"Yee haw! We're sending it to Hubbard!" If you attended any of Theriault's major auctions over the years you might have heard me call out these words from the podium on occasion. Sometimes more often than others! That yell became the signature "sold" for whenever Berta Leon Hackney, one of the world's most iconic collectors and personalities, would win another doll from the front row.
It's a Texas thing, really. You see, Berta is, unarguably, the truest "Texan" I have ever known. She is at once the consummate lady but at the same time spirited and tough, smart, quick with a one-liner, can probably two-step with the best of 'em or waltz in Vienna ballrooms, and will regale you with stories for hours – adding a laugh and twang that oozes charm.
As proof, in the 1970s, long before women were routinely involved in politics, especially in central Texas, she held the post of two-time mayor of Hubbard, perhaps one of the most "Texan" of towns you will ever ride into.
For us though, Berta is the distinctive woman in the front row wearing elegant clothing matched with boots, turquoise jewelry, and beaded jean jackets. Most of all, she is the doll collector that we have come to love and know for decades.
It's hard to believe that it all started when she was five. It's really her father's fault. A generous and true to heart fourth-generation Texan, he began Berta's love affair with dolls when he graced his only child with a special tradition: "A new doll every week." At the time, in the Depression Years, she was blessed with this happy start to collecting that laid down the very foundation of her doll-filled home today.
Growing up surrounded by dolls would be just the start. As Berta began her grown-up life, marrying Jay Leon, whose aristocratic family had fled from Madrid to New York and Texas during the Spanish Civil War, she began to spend more time in Mexico City where her husband's steel business had brought the young couple. But that didn't stop Berta from dolls! It was from there, in fact, that many of her prized pieces were discovered. In the 1950s, Mexico City was a well-kept secret source of fabulous antiques from the estates of European émigrés. Amidst those, of course, were dolls.
Every week Berta would find a new doll from these estates: French bébés, German characters, early porcelains and parians, and so forth, thereby continuing on her "doll a week" tradition. Her collection grew and grew.
During that time she still kept her house in Hubbard. The dolls would be shipped there over the years and it was the place her collection developed and was displayed until now. This house in Hubbard is like no other, a stunning original Victorian home from the 19th century. Large high-ceiled rooms, winding staircases, rooms opening into other rooms so the surprises never end. And just to be sure she would have enough room for her collection, when a companion Victorian home right next door came on the market, Berta bought and restored that, too. Jay Leon was also a collector; his collection of Rolls Royce automobiles is considered one of the finest in the country. Off he and Berta would go each weekend, in whichever one she wished, down the back roads of central Texas, a sight that, truly, is classic Texan in every which way. Berta's 50th birthday gift was a 1932 Pierce-Arrow which she still cherishes.
By the 1980s Berta was well becoming established around the world as a "major" collector of dolls. Being back in Texas now on a full-time basis and having more time to interact with other doll lovers, she quickly became known and respected at auctions, clubs and conventions. This is the time that we all came to really know her.
And on her collecting went. After Jay passed away she continued, never slowing in her pursuit of new treasures to add to the cases that now filled virtually every niche in her 18-room mansion. After remarrying some years later (to her original high school sweetheart, no less, of which she often says, "I am the luckiest woman in the world, I got to marry the only two men I ever loved"), Berta brought Jim Hackney into collecting and soon he joined her across the country at doll events and was Berta's bidder online when she couldn't attend...he pressing the bid button as she urged in her Texas accent, "Go, Jim. Bid, Jim."
After Jim passed away a few years ago, Berta still kept on, now into her 80s. I would say to her in my pathetic excuse of Texas lingo, "Berta, you're tougher than a woodpecker's lips." She would often then say to me, "Well, I gotta keep going, but no more men. At my age all they want is a nurse or a purse." So, instead she bought more dolls. Still keeping pretty close to one a week.
It was last year though Berta seemed to have enough. While she still loved being surrounded by her dolls and spending time walking through her house telling stories about each one, "I found this in a small village in Mexico" or "Remember when I didn't get this doll the first time it came to auction and then years later it came back and, by golly, I was determined to get it the second time." Yet what Berta felt now was that, as important as these dolls have been to her life (and what a life, indeed), the time had come for her to see them onto a new journey.
As I sat with Berta this past summer in her living room, drinking sweet tea and chatting in the same spot we had so many times over the years, I heard her say the words I never imagined I'd hear, "It's time to sell my dolls and I want to see them go. I want to be part of their journey." A tough sentiment by a true Texan.
So it leads us here. Or, well, to Las Vegas. For two days starting March 28th until March 29th, at the grand Bellagio Hotel, Theriault's will present one of its most historic auction events, featuring this collection. Fittingly entitled, "Only Child, The Lifelong Antique Doll Collection of Berta Leon Hackney", we will spend the weekend finding the next journey forward for her fabulous collection and rewarding her for the years of care and love that she bestowed upon each and every doll.
Yes, Berta will be there with us. Will you? Join us for one more time as we all yell in unison, in tribute, just for old times' sake, "Yee Haw!! We're sending it to Hubbard!!"