These Vintage Figurines Are Worth Tons Of Cash Now – But Their Origins Are Surprisingly Dark

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For certain generations, there’s a ton of nostalgia associated with Hummel figurines. After all, the intricate, beautifully sculpted porcelain dolls took off in the U.S. right after World War Two, and they’ve found a home among collectors in the decades since. But while that means their value has soared, the delicate figures started out in a decidedly darker place. This is one origin story you wouldn’t find in a comic book.

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If you’ve never heard of the vintage Hummel figurines, they’re essentially works of porcelain art. Each carefully sculpted and masterfully painted piece portrays one or more kids – often engaged in a commonplace action. For example, one Hummel figure depicts kids dancing, while another illustrates children and a dog posing for a photograph.

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Every Hummel figurine is also incredibly detailed, which often makes it easy to identify where they originated from. In fact, if you spend time looking through a catalog of the adorable characters, you’ll quickly realize that they’re based on German children – mostly due to the distinctive Bavarian outfits many of them wear. And this particular style can be traced back to the original inspiration behind the treasured figurines.

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As you can probably imagine, then, creating a Hummel figurine is an arduous and time-consuming task. Initially, a sculptor spends weeks producing a prototype model from clay. They must then work alongside a mold-maker to ensure the figurine will stand up to the rigorous manufacturing process.

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To better facilitate mass production, the figurines are manufactured using molds. Liquid ceramic is deposited in each mold and then hardens into the required shape. Occasionally, a figure requires multiple molded pieces. And in those cases, liquid ceramic is also employed as an adhesive to bind the individual parts.

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Following assembly, any unneeded liquid is drained away, allowing the figurine to appear seamless. It’s then heated in a kiln three times over, in order to make it as smooth as possible. Finally, every figure is painstakingly hand-painted using a wide range of custom colors, based on a template created by the master painter.

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Hummel figurines are manufactured today by German tycoon Bernd Förtsch, who bought the production rights from Hummel Manufaktur in 2017. Around 20,000 of the adorable characters are now created every year, with a couple of caveats. First, each figurine must measure at least 4 inches in size. And second, its minimum value must be approximately $115.

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If that sounds like a high price-tag for a small porcelain doll, it’s pocket change compared to the current value of some Hummel figurines. Indeed, the immense collectors’ market for the characters means that the more sought-after examples can sell for eye-watering amounts of money. Multiple price guides have even been written, in an attempt to help owners determine just how much their treasured possessions are worth.

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It’s no secret, in fact, that Hummel figurines can command a costly fee even at retail. One price guide, compiled and updated by antique merchant Korin Iverson, lists the suggested retail price for each figure, along with its fair market value. Some of the most expensive examples include “Adventure Bound,” which retails for $4,900, and “Forever Friends,” which goes for $2,750.

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Depending on the model, though, the aftermarket value of a Hummel figurine can be even higher than its retail price. The aforementioned “Adventure Bound” is among the most scarce – and therefore costliest – pieces around. In fact, ones made prior to 1959 fetch up to $9,000, according to estate sale experts MaxSold.

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Another particularly valuable Hummel figurine is “Picture Perfect.” The rare statuette depicts a trio of kids being photographed with their pet pooch. It retailed for an impressive $3,495 and remains sought-after thanks to its limited production run. In total, there are only 2,500 such models in existence.

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Some of the rarest and most expensive Hummel figurines are the “Apple Tree Boy” and “Apple Tree Girl.” The matching set was produced and sold in a few different sizes, and it’s the largest of them that commands the biggest fees. Carl F. Lucky, an authority on Hummel items, estimated that the enormous “142/X” models could be worth upwards of $26,000.

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As with any collectors’ market, there are a few factors that can influence the price of a Hummel figurine. First and foremost, the condition of the piece will affect the final value. If it’s in mint condition, you can of course expect to sell it for a higher price – and better still if you also possess the original box. Broken or damaged figurines, however, will naturally plummet in value.

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In addition, while collectors generally prefer older Hummels, some models – such as “Adventure Bound” and “Ring Around the Rosie” – are universally sought-after. On the other hand, newer figurines tend to be a less valuable commodity.

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You see, many Hummels were actually reproduced over a number of years. And where those figurines are concerned, the older examples tend to fetch the highest prices. Moreover, fortunately there’s an easy way to identify the age of a Hummel, because each one is printed with a distinctive stamp.

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If you’re unsure of the age of your figurine, then you can simply turn it upside down to locate its maker’s stamp. Many Hummel price guides reference the maker’s mark chart, which lists the time period each stamp was employed in. The original stamp, for instance, was present from 1935 through to 1949, while the current mark has been in use since the turn of the millennium.

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Using these stamps, sellers can identify the correct age – and therefore value – of their figurines. For example, a mint condition “Autumn Time” Hummel sold on eBay in February 2020 for $1,075. According to the seller, the statuette had a date stamp of “TMK8,” which corresponds to the most recent maker’s mark.

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In January 2020, meanwhile, a mint Hummel nativity set with a “TMK3” maker’s mark sold for nearly $1,500 on eBay. The date stamp corresponds with figurines produced between 1957 and 1963, making the 16-piece collection a particularly vintage example. A month later, a nativity scene with more signs of wear and tear – and no identified date stamp – still sold for $850.

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When the market for Hummel figurines first exploded in the 1970s, a collectors’ organization was established to help fans keep up to date with new releases. While initially U.S.-centric, the group turned international in the late-1980s, when it rebranded as the M.I. Hummel Club. And it continues to operate, with members receiving club benefits including regular publications and exclusive figures.

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Moreover, not every Hummel collector acquires the figurines to display in their own home. Donald Stephens, who served as the mayor of Rosemont, Illinois, for more than half a century, gave his own set to the village in the mid-1980s. And in 2011 the Donald E. Stephens Museum of Hummels opened its doors to showcase what’s apparently the planet’s biggest set of the iconic items.

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While these figurines look very sweet, though, their origins are decidedly darker. The story begins in the early 20th century, with the birth of Berta Hummel in Bavaria, Germany. The young Hummel had a talent for painting and drawing, and she soon became known locally for these gifts.

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Hummel’s mom and dad nurtured the youngster’s blossoming skills and permitted her to enroll in Munich’s prestigious Academy of Applied Arts. At the time, a girl attending art college was still seen as out of the ordinary, but Hummel’s teachers spotted much potential in her talents. She would go on to produce hundreds of pieces of art in Munich, many of which have survived to the present day.

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An ardent Catholic, Hummel had elected to stay in a religious residence while studying art. During that time, she became a good pal of a pair of Franciscan Sisters of Siessen, whose congregation greatly valued the importance to learning of art. And by 1931 Hummel had applied to enter their order, having now completed her studies.

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So in August 1931 Hummel formally entered the congregation as a novice and received her new religious name: Maria Innocentia. She would go on to use her artistic skills in a variety of ways for the convent, including teaching at a nearby school, drawing sacred pictures and designing textiles and altar pieces. However, none of these tasks gave her much chance to improve her own abilities.

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In order to nurture her artistic skills, then, Hummel devoted her free time to creating images of kids. These works subsequently caught the attention of her fellow Sisters, who coaxed Hummel to post them to a German company that focused on religious artworks. Before long, her paintings began appearing on postcards, and in 1934 her work was even compiled into a book.

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Later that year, porcelain manufacturer Franz Goebel stumbled upon Hummel’s work in a Munich store. He’d been searching for art to base his products on, and Hummel’s images fitted the bill perfectly. While the artist was initially hesitant to sell the rights to her works, she ultimately did so to save the jobs of Goebel’s employees.

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Goebel subsequently kicked his production line into gear, and the initial batch of Hummel figurines was ready in time for the 1935 Leipzig Trade Fair. At first, business was good for Goebel. The figurines proved popular the world over, in fact, and almost 50 different models went on sale before the year was out. But it wasn’t to last. War loomed, and the Nazis eventually shut down the manufacture of all Hummel figurines.

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In addition to halting Goebel’s production line, the Nazis also quickly took issue with Hummel’s original artwork. Nazi magazine SA Man’s authors wrote in a 1937 issue, “There is no place in the ranks of German artists for the likes of her. No, the ‘beloved Fatherland’ cannot remain calm when Germany’s youth are portrayed as brainless sissies.” However, the party permitted Hummel to carry on painting, albeit with a blanket ban on any sales of her art within the country.

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Moreover, the situation was about to become much worse for Hummel and her fellow Sisters. In 1940 the Nazis closed down all religious schools in Germany and seized the congregation’s convent, forcing its inhabitants out. Just 40 of the 250 Sisters were permitted to stay, but they did so without any source of heating. Although Hummel briefly went back home in this period, she soon reappeared at the convent – despite the terrible living conditions she had to endure.

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Furthermore, the Nazis also laid claim to 50 percent of the income brought in by Hummel’s art. The remainder acted as the Sisters’ sole source of income, which left them with relatively little to secure food and even less hope of battling the severe cold. These events badly affected Hummel and would eventually come to define the rest of her life.

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It was during this time, though, that Hummel created some of the most memorable works of her career: her interpretations of The Way of the Cross. These depict Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, with each of the 14 images in the series portraying a different event that happened on that day. The spring 2017 issue of the Hummel collectors’ club magazine described the work as “a great achievement, revealing in its emotion and intensity” and “the artist’s magnum opus.”

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In 1944 Hummel contracted tuberculosis, and her health consequently nosedived. As a result, she undertook a couple of stays in a sanitarium in Southern Germany before coming back to the convent almost half a year later. And she did so just before French troops took the region, which finally freed the Sisters from Nazi control.

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Tragically, however, Hummel failed to recuperate from the disease. She passed away on November 6, 1946, some two years after her initial diagnosis, at just 37 years of age. It’s a heartbreaking story – and one that paints a darker side to her now-iconic figurines, which the artist only reluctantly agreed to have produced in the first place.

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Nevertheless, it’s through those very same figurines that Hummel’s legacy now lives on. With the war over, Goebel recommenced production of the statuettes just months after Hummel passed away. And it didn’t take long for them to regain their initial popularity, with demand for the porcelain items quickly skyrocketing – thanks in part to foreign interests.

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You see, the figurines were beginning to find favor with U.S. troops based in West Germany. The soldiers would frequently purchase Hummels pieces and then send them to friends and family in America as keepsakes. Goebel quickly capitalized on this development and began selling the figurines through army-base exchange stores – sparking another increase in demand.

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With the figurines now hot-ticket items, Goebel strove to ensure Hummel’s legacy wouldn’t be tarnished. He teamed up with a series of gifted artists and remained in contact with a group of Sisters from Hummel’s convent. All this was done to maintain the levels of quality that the artist would have expected from Goebel.

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Over the next few decades, Hummel figurines’ popularity never really waned. In fact, as travel between Europe and the U.S. became more common, the statuettes found a home in the souvenir market – largely thanks to their links to folklore. And by the 1970s collectors had latched on to the figurines as a valuable commodity, sending their prices into the stratosphere.

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The Goebel company continued to produce Hummel figurines for many years. However, it eventually ceased manufacturing them in 2008, leaving Manufaktur Rödental GmbH to take up the mantle. When that company went bankrupt in 2013, the rights to Hummel figurines changed hands yet again – but once more, the new manufacturers soon went out of business.

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Currently, production of Hummel figurines is managed by Bernd Förtsch, who stepped in following the previous manufacturer’s bankruptcy in 2017. Förtsch has since concentrated on direct trading of the statuettes, along with emphasizing the culture that’s built up over the years around the collectibles. And he’s also scaled back production, lowering the number of items made every year by some 35,000.

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While ownership of Hummel figurines has changed hands over the past few years, though, the process has remained consistent. Indeed, they’re still created at the same site as they were way back in 1935, and members of the convent continue to be involved in their production. Hummel’s personal story may have ended in tragedy, then, but her legacy continues to be felt by everyone who’s ever owned one of her incredible creations.

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