A creator of showcases both small and large

Carolyn R. Netter Sunstein, 87, a dollhouse collector who founded and produced the Philadelphia Miniature Show for more than 20 years, died of an infection last Sunday at Shannondell, a retirement community in Audubon, Montgomery County.

Mrs. Sunstein's husband, Charles G., died in March. The couple had been married for 67 years and were still holding hands every night after dinner, said their daughter Florence Begun, who added: "I think she died of a broken heart."

In 1945, Mrs. Sunstein bought a miniature brass chandelier and acquired a passion. By the 1970s, she and her husband had assembled 17 dollhouses and 55 display cases filled with miniatures fashioned from silver, ivory, china, and crystal. They downsized when they moved from Elkins Park to Villanova in 1987, but dollhouses and miniatures still filled the basement and shelves throughout the house, Begun said.

The most valuable item was known as the Spanish Mansion, which Mrs. Sunstein bought in 1983 for $20,000, believed at the time to be the highest price ever paid for a dollhouse. Made in the late 19th century, the 41/2-foot-tall mansion featured a facade with 12 French doors that opened up to reveal three stories of elaborately furnished rooms, including a nursery, gentleman's study, lady's sitting room, and private chapel - a status symbol for wealthy Spanish families.

In 2005, the Sunsteins consigned their collection to Noel Barrett Antiques & Auctions of New Hope. The Spanish Mansion sold for $175,000.

Mrs. Sunstein was a dealer as well as a collector, and in 1975 she initiated the Philadelphia Miniature Show at a conference center in Willow Grove. The annual event featured 90 dealers of sophisticated playthings; children younger than 12 were not admitted. She sold the rights to the show in the late 1990s.

When an Inquirer reporter asked her in 1980 what was so fascinating about dollhouses, Mrs. Sunstein explained that they allowed owners to enjoy different styles without owning life-size houses. The requirements for a great dollhouse, she said in another interview, would apply to a fine, life-size home.

"It should have a beautiful facade, a graceful staircase, well-articulated architectural details, and fireplaces with mantels," she said.

Noel Barrett, an auctioneer and appraiser for Antiques Roadshow on PBS, told an online site, Live Auctioneers, in 2005 that Mrs. Sunstein's collection was "rare and beautifully preserved. It has what's known in the trade as the 'ah!' factor"

Mrs. Sunstein grew up in North Philadelphia, graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls, and attended Temple University on a scholarship.

When the Army sent her husband, whom she had married in 1941, to California during World War II, she drove an ambulance. When he was shipped overseas, she returned to Philadelphia and earned a bachelor's degree from Temple.

Mrs. Sunstein was past president of the Women's Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, the Strawberry Mansion Day Care Center, and the Samuel Paley Learning Center in Philadelphia, and she served on the boards of the National Committee for the Day Care of Children and the National Adoption Center.

A breast-cancer survivor, she also served on the board of the Albert Einstein Medical Center. In 1972 she chaired Einstein's Harvest Ball and created its advertising book.

She and her husband, an investment adviser, spent weekends antiquing - he collected watches and tin toys - and shopped on trips abroad. They enjoyed taking cruises, boating on the Chesapeake, and entertaining.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Sunstein is survived by a son, Chip; another daughter, Lynn Fox; a brother; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

A graveside service was private.

Memorial donations may be made to Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia 19103.

 


Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.