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PRIVATE LIVES

Small Is Big : Confessions of an Ex-Miniature Maniac Lost Among the Dollhouse People in Anaheim

August 28, 1988|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman is a writer who lives in Venice.

"MARGO! WHAT ARE you doing here?" exclaims George Schlosser, a painter from Connecticut whose Lilliputian versions of museum masterpieces hang in some of the finest dollhouses in the country. I begin to sweat. Once I was so hopelessly in love with George's miniatures that I was willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a few square centimeters of fine art, but that's all over now. At least I hope it is, because I am here at the Masters of the Miniature Arts Show and Sale at the Quality Hotel in Anaheim as a reporter, not as a collector.

"I haven't seen you since the show in D.C.," George says.

That was five years ago, I recall, slightly embarrassed by the memory. I spent $100 (that I had sensibly put aside to pay for dental work) on an elfin reproduction of Winslow Homer's "Croquet Scene." Of course, it is comforting to note that while the value of my teeth has not appreciated, a similar minuscule painting is now selling for $250. Miniatures are a lot bigger than they used to be. Sure, the standard scale is still an inch to the foot, but according to Bob Bell, a member of the board of directors of the Miniature Industry Assn. of America, there are now between 2 million and 3 million dollhouse and miniature collectors in the country who spend between $80 million and $100 million a year on their hobby. He asks, "Does that surprise you?"

Me? Who once invested $350 in a limited-edition mini-Steinway concert grand made by a missionary in Kenya? All that surprises me is that collectors don't spend more. There are dollhouse boutiques everywhere. There are glossy dollhouse magazines such as Nutshell News, which is crammed with ads for any little thing (including the kitchen sink) that you might possibly need for your dream dollhouse. There are even travel agents selling deluxe packaged tours to historic European dollhouses.

And "the shows are going gang-busters," adds Tom Bishop, who produced this event. Bishop stages 14 shows a year in major cities across America. He expects that this show, which features the handiwork of more than 300 artisan craftsmen, will gross around $75,000.

"The bigger shows do $100,000," he says. "I've seen people spend $15,000 at a single dealer."

Phil Nelson, a carpenter from Oroville, is waiting for just such a person. He is trying to sell a $15,000 "board-by-board exact copy of the Morey Mansion in Redlands that took two years to build."

"You sure you don't want it?" he asks.

"No thank you." I recently sold an ornate Victorian dollhouse and have no desire to acquire another. I have enough trouble finding space for the two dollhouses I still own: a turn-of-the-century Tudor mansion and a New York City tenement complete with fire escape, wee prostitutes and bums.

But Elizabeth Garrow, a dealer from San Diego, has nine dollhouses, "everything from modern to a hacienda to Victorian." Garrow has been collecting since she was 5 and "fell in love with a miniature porcelain bathroom set, which I thought was the most exquisite thing that I had ever seen. From then on, miniatures were a part of my life," she says.

"Miniatures are like family," says Phyllis Cohen of Miami. She points to a display case crammed with midget brand-name products. It looks like a pixie supermarket. There are itty-bitty boxes of Raisin Chex, Tide, Rinso, Ritz crackers. There are itty-bitty spray bottles of Windex and Formula 409. "You have to get the copyrights from the companies," she tells me. "But who would object?"

Not these collectors, dressed in T-shirts that proclaim "Dollhouse Lovers Do It in a Little Way," "Think Small" and "Miniature Maniac."

The room reverberates with oohs and ahs as aficionados discover treasures: wee track lights (five lights for $61) that throw microspots when you hook them to a 12-volt transformer; a matchbox-sized puppet theater with a pencil-point Punch and a staple-sized Judy; an infinitesimal hummingbird feeder ($7.95), and shrimp-sized anatomically correct sleeping infants.

"Aren't they darling?" coos Connie Hart, a Denver dealer. She explains that an artist named Lynn Fuller made these "teeny-weeny babies" out of Fimo clay and that I can adopt one for $30.

I am not ready to have a tiny clay child. Undaunted, she shows me a $40 white bronze breastplate the size of a half dollar with two cocktail-toothpick-sized swords through it and a battle-ax suitable for swinging by a 6-inch Saxon for $22.50, done by Fresno artist David Sciaca. "He also does a suit of armor, for $275," she assures me. "You could put it in your antique shop." I am ashamed to admit that I sold my desk-top antique shop a few years ago to pay my full-scale rent. In fact, I stopped collecting when I realized that my dolls were living better than I was. They were sleeping in a $250 hand-carved sleigh bed, and I was sleeping on a $30 secondhand futon.

But Jayne Merchant sees it another way. She works as a bill collector, "so this is a nice break from it," she says. "When you're trying to collect money from people who are terminally ill, or the relatives of someone who has passed away, it's nice to come home and play dolls." George makes one last pitch as I leave the show. "You have quite a few of my things," he says. "But you don't have this." He shows me a $400 copy of Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom," which is painted on antique linen "rather than the usual canvas board."

"Don't tempt me," I beg. My mind works rapidly. If I buy one more painting, I can construct a dwarf art gallery complete with a smugly superior pink-haired pico-receptionist filing her nano-nails. But where can I buy microscopic quichettes and bitsy bottles of bad wine to serve at the opening?

"I think I better go now," I tell George.

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