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A very low cut early tennis outfit

Closeup of later issue pink Lilli

Original 3M Doll Booklet showing fashions

Case made by 3M Doll company

Dufflecoat #1167

Steiff poodle included with some Lillis

Bild-Lilli's shoes were painted on

Lilli in original poplin jacket and shorts set

Lilli lounging in her 50s Butterfly Chair

Bild-Lilli in top and shorts with tennis belt

Miniature of Bild newspaper

 

Bild-Lilli : The Original Blonde Bombshell


What do you give the Barbie collector who has everything? If you had about $2000 to spend, you might try a Bild-Lilli doll. This sultry German bombshell was the inspiration for Mattel’s well-heeled supermodel. She was based on a sexy post-war cartoon character that appeared in the German newsletter Bild.


When you look at a Lilli doll alongside an original 1959 Barbie doll, the exaggerated figures, ponytail hairdos and vivid makeup make the family resemblance undeniable.


One seasoned Barbie collector who has fallen under the spell of these European beauties is Patrick McGovern of New York City. As a longtime collector of and published expert in vintage Barbie dolls, he has seen some of the most beautiful fashion dolls in the world. He has written for various magazines and his dolls were the subject of and models for the stunning photography book "Barbie Millicent Roberts" by David Levinthal.


Lately he has turned his attention to Bild-Lilli. I visited with him this week and we had a great time talking about his latest collecting fascination and looking at some of the examples in his collection. Patrick is expressive when talking about the dolls in his collection and he speaks with the authority of a collector has gathered his information carefully and with a passion for his subject.


MC: I imagine that you first became interested in Bild-Lilli because of Barbie. Can you tell me a little about that?


PM: Right. Well, when I first started collecting Lilli, it was around the time it was verified that she was the predecessor to Barbie and it seemed that every advanced Barbie collector had to have one…just to have a complete collection. So, I got one…I really like it, and I was happy just to have one. Time went on and I continued collecting vintage Barbie and I got more and more stuff. Well, once in a while you get bored with it, kind of like you’ve seen everything? One day I noticed one was up for auction in Japan and it had not met reserve. So I called the owner and offered her a trade. Well, I got the doll and she was in the original packaging tube…and I realized… hey, these are really cool. So that started me collecting Lilli. It was a change from Barbie after twenty-plus years of collecting. Plus, it was a high-quality doll and I had not seen everything. There were still surprises. Then over the years, I would get in and out of Lilli and just recently, I have started getting back into it again.


MC: I have noticed that Lilli seems to be getting hotter right now. Is that the case?


PM: Yes. Lilli is more popular right now than she has ever been. The prices have gone up to $700-$1200 for an average doll with exceptional examples commanding twice that. By exceptional, I mean pretty.


MC: I know you look for beauty when you decide on a doll purchase. What do you find compelling about Lilli?


PM: OK, the thing with Lillis are the "high color" Lillis. I like that. Another thing is in the hand painting of them. Some have small lips that look puckered-like they are sucking on a lemon. A lot of those aren’t that pretty. They have sexiness to them because of the look, the stiletto heels. She was initially made as a man’s novelty gift. But even though they were created with a sexy look, they can be very hard and tough looking. I just prefer the prettier, softer looking examples. I have found that the later ones seem to be a little bit softer. By this time they had become play dolls for children. These Lillis are pinker in skin tone. Lillis came in all shades…from tan to pink. But these later ones are very pink. They usually have fuller, softer, rounder lips. These tend to be the later Lillis…toward the end of the line. The pinker ones were more attractive to little girls and the company could make more money than if it was just a man’s gag gift. And of course, the little girl would want more and more clothes.
Also, for every doll that came in a tube (Lillis came packaged in see-through plastic display tubes), there were two versions…the small 7" and the larger, Barbie sized Lilli. The same outfits would come on both sizes, but these outfits were also available separately in both sizes later on. The sexier outfits with the plunging necklines and skintight pants were the earlier outfits because they were marketed toward adult men. The later outfits are where you see the nurse outfits, the stewardess uniform, the ballerina costumes and little ski outfits.


MC: If these were made in Germany, they cannot be that easy to find. How does one go about locating a Lilli dolls?


PM: They were initially sold in Germany but they were also exported to other countries as well. Usually, the dolls that were sold in Germany came with a stand that said "Bild-Lilli". The ones that were exported generally had a stand that just read "Lilli". They were sold in Italy and Sweden and perhaps in other European countries. Believe it or not, some were even imported to America. I’ve seen a Lilli that was sold in a high-end store, Marshall Fields I think, and her stand read "Lilli Marlene". She was a brunette (most Lilli dolls are blondes). Even still, Lillis are very hard to find. They are made of a very fragile plastic and they break easily. They really weren’t meant to be played with. The makeup (face paint) rubs off very easily with water and a rag. . You couldn’t bring these gals into the bathtub and their hair was definitely not meant to be played with. The wigs are made of mohair. At one point they were going to root the dolls, but they changed their mind. There really isn't much you can do with the hair anyway. You could put it up, but that’s about it. Some Lillis have longer hair and some shorter.


MC: You obviously aren’t going to stumble over one of these at the flea market.


PM: Actually, a friend of mine found one at her flea market for $3 in a bin of old dolls. She was well played with, but they are out there. Not many, but some were brought back from people vacationing in Europe. Thing is, when you do find them, they have a lot of problems. They are strung very tightly and the plastic can crack. They often have stress cracks on the arms. The thumb breaking off is a very common problem. They made accessories for the doll like tennis racquets, but when you tried to put it in her hand, the thumb would break off. The dolls just break very easily.


MC: So, aside from breakage and overall condition, what are some of the things you look for in a Lilli doll when you are shopping for one?


PM: One of the charming things about Lillis is that their makeup is hand painted. And it’s not perfect. You could look at the most mint Lilli you have in a tube and you will find the lips aren’t completely even on each side, there’s a little indentation, maybe a bit of paint misplaced. Almost always, the eyeliner appears to be a little crude.


MC: That must provide for lots of variations in the dolls. Much like vintage Barbie.


PM: Right, each Lilli looks very different. Most of them have a certain thin, wispy brow, but I have seen them with brows that almost meet in the middle because the line is so long. But, you will know an original Lilli brow when you see it because it is very hard to repaint the brows on that doll. Lillis also have hand painted lips. Even though I am a "picky" collector, I will accept a few "less than perfect" things with Lilli because they are so hard to find and even harder to find mint. I’ll accept a touchup on a lip because she was hand painted anyway. . I would have more problems buying a Lilli without brows than without lips, as it would be a lot harder to duplicate the brow paint. You don’t want to call attention to the restoration of a doll.
There always seems to be some little area that is missing original paint. You can clean up Lilli dolls pretty well. If their hair is a mess, it restyles and smoothes into place much easier than a vintage Barbie’s hair does.


MC: What are some of the harder to find Lilli items?


PM: Everything Lilli is hard to find. It’s very difficult to find her clothes. They were not mass-produced like Barbie outfits. I’ve been lucky that I have friends overseas who will let me know about auctions or if they find something. It’s much easier to find Lilli clothes in Germany and Sweden. It’s still hard but easier than it is here.


MC: What about the dolls themselves? Are most of them blondes?


PM: Right, most are blondes. Then there are people who say a few brunettes and redheads were made as prototypes. I don’t think these are prototypes. I think they were just made in lesser quantities. But. Predominately, the dolls are blonde. The redheads could also be oxidized brunettes. Who knows?


MC: What about documentation of these dolls? With Barbie we have the old Mattel catalogs to go from and the countless collector books on the subject.


PM: A good starting point would be "Barbie-The First 30 Years" by Stephanie Deutch. She has a large group of Lillis in that book. If you are lucky enough to know someone who has one of the original Lilli catalogs, many of the outfits are pictured in there. The Swedish distributor Brio, published catalogs that also showed Lilli’s outfits year by year from 1955-63. Also, when you find a Lilli outfit, it will usually have snaps that were not used by any other manufacturer. They are unique "press snaps" that are marked PRYM. However, there were some Lilli outfits made that did not have any snaps at all. In this case, the seasoned Lilli collector can look at the quality, tailoring and stitching of the garment.


MC: So what’s your favorite item in your collection?


PM: It’s the first Lilli I ever got. It’s a pink Lilli dressed in a little yellow outfit. I didn’t know it at the time how exceptional she was until I really started collecting Lillis and realized she still is the prettiest Lilli I own. Maybe I got spoiled by the first Lilli, but that is my favorite outfit too. I have a Lilli chair that I really like. I’ve seen different colors of them, but this one is a unique embossed 1950’s salmon-pink colored vinyl. It’s very cool.


MC: What other accessories were made for Lilli?


PM: Not many. There is that "butterfly" 50s chair, the Steiff dogs which have been found with "mint in tube" Lillis. Nobody seems clear about how that partnering came about. It is not clear if 3M Doll Company (the makers of Lilli) made the chairs. There was a simple wooden swing that was made for Lilli. It is speculated that these were used to display her swinging in a car window or from the dashboard. And there is a vinyl case that was made by 3M Doll Company and shown in the catalogs that could be used to hold a doll and her fashions.


MC: How has the Internet changed Lilli doll collecting?


PM: The Internet has opened up the Lilli field to everyone now. It’s easier to find stuff now. EBay has brought a lot more to the market place. However the competition is very fierce. I’ve noticed a real increase in the interest in Lillis. It’s a double-edged sword. Now you can find the stuff, but there are a few collectors who seem to be on a mission to own everything and they are willing to bid astronomical prices. So, it’s actually not easier to collect them because it is no longer affordable. Lilli prices are higher than ever right now.


MC: Are the smaller 7" Lillis in the same price range as the large ones?


PM: While they are popular, the small ones do not seem to have the intense interest as the larger ones. So, they are priced less as a rule.


MC: What about the outfits? Is there a range of prices?


PM: For a simple, common outfit like a shorts set or cotton Capri pants with pullover and belt, you can expect to pay anywhere from $400-$500. Something more elaborate like a gown might go for up to $700. As far as the dolls…the range for an average, nude Lilli is $800-$1200. An exceptional dressed Lilli can command $2000 and up. MC: Thanks for all the great insights Pat. Obviously, this is an expensive doll to collect. Any advice to offer someone who may want to add one to their collection?


PM: Save money. Just kidding. Actually, a beginning collector should consider a flawed and less expensive doll. One with a lip rub can be professionally touched up. Because these dolls are hard plastic, a good doll restoration artist can also fix plastic cracks and even replace broken thumbs so the repair is virtually undetectable. Even examples that look a mess can be restored to look beautiful.


All dolls and outfits photographed for this interview are from the collection of Patrick McGovern.