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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bru

Bru: The Bru, made by Bru & Cie, was the Cadillac of antique dolls. The dolls reached their heyday during the 1880s, the Gilded Age of the Victorian era featured in paintings by Renoir and in novels by Edith Wharton, including The Age of Innocence. Casmir Bru, who founded the firm, was of Portuguese descent. Early on, like Jumeau and other French companies, he may have imported heads from Germany, but soon, his famous marks, including the “circle dot” were found on dolls made of French kaolin clay. They were expressive, and among the first dolls to have a varied, almost astonished expression on their faces. Some of the bebes had molded breasts, those of a young adolescent. Their gusseted leather body had individual toes and their long hands were expressive, with tiny nails outlined. The so called Mona Lisa Bru smiling fashion has inspired modern artists as well as antique collectors. A Bru is featured in Anne Rice’s novel Taltos, and appeared on the back cover of some editions of Interview with the Vampire. Rice’s own doll sold at auction for over $34,000. it is one of the most reproduced of all antique dolls, and some versions have open mouths and teeth. In its best years, the firm was by by Paul Girard. Dolls included Bebe Teteur, a baby dolls with bottle and layette that nursed, Bebe Gourmand that digested food and was considered vulgar. It is one of the eccentricities of the doll collecting world that such unpopular dolls later become valuable collectibles. There are rubber Bru bebes, and one reported to be of metal. Many had ball jointed composition bodies. There are black dolls in bisque, and one tribal woman in papier mache, perhaps a Masai warrior woman, that is attributed to Bru. The doll once was part of the Rosalie Whyel Museum of Doll Art, Seattle Bru dolls have always been scarce and expensive, e en in the late fifties, they sold for $75.000 and up when other dolls could be found even for small change. By the 1960s, they had risen to around $500, but the mid seventies, $5000. Collectors kept them in safes, and while they were still plentiful in adds for Hobbies and other magazines, one was advised to “call for price,” since no price could be printed, rather like the market price of lobster on a menu. Helen Young in The Complete Book of Doll Collecting tells the rather sad story of a whistling Bru that ended in an American Collection after spending World War II in a French convent. Her owner left he Bru and her sisters a the convent for safe keeping, but she never came back. She was a member of the French resistance, captured and shot by the Nazis. An American doll dealer visited the convent and bought all the dolls. She sold the others but kept one for herself. The dolls’ costumes were trimmed in hand made lace that the nuns made for sale. I remember seeing an unmarked, white bisque Bru lady in a lavender dress at The LaSalle Peru Doll Who in 1974. She was $75.00. Too expensive for my mother and me in those days. Her twin appears in Mary Hillier’s Dolls and Doll Makers; that doll has a key wound music box built into her body. There are interesting Asian bisque reproductions Brus in the author’s collection that bear traces of the original marks on their shoulder plates. Myth has it that reproduction Bru dolls are not authentic because a plaster mask was never made from their faces, since to do so would have damaged these super valuable dolls. Another myth is that the doll cannot be accurately reproduced because the models were destroyed in the Blitzkrieg. Yet, I can vouch for lovely reproduction Bru dolls made by Karen Julie Swanson of Galesburg, IL, by my friend, Violet Ellen Page of Galesburg, by The Franklin Mint ‘Nicole’ and by artist Pat Loveless. These dolls are collectibles in their own right. Peck makes wonderful Bru paper dolls, as does Peggy Rosamund, master paper doll artist. There are two dolls attributed to Bru in the author’s collection. One is a brown bisque Bru Jne R with a ball jointed brown composition body that may not be original. She wears her original eyelet dress, however, and has brown glass eyes. Her black, longhaired wig appears to be authentic. The other doll came to us as a head, with a cloth body meant for a china head, a wooden dowel for making dolls, and a pair of bisque arms. The head bore a “0” which the Colemans attributed to Bru. It is opened mouth with tiny teeth, and large eyes and pierced ears. The crown is concave, almost like certain Belton type dolls, which, notwithstanding, usually have solid crowns or domed heads. The doll has the quintessential French eyebrows and is good quality pale bisque. She wears an old mohair, “Bru” wig and was dressed by my mother. She was a favorite of my late mother’s, and I wrote an article about her in the late 80s for The Western Doll Collector. The last dolls made under Bru’s mark were made through the 1890s. By the end of the Century, Bru and Cie had become part of the S.F.B.J. For more on Bru and other French dolls, I recommend the video by Jane and Dorothy Coleman, The Golden Age of Dolls.

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