ve ever seen,” he said, especially considering its delicateness. “It has all of the Stanhopes present, and 24 of the 28 photographs in tact.”
Many of these capture landmark sites around Paris, from Sainte-Chapelle to a view of the Louvre. It’s unclear what significance these images held for Rochard, although another selection is immediately logical: the Stanhopes within a cross that sits above the doll’s chain hold images of religious locations. Other images still are more enigmatic and underscore the fact that the Rochard dolls were meant for adults. One captures the 19th-century equivalent of the “subway upskirt perv,” where a male creep looks up the hoop skirt of a woman boarding a streetcar. Another depicts a forest, where a man gets handsy with his female companion. These scenes were most likely staged, Holbrook said. He added that the identity of the photographer behind all these microphotographs remains unknown.
The other Rochard dolls are currently scattered across the world in private collections and museums. The New National Museum of Monaco has one, as does the Prairie Museum of Art and History in Colby, Kansas, and the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. But the Barry Art Museum’s display will be the first time that an example is on view in a museum devoted to modern and fine art. The inclusion — and the construction of an entire wing devoted to dolls, for that matter — is a significant one, presenting dolls as artworks to a mainstream audience rather than just collectors.
“It allows for the first time a proper respect to be paid to dolls as being more than just a child plaything,” Holbrook said. “It allows people to broaden their idea of the doll and realize there was a period of over 100 years when dolls were created, far more as a work of art than for a child to drag in the mud outside.”