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Figurines With Fingers

For One Collector, Life Is a Big Show of Hands


Give this lady a hand--provided the body part in question is a figurine that happens to be holding something. Dorothy Sims, 71, has 154 of these objects crammed into an 8-foot-tall lawyer's bookcase in her Whittier home. "When people come into the house, it kind of gets to them," she says.

You might call a disembodied ceramic hand cradling a lady's slipper a tchotchke. But to Sims, it's a metaphor. "To me an empty hand is not useful. My hands are usually holding something," she says. "I used to work in wood until arthritis set in. I've quilted around 300 baby quilts. My mother started her kids out embroidering tea towels."

There's a small ashtray that features a bubble gum holder, a blue glass hand holding a dish with a turtle floating in it; a pair of hands holding a vase. There's a 98-cent piece featuring God's hands holding a cherub. There is a pair of hands holding a clock; a baseball glove; and a metal hand holding up a winning hand of cards. And many, many more. A good number of the pieces, often made in Japan, are stylized ladies' hands featuring slim fingers with gold or pink nails and wrists encircled with ruffles, ribbons or flowers.

Collecting wasn't part of Sims' early life in Lubbock, Texas. Nor did she begin when her husband, Onie, began collecting barbed wire in 1970 ("Fixations," Jan. 27, 2002). She got the bug while going through her deceased mother-in-law's effects in 1989. "I found little ceramic shoes in an empty powder box. Soon I had baby shoes, baby booties, a man's shoe, a ballerina shoe and many others." From shoes she turned to kerosene lamps and small ceramic vases. There was a brief flirtation with matchbook holders. But Sims wanted something no one else had. Then she saw a pair of (empty) ceramic hands at the home of a friend and had the thought of collecting hands that were holding objects.

Her first find was a ceramic hand holding a coin purse. "It cost around 10 dollars, and it's my favorite," she says. "The wrist has a ruffle with gold trim. The fingernails are painted pale pink." Sims is a regular at swap meets, where $20 is about the most she has paid. "I can go for months and never see hands at all, and then recently I went out and five dealers had hands, but I [already] had every one of them." She and her husband number the pieces, photograph them and index them in a book.

The topic of dusting inevitably arises when guests visit the Sims home. "Let's not talk about that," she says. "It takes about 2 1/2 hours because I have to pull off the earthquake putty."

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