When Mary Krombholz pulled the head out from under the floorboards, it was the first time she had ever seen the face with the unusual mouth.
She had found the porcelain doll head shard when she went to Germany on a routine dig in 1999 to find Parian dolls at the Kister factory – one of only seven factories that manufactured the figurines, mostly over a 20-year span in the 19th Century.
“I’m so thankful that I had a chance to dig because the factory went down two years after I was there and I don’t think anybody would have known that they made these otherwise,” Krombholz told a room of 30 at the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art on Saturday, which marked the opening day of the museum’s first ever exhibit “Pale By Comparison.” The exhibit features the beautiful dolls of the 19th Century and runs through Oct. 19.
For the last 15 years, Krombholz, of Ohio, has gone to the different factory sites in Germany to try and dig up what is left of the antique shoulder head dolls she refers to as Parian dolls.
Parian is fine, unglazed bisque that resembles the white marble found on the Greek island, Paros, which was used to make life-size sculptures, she explained.
Her fifth and latest book, “Identifying German Character Dolls,” features 375 of the untinted or slightly tinted shoulder heads that represent elegant ladies. The elaborate, molded hairstyles include ringlets, braids and molded combs. The shoulder plates often feature molded jewelry and blouse details, such as ruffles and ribbons.
Many of the dolls were made in quantity and sold relatively cheaply.
Krombholz began her research when she found a doll in her father’s attic shortly after his death that her grandfather had bought her grandmother in Paris.
“I wanted to find the maker of the doll,” she said, noting that she’s a landscape designer by trade, so the digging came easy. “I still don’t know who made it, but I have learned a lot in the process.”
When she first started digging in Germany, many of the factories were still standing. Most of them have now been torn down and she has gotten permission from property owners to continue digging.
Some of the owners have even sent her doll shards they have found. Last week, she received 33 doll heads in the mail from the current owner of the old Alt, Beck and Gottschalck factory.
Now, she hopes her research will teach others how to identify the unmarked dolls in their own collection.
“Notice the half pupils,” she said of a Parian doll made by the Conta and Boehme factory. “Don’t you think those sleepy eyes give it kind of a Jack Nicholson look?”
During the event, area doll collectors brought in their Parian dolls to show Krombholz. One woman asked if Krombholz could appraise her doll, however the researcher said she was only there to help them identify which factory the dolls were made at.
She did, however, warn collectors to be wary of what they find on sites like eBay. Many German artists have found original shoulder plates that were discarded because they were flawed and have painted them so they look original, she said.
“Many of these paints weren’t fired (in a kiln), so if you take a little water and scrub it, you’ll have no paint,” she said.
Marie Bray of Everett brought two of her Parian dolls to the event that she had bought for $50 each on two separate occasions. She has collected nearly 300 dolls since she was a little girl, but many of them she hasn’t been able to identify.
Krombholz identified one of Bray’s dolls as a Hertwig and Company Parian doll made in the 1880s, and the other as an 1860s Alt, Beck and Gottschalck doll.
Bray said she had no idea.
“That’s the only reason I research, because these dolls were never marked and to be able to say that this is who made them before all of this is gone, I just really want to preserve that,” Krombholz said.
Carrie Wood can be reached at email@example.com or 425-453-4290.