Looking for something a little different to gift a family member or friend this holiday season? Nesting dolls may be what you’re looking for.
Often referred to as matryoshka dolls or Russian nesting dolls, the idea for the toy sprang from the mind of Russian artist Sergey Malyutin. Whether he was influenced by ancient Chinese nesting boxes, hollow Japanese Daruma dolls, or the famous 1885 Fabergé “Hen” Egg, Malyutin created the design from which Vasily Zvyozdochkin, a wood-turning craftsman, fashioned the first set of dolls in 1890. It consisted of eight figures – a mother in traditional garb holding a black rooster, five daughters, a son, and a baby.
Though similar sets, consisting of from three to a dozen pieces, were made primarily for the children’s market, they were considered somewhat expensive. Adults, however, were also attracted to the pieces, which soon acquired the matryoshka (“little matron”) appellation. After the toy won the bronze medal at the 1900 Paris Exposition, its popularity rapidly grew, and manufacturing centers sprang up in a number of Russian towns and cities to produce what was becoming a major tourists’ souvenir and export – as it remains to this day.
Subject matter has also greatly expanded to include themes that will appeal to just about anyone. There are Santa and nutcracker dolls for Christmas. There are numerous floral and fauna dolls for nature lovers. There are movie stars, athletes, astronauts, and musicians. There are even politicians and robots. And on the off chance that you can’t find what you want, there are companies and artisans who provide custom designs.
Nesting dolls are also popular among diehard collectors, some of whom have dozens, if not hundreds, of sets in their collections, and some of whom are willing to pay thousands of dollars for especially rare specimens.
And rarity is but one factor that affects value. Age, the number of dolls in the set (the more the better), the quality of the imagery, the country of origin, the presence (or absence) of a signature, chips, cracks, and missing paint should all be taken into account when considering whether to make a purchase.
A missing doll will also negatively impact value, so a buyer will want to make certain that the individual pieces are uniformly stepped, and that the largest doll has the beveled bottom edge on its base that most possess.
Of course, it’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to begin collecting nesting dolls: many new sets are quite reasonable (under $30); relatively few online auctions end over $300; and there are the innumerable yard, rummage, and estate sales at which valuable “finds” are constantly being discovered. So, if you’re interested in learning more about this collectible, check out the resources listed below, and
The Art of the Russian Matryoshka, by Rett Ertl and Rick Hibberd
Collectors Guide to Nesting Dolls: Histories, Identification, Values, by Michele Lyons Lefkovitz
A History of Matryoshka Dolls (Owlcation.com) – Concise; nicely written.
How Nesting Dolls Are Made (YouTube) – Full video version.
Nesting Dolls (TheRussianStore.com) – Articles by Arina Anashkina cover history, repair, valuation, more.
What Are Russian Dolls, And Why Are They So Amazing? (Insidenestingdolls.com) – Introductory site by collector Viktor Pavlov.