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Buying Used Kokeshi

USED KOKESHI BUYING GUIDE (Condition issues)
      Copyright Kyoto Traditions (May not be copied or duplicated in whole or in part without prior written permission).


Things you might find "wrong" with previously owned or older kokeshi include:

  • Cracks
  • Wood knots
  • Wood darkening & Age spots
  • Dents, Scratches, Dings
  • Finish problems
  • Color fading
  • Water spots
  • Insects/Bugs
  • Soiling/Dirt
  • Missing pieces
  • Manufacturing flaws


  • CRACKS.....
    Cracks can vary from hairline to gaping and can occur for several reasons. It is the nature of wood to crack from the center of the wood out. Some artists will not use the center as the center of the doll because of this but some do. Cracks can occur naturally, because the wood didn't properly dry out, improper display (in the sun or near a heat source) or stored where temperatures are extreme (basements, attics, etc.). They most probably won't get worse unless subjected to any of the above conditions or if dropped from a distance. Simply falling over should not do further harm.

    Gaping cracks can be woodfilled. I have often seen dolls that have been woodfilled by the artist. They seem to not have issues with them or they wouldn't use it.


  • WOOD KNOTS.....
    Wood knots are natural imperfections of wood. Some woods used for kokeshi have more than others. Wood knots can start rising out of place causing an uneven surface and more often, they will start cracking up and may fall apart.


  • WOOD DARKENING & AGE SPOTS.....
    By nature, wood darkens with age/time. This process is called wood oxidation. Generally, the darker the doll, the older it is. There are several stages of darkening starting with a honey color and ending very dark, almost black. Sometimes it can darken unevenly which is called "blotching" but I think eventually it evens out.

    Age spots are tiny to large dark spots on the wood. I don't exactly know the natural pattern but I've seen dolls darken from the top of the head down and bottom of the head up. Sometimes I've seen rings of age around the head. Upon close inspection, you can often see these areas are made up of smaller spots that seem to spread. The body seems to darken from the neck down more often than not.


  • DENTS, SCRATCHES & DINGS.....
    Almost all previously owned kokeshi will have consumer made flaws - dents, scratches and dings. Because of the general shape and form of kokeshi (top heavy), they CAN and DO topple over a lot. Most often they fall and will hit something, often repeatedly. This can cause dents (indentations in the wood), scratches (surface scrapes) and dings (pot marks). Because they are usually lined up for display side by side, they tend to fall forward or backward causing damage on the front or back. Even hitting a flat surface hard enough will cause a large "flat" dent.

    Dents, scratches and dings can range from minor (barely visible) to very large. Most of the very large dents are on very large dolls as the bigger they are, the harder they fall.


  • FINISH PROBLEMS.....
    Traditionals or creatives can have a finish issue.

    With traditionals, it's the wax that will appear whitish. This can happen on brand new or older dolls. Rubbing hard with a soft cloth can sometimes remove the problem.

    With creatives, it can be old varnish. The varnish will dry out, craze (tiny cracks) and either give a whitish appearance or can actually start chipping off taking some of the paint with it. A good wood oil or wax to re-hydrate the doll can do wonders. Test first. I use a product called Howard Feed-N-Wax Wood Preserver that I originally found in an antique store supply catalog. I thought if it was good enough for antique wood furniture it should be fine for kokeshi. I have since discussed this product with my kokeshi artist friends and they say it contains some similar ingredients to what they use and should be fine. It can be purchased at many hardware stores, even on Amazon.

    Paint chipping can often be seen on the little souvenir kokeshi and sometimes creative dolls. It depends on what type of paint was used, how thick it was applied and how old it is. These dolls tend to have thick paint in areas with much design and many colors. The thicker the paint, the more likely it dry out and crack. For example if you look at the classic nodders, the base coat is painted all over, then a vest or haori (jacket) might be painted on top, then large a design on that and then flowers. By the time the flowers are painted, there may be 4 or more coats of paint. Over time, this can dry out, crack and chip. This is why you often see the areas with the best designs with the worst chipping. Another common problem seen in the creatives from the 50's and 60's is a particular medium blue color that chips a lot. Perhaps there is something in the paints composition that causes it.

    Another problem with old paint is that it can dry out and revert back to powder form. It can smear and rub off easily in this form. There are art products that can be sprayed but it is always recommended to test first.


  • COLOR FADING.....
    Color fading is an issue with traditional dolls and some modern creative. This is because of the paints used. Any color with blues will always fade first - blue, purples, greens. Keeping out of direct or bright sunlight will help.

    The blush around the eyes of the Nakanosawa doll will also be the first thing to fade on that particular doll.


  • WATER SPOTS.....
    This is solely a consumer made problem. Damage to traditional dolls will be most severe but can affect varnished dolls or dolls without any finish. It will immediately blur and lighten whatever spot it hits on the traditional doll and sometimes make it bleed or run. On a varnished doll, it will make the spot lighter and sometimes "water logged" looking (think of an old wood fence).


  • INSECTS/BUGS.....
    Kokeshi can be damaged by insects. In fact, there is a whole book in Japanese about this subject. The two problems I have seen are holes and "trenches".

    The holes are probably made by a powder post beetle type insect. They can hollow out a doll. When you shake the doll and "sawdust" like material comes out of the holes, you know there were unwanted visitors. I have never seen a live one nor has any of the dolls I have had gotten worse (no additional "sawdust" once cleaned. I think by the time the dolls get to market, they are long gone.

    "Trenches" or grooves are made by insects eating the wood in a trail on the surface of the wood. Of course, they are also gone before the doll hits the market.

    A kokeshi sometimes has applied cloth and this cloth may have holes made by carpet beetles.


  • SOILING/DIRT.....
    Dolls can also have scuff marks, spots, general soiling and nicotine (tar) from smokers.

    It is important not to let dust settle too long atop the dolls as it can permanently stain the doll.

    Scuff marks and spots can sometimes be removed by a soft pencil eraser. Don't use anything stronger as that would be more like using sand paper. Once in a while you might find a doll with a layer of nicotine atop the head. It is dark, thick and sticky feeling. I have successfully used the Feed-n-Wax to remove most of it with a lot of elbow grease. Sometimes you can scrape it off with a finger nail.


  • MISSING PIECES.....
    Sometimes modern creative and souvenir creatives (more often) are made with additional pieces of wood attached representing things like a kanzashi (hair pin), hair bun, bows, arms & legs, etc. Many of these were made in the 50's and 60's and over time, the glue dries out and pieces fall off. You may not even know something is missing unless you are familiar with the particular style of doll, see a piece of peg sticking out or a notice drilled hole. It's a personal decision on whether the missing piece(s) are important. Often, it really doesn't matter that much.

    The rattling and shaking these dolls receive during transit can also loosen pieces. All you need is a dot of glue. Better not to remove old glue as it can remove paint or expose the original natural wood color. You can often tell the exact position of the piece by feel. Because of the old glue or paint, it will fit in one exact spot like a piece of a puzzle.


  • MANUFACTURING FLAWS.....
    Since kokeshi are made by hand, rare is the doll that's going to be perfect or two exactly the same.

    Some maker errors could include: use of flawed wood, none perfect head or body shapes, slightly unlevel bottoms, excessive glue, paint and/or varnish drips, missed spots of paint or finish, etc. Perfection was not the goal.


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    The truth of the matter is, almost all previously owned kokeshi are going to have some problem or other. You have to decide how much of an issue it will be for you. In reality, most of the problems cannot be seen unless you are within a close range to them and if the light happens to hit it just so. Most collectors have so many dolls that you may only see the bodies of the ones in the front row. The faces then become the most important feature to check for flaws and it is probably the first thing you look at in making a purchase anyway. I can almost guarantee that you will not think about, notice or even care about the flaws after a short period of time.

    Many like the "warmer" look of a older doll. It adds to the beauty, charm, character and history of the doll. Some of the "bleaching" that is being done today looks a bit "sterile" in comparison, but it's all personal taste.

    I try to be the eyes and hands of my customers as purchasing online is a lot different than purchasing in person. I try to point out all the flaws I see, often using a magnifying glass to assist and try to include pictures of major flaws. Because of this, it often makes the doll seem in worse condition than it really is. I'm at the point now, though, where I will mention the problems but only point out where they are if they are large or in a significant area because I don't feel the smaller problems are of much concern. Some things pointed out may never have been noticed by the buyer had it not been mentioned. Customers have commented that they know exactly what they are getting from me and they are never disappointed by unseen difficulties.

    Keep in mind that the more accepting you are of condition problems, the more the field will open up to you. There are hundreds of deceased makers where "new" dolls cannot be purchased but their works can be found in the used kokeshi market. There are also many unusual, rare or historic dolls that will not be found new. Don't limit yourself!!!


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