Gina McNiff follows one simple rule when choosing the shelf on which to display each of her prized Barbie dolls: "The higher the price, the higher the shelf."
"That's so my kids can't touch them," McNiff said as she watched her 2-year-old son, Marty, rip open a toy box she had placed as a decoy near the bottom of the bookcase.
Ironically, McNiff started collecting Barbie dolls in 1995 as an investment for one of her children, daughter Traci, 3. She first purchased 100 new and vintage Barbie dolls for about $4,300.
Today, she has 279 Barbies, for which she paid $23,000. They are insured for even more.
"That's a big collection," said Marlene Mura, publisher of Barbie Bazaar, a Barbie doll collectors magazine published in Kenosha, Wis.
Not big enough for McNiff, who hopes to someday open a Barbie retail store on U.S. 19. She plans to paint it pink and black, Barbie's signature colors, and "put all kind of cool Barbie stuff in it."
"But I don't do Ken," she said. "Just Barbie."
Each Barbie must be a real beauty.
"I pick and choose which ones I like. The doll has to be pretty," said McNiff, who is primarily a box collector, meaning the dolls remain sealed in their original packaging, which maintains their value.
Her prized possession: Bob Mackie's Neptune Fantasy Goddess of the Moon, the exotic and mysterious princess of the seven seas, for which she paid $1,100 in 1995. The doll retailed for $159 in 1992.
The doll's chartreuse velvet and sequined gown resembles a mermaid tail. The emerald flame collar frames her ivory skin and stark white hair.
"She's my favorite of all of his dolls. She's absolutely beautiful in my eyes," McNiff said. "She's like an enchanting sea urchin."
The 50th Golden Anniversary Barbie is also a favorite of McNiff's. The blond, blue-eyed beauty has ruby red lips and wears a flared fire-engine-red velvet dress with 50 roses and tiny gold beads.
The doll, which was released in June, sold for $600 and is made of porcelain. McNiff said she once paid as much as $1,200 to purchase Empress Bride Barbie in her white flowing chiffon gown.
"I believe (Barbie collecting) is a very big money-maker," said McNiff, whose collection consists mainly of new dolls and a few vintage ones, including a 1965 talking PJ.
"They say never buy a pink-boxed Barbie. It'll never be worth anything," she said.
Unlike McNiff, Mura said she collects Barbie dolls for their artistic and social value. She cautioned against collecting as an investment.
"To assume that these new dolls are going to go up like these old dolls, I would take that very cautiously," she said.
Mura said Barbies made from 1959 to 1965 are worth far more than newer dolls.
Some have sold for $5,000 to $10,000, depending on their condition, she said.
Because so few are manufactured, brunettes also are more valuable.
The most coveted Barbie doll is the 1 Ponytail Barbie. The doll, which sold for $3.99 in 1959, is now worth about $7,500, Mura said.
She has hand-painted, pointy eyebrows, white irises, metal cylinders in her legs, and comes in blond and brunette.
Mura said most Barbie collectors are baby boomers like McNiff who grew up playing with the dolls, which were patterned after the daughter of an executive at Mattel Corp., the maker of Barbie.
Mura credits recent Barbie mania to Sibyl DeWein of Clarksville, Tenn., author of Collectors Encyclopedia of Barbie Dolls.
"It took a lot more than just me to get this hobby going. But before my book came out, there just wasn't anything out there," DeWein said.
She began collecting in 1960 after she purchased two Barbie dolls as Christmas gifts.
"I thought that was the weirdest little thing I'd ever laid my eyes on," DeWein said.
"It's like holding a real little person in your hands. I kept holding the doll and weird turned to wonderful."
Disgusted with what she calls money-hungry dealers, DeWein stopped collecting in 1980 and sold her Barbies.
"I have a feeling that the hobby's going to level off this year," she said.