Through the Eyes of a Leo Moss Collector: Bev’s Story
|An 11-inch doll by Leo Moss|
By Beverly W. Flowers
I have focused my doll collection on vintage and antique black dolls by developing a strategic plan that required daily hunting for these rare and valuable dolls. I never imagined I would be asked to guest blog on Black Doll Collecting by Debbie Behan Garrett as a collector with a Leo Moss doll. The offer should not have surprised me. Debbie has supported and encouraged me throughout the years. She has promoted black doll collectors and artists in her books, articles, websites, the We Love Black Dolls Anew Facebook group, and through her Black Doll Collecting and Ebony-Essence of Dolls in Black blogs. We owe so much to her dedication and I thank God that Debbie never gave up her daily sharing of doll information.
My Doll Collecting Journey
I started collecting dolls over 30 years ago to honor Maggie Pearl, my mother. Mom supplemented my Christmas gifts by making clothes for my Barbies. I did not appreciate her labor of love until she died from breast cancer at 42-years young. Reality sunk in when I realized the only things I owned were doll clothes and a $150 car.
I began collecting black Barbies because I thought they were lovely and shared Mom’s classic beauty. Eventually, my three jobs could not feed my lay-a-way habit. So, I started an entrepreneurial business in 1988 called Exquisite Showcases. I had magnificent glass display cases with exotic woods, which I varnished, and then were hand-assembled by an artist. I planned to sell them at doll shows even though I had never been to a doll show. I just thought everyone needed display cases for antique dolls but not one case sold. I believed a beautiful black antique doll would highlight my special display cases. However, the shows only had white dolls and dealers assured me that I could neither afford nor find an antique black doll.
Eventually, I repeated this to my future husband, Bill, that doll dealers said I would never see or own a good black doll. He found it offensive that I would allow anyone to create a ridiculous barrier to my dreams. Bill’s life theory still is based on the philosophy that everything is possible if you are prepared and have the will.
In 1997, Bill handed me a piece of paper with strange words, “eBay.com.” He suggested selling my Barbie dolls and investing in dolls that stood the test of time and had the potential to gain even more value. He could not wrap his head around mass-produced collectibles as a stable investment. Bill reassured me that selling dolls would allow me to buy antique dolls that would hold their value and could be displayed in my cases. His idea ignored two significant facts. I did not have a computer, and I was not going to sell my barbies. My brother Mike, who had accompanied me in those painful sell-less display case days, happily gave me his computer. Bill sealed the deal with a promise that when we married, every dollar I made selling anything would go to buying old dolls. The money would never be used to solve household financial stresses. Thus, selling Barbies would allow me to transform my modern collection into a unique ensemble of vintage dolls that represented my mother’s spirit and the life of people of color. I was sold on selling.
Leo Moss Dolls
|Leo Moss portrait doll|
I forget what year, but eventually, the Mr. Leo Moss doll was offered on eBay. However, I was not sure about bidding five thousand dollars on him. I would have to strip my collection down to the bones to come up with the money. Also, my doll notes were scattered, and I had no idea which magazine had pictures of him. I could dig up the money with a massive doll sell-off but not the confidence. I had a tremendous buyer’s remorse when the doll sold.
I vowed that I would never again freeze because of a lack of knowledge. I would become an expert in all the dolls I wanted to collect seriously. I cut and pasted every article and advertisement with Leo Moss dolls in all the available sources into a computer log. I also went through all the doll magazines from the late 1970s to track Leo Moss dolls as they moved from auctions to collectors and back again.
I noticed that auction houses frequently used the tag “attributed” to Leo Moss dolls, leaving doubt about authenticity. I wondered how experts in identifying artist reproduction of Bru dolls could not confirm a Moss considering that Betty Formaz and Rubin Quintano were the primary artists working in Leo Moss’s style, and their work was distinguishable from real Mosses.
I believe the root of the confusion on the authenticity of Leo Moss dolls can be found by examining articles written about the dolls. Steva Roark Allgood wrote an article entitled “To Leo with Love” in the Fall 1987 Doll News magazine. Steva found that Moss created dolls for children and not as art. The bodies were awkward and poorly proportioned. More importantly, Steva concluded most Moss dolls are unmarked. Myla Perkins adds to dealer uncertainty by noting in her book, Black Dolls: An Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991, that Formaz had bought heads without bodies (see plate 29 in Myla's book).
Therefore, I can reason that unmarked heads and inappropriate bodies or “new” bodies on old heads resulted in uncertainty about the authenticity of Moss dolls. Dealers hate uncertainty and were already suspicious about all these recently discovered Moss dolls entering the market from a single source, Betty Formaz. Dealers may have chattered that Betty, being a doll artist, made the Leo Moss dolls. Again, Betty’s dolls and Rubin’s dolls are distinguishable from Leo Moss dolls from an artistic point of view and the material used. She sold the dolls almost immediately after purchasing them, and I do not know of any existing Moss molds.
Dealers that never handled a real Leo Moss may have inadvertently bought Betty Formaz and Rubin Quintano dolls and passed them into the market as authentic Leo Moss dolls. Thus, the major factor that contributed to the use of the term “attributed” may have been the sellers' need to skirt any liability to buyers. The few experts on the dolls cautioned auction houses that they were selling reproduction dolls. Even Myla, who may have owned the most extensive collection of Leo Moss dolls, warned about Moss reproductions in her first book Black Dolls. However, Myla in her second book writes on page 33, “see page 417, plate 1654 for an excellent example of a new Moss look-alike.” Here she points the reader to an artist doll by Rubin Quintano done in the Moss style and not a deliberate fake by a con artist.
|Prior to becoming part of Debbie Garrett's doll collection, Cecily by Rubin Quintano ca. 1992, a 22-inch Moss-style doll, was featured on page 417 in Myla Perkins' second Black Dolls book.|
My strategy was to find unmarked and unappreciated Moss dolls being sold because of the confusion caused by the uncertainty of handmade artist dolls. The dolls are dark; thus, it is difficult to see the differences between artist dolls and real Moss dolls in low-quality pictures. I have tried to take an accurate count, but I may have double-counted some dolls because of a change in clothing or the angle of the new photo. Myla said there are 50 known Moss dolls.
I decided to hunt for even more Moss dolls that may be in auctions, flea markets, or antique shops. But first, I would have to be an expert in Leo Moss dolls without owning one.
I had to find someone willing to show me a real Moss doll. I would have to ask dealers again, but by this time I knew my way around a doll room. A few years later, I stumbled upon someone who owned Leo Moss dolls and was willing to share knowledge. I was introduced to the word “handle.” She allowed me to feel the weight, see the coloring, hair patterns, marking, breastplates, and bodies of these rare dolls. She allowed me to do the same with the dolls created in the Leo Moss style. I was taught how to differentiate between a real Leo Moss and a replica style. I was one of the few people in the world that had handled one, and it was intoxicating.
Two Opportunities of a Lifetime
|Held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, the "I See Me: Reflections in Black Dolls Exhibition ran from September 20, 2016, through June 25, 2017.|
I believe it was June of 2017 when I stumbled on a Facebook page advertising an upcoming exhibit of the largest collection of Leo Moss dolls. What an opportunity! I could compare variations of eyes, skin smoothness, colorings, and hair patterns. I could tell by the pictures that the dolls were from Myla's books. We had a week to fly to Detroit to the "I see me: Reflections in Black Dolls" exhibit sponsored by the Motor City Doll Club at the Charles Wright Museum.
An emotional tidal wave rolled over me in the exhibit room as I spread out years of notes and pages from Myla’s books and Debbie’s articles. Everything about that exhibit blew my mind. I absorbed every feature like a sponge, but until then, I did not know that Myla owned them. I had counted her dolls in my total, but I had been waiting years for some of Myla’s dolls to appear in circulation.
My day begins by brushing my teeth and checking my doll searches for Moss dolls, and a few others. In March of 2019, I opened my eBay searches to see an auction for a “Vintage Leo Moss Doll Buy it now $200.” The seller was paid before I read the full description. I then read the full description over and over again while waiting for a word from the seller.
When the doll did arrive, the seller included a handwritten note:
“Thank you for your purchase. I enclosed a newspaper clipping on the doll. I was lucky as a child to see this exhibit in Detroit. I believe in the 70’s? I bought this from a woman in Royal Oak, Michigan who repaired dolls then. Glad to hear that the doll is going to a new place. I’m slowly selling my collection. I have no children to pass the collection on to.”
Her Name is Maggie Pearl
|Named after Beverly's mother, Maggie Pearl is an unmarked 1800s doll by Leo Moss.|
Maggie Pearl is an unmarked 1800’s head with glass eyes. She is 11 inches tall with molded hair and painted lips. She has a replaced body. Her neck socket is professionally stuffed to hold the head.
Authenticating Maggie Pearl required finding a small Leo Moss doll that was made during the same period in Leo Moss’s artist life. I needed to find a doll with the same bumpy complexion, dimples, and youthful look. Myla Perkin’s first book showed a similar doll, see Black Dolls, book one, plate 25:
“Tiny baby, 10” tall. This is the smallest of the Leo Moss dolls to have been purchased from the Moss family. It has a papier-mache head and bent leg jointed baby body. Head has inset tiny glass eyes, molded hair. Doll was made in the late 1800s and is unmarked.”
However, Maggie Pearl was not a baby. I needed to find a toddler or adult.
|"Tiny Black Paper Mache Boy by Leo Moss" in a photograph courtesy of Frasher's Doll Auctions is the doll Beverly used to authenticate Maggie Pearl as a Leo Moss doll.|
I found a doll from Frasher’s Doll Auctions, Lot 158, that was presented as a young boy. The catalog description read:
“TINY BLACK PAPER MACHE BOY BY LEO MOSS. Marks: None. 8 1/2”. Black paper mache head and body, tightly curled sculpted hair, boyish-like fashion, prominent brown inset glass eyes, closed mouth, impressed dimples, jointed shoulders, and hips, wears original cotton overalls. Commentary: Very unusual example of early work by Leo Moss. One of the smallest sizes known to exist. Very good condition.”
|The back of Maggie Pearl's head, neck, and upper back are illustrated in this photo|
I confidently concluded that Maggie is an early 1800’s head because Steva noted in the previously referenced Doll News article that the “later dolls have a very smooth finish that resembles porcelain.” Maggie’s face is not smooth. I also know her body was professionally replaced by examining the neck socket. The seller said she had the doll for years and bought her from a doll doctor in Detroit. Hopefully, a reader knows the complete story behind Maggie Pearl and can fill in the missing pieces of Maggie’s Journey to me.
|Maggie Pearl is seen in a close-up that illustrates the details of her sculpted face and hair.|
Now, Maggie Pearl is displayed in the very same mahogany framed glass case that experts told me would never hold an antique black doll. She is the result of a plan to see and learn as much as possible about the works of her artist. See the pictures and be amazed at a never published (until now) Leo Moss doll. Please, no flash photography (I always wanted to say that).
|Maggie Pearl is posed with the 40th Anniversary Barbie to illustrate the doll's diminutive height when compared with other Leo Moss dolls.|
Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide 1820-1991 by Myla Perkins
Black Dolls an Identification and Value Guide: Book II by Myla Perkins
Frasher’s Doll Auction (Tiny Black Paper Mache Boy)
“To Leo with Love,” Doll News, Fall 1987 by Steva Roark Allgood
Thank you so much, Beverly, for sharing the doll-collecting journey that led to acquiring the perfect Leo Moss doll for an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime price! I am sure the readers of this blog enjoyed your story as much as I have enjoyed it.
This post can also be read on my Black Doll Collecting blog.
For more information about Beverly and to follow her blogs on Black Memorabilia, Black Art, and Black Dolls, visit her website, Antique Black Dolls and Things.