Story by Barbara Trainin Blank
Photos by David Stuck
Steven and Susan Saidman were in New York in 2003, sitting in the waiting room of Kleinfelds, hoping to turn the owner of the prestigious wedding boutique into a client.
Back home in Silver Spring, the Saidmans were the owners of Imperial Gown Restoration Company. As they waited, the Saidmans noticed a handful of bridal dolls kept in curios. Susan saw how attractive the dolls made the dresses look, and she told Steven that if they wanted to promote their business, they should buy a few dolls, too.
Steven, 72, says, “like a lot of husbands,” he misheard his wife. Susan meant a few dolls. He thought she wanted him to start collecting them.
Which is what he did. Eventually there were 120 dolls in curios.
In the beginning, Steven, who with Susan is a member of Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, had no idea how to purchase a doll. Dolls had always been something girls played with — first his two sisters and later his two daughters.
He tried his luck at eBay, with which he was unfamiliar at the time. What caught his eye first was “a particularly magnificent Princess Diana Doll designed by Ashton Drake,” he says.“I thought, ‘Who in the world would pay $150 for a doll.’” So he passed on it. Rookie mistake.
By the time he finally changed his mind, a more savvy collector had snapped it up.
“I eventually bought a Princess Diana for $250 and was happy with my purchase,” he says.
And he kept buying.
“All our dolls have been high-quality collectibles, not toys,” he says.
“They’re beautiful dolls dressed in vintage and cultural designs that we have joyously displayed in our business locations over the years.”
Many of the dolls are one-of-a-kinds. Others are full or partial special editions, by Ashton Drake, Franklin Mint, Robert Tonner, Bob Mackie and Madame Alexander. There are designer dresses by Mackie and by Monique and Vera Wang.
There are Korean and Japanese bride dolls, many made of porcelain. “Several were hand-signed by the artist/designer,” Steven says. “We have figurines that represent the jumping the broom ceremony Black slaves underwent when they were forbidden to marry.”
The parent company of Imperial began with Saidman’s father and grandfather, an immigrant from Ukraine, in 1947 as a single dry cleaning and tailoring facility. It expanded to a chain of 12 locations, which evolved under Steven and Susan, 69, to a bridal gown and costume restoration and preservation specialty business.
Then came the dolls. Some are replicas of well-known brides. They include Elizabeth Taylor, wearing her wedding gown from the movie “Father of the Bride”; Jackie and Jack Kennedy, Princess Grace and Princess Diana. There are also five decades of Barbie brides, and creations going back to the 18th century.
Eventually Susan, who came up with the idea in the first place, had to encourage Steven to stop collecting.
The Saidmans say they “sort of retired” in 2018. And with no desire to cover every chair, couch and counter in their Silver Spring home with dolls, they stored the collection in climate-controlled conditions.
But they know that the dolls deserve better. So the Saidmans have decided to sell.
“We want these objects-d’art to be acquired by one or more connoisseurs who will appreciate the beauty and value of these collectibles,” Steven says.
Until then, the Saidmans will remain all dolled up.