Some of the most beautiful and collectible antique dolls of the mid-20th century were made out of rags, but don't let that characterization fool you, especially if the rag dolls in question were sewn and painted by the great Madame Lenci.

Founded in 1918 in Turin, Italy by Elena Scavini (her nickname was Lenci), Ars Lenci, as the firm was called, excelled in pressed-felt dolls. Some were made of hollow cardboard that was covered by the dense cloth. Others were stuffed. All were crowned by heads of human hair or mohair and featured meticulously painted, expressive faces. In particular, the dolls were known for their pouty lips and sideways-glancing eyes.

One of the many interesting attributes of antique Lenci dolls is that they were expensive for their time. Their high price, combined with the elaborate costumes that clothed the dolls and the precision workmanship underneath, drew adult doll enthusiasts to Lenci. As a result, the dolls were always handled with care, which is why so many museum-quality examples of Lenci dolls from the 1920s and ’30s can be found today.

The Art Deco period was the heyday for Lenci. Between the wars, Lenci made numerous lines. Lenci dolls in the 110 and 300 series had skeptical, almost angry expressions on their faces, as if they had been dressed up against their will and dragged to a boring musical recital. Dolls with the Lucia face had somewhat sunnier dispositions, with enormous, wide eyes. And then there were the Grunetto dolls whose pudgy cheeks and stern looks suggested they might be on the verge of a temper tantrum.

The Boudoir dolls are one of the most collectible types of Lenci dolls from this period. They were often modeled after famous celebrities, including Josephine Baker and Marlene Dietrich in 1926, Rudolph Valentino in 1927, and Louise Brooks in 1930. Marlene Dietrich was also a Lenci doll collector—she used several of them as props in her 1930 classic “The Blue Angel.”

Other prized antique Lenci dolls from the 1920s and ’30s include a line of Circus dolls, as well as characters from a Commedia dell’Arte company—from a classic diamond-costumed Harlequin to an equally iconic Pierrot.

After World War II, Lenci produced a series of regional dolls in international costumes that would look perfectly at home in the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disneyland. Animal dolls from dogs to ducks were also offered. Meanwhile, the bodies of some Lenci dolls from the 1950s and ’60s grew leaner, more contemporary in feel. In a few of these dolls, stars filled the spots that had once been reserved for realistically painted eyes. As for those pouty lips, they were elbowed aside in favor enormous, graphic, happy-face smiles.

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