Tom Tierney swears he has never seen George Bush in his underwear.

Kindly turn to Plate 1 of the artist's latest entry in his motley stable of paper doll all-stars -- the nation's 41st president and family in "full color" and minutely researched wardrobe. Except for the undies, that is. Even though Tierney's paper brainchildren spring full grown onto the page only after he studies their true-life garb down to the fabric swatch, when it came to Bush's skivvies, the ever-vigilant artist was forced to, well, guess.

Plate 1, you see, is the actual doll, which always comes nearly in the buff, except for Tierney's two-dimensional Pope John Paul II, who gets special dispensation from appearing in public in his drawers.

"The publisher said, 'You have to be dignified,' " says the uber paper doll artist of our time.

Don't snicker. Designer Bob Mackie called him someone who "probably knows more about glamour than anybody," Tierney says. Garbo once asked for his autograph. And the humble paper doll has made Tierney a millionaire.

"They're just beautifully drawn," says paper doll expert Emma Terry, who writes, edits, copies and ships the bimonthly Paper Doll News, circulation 225, from tiny Vivian, La. "I would say he's about the best."

Tierney, a 62-year-old New Yorker, is considered a paper doll celebrity to those in the know, a tiny but growing, offbeat and impassioned assortment of grown-ups who meet, swap dolls that may run into the thousands of dollars, research their history endlessly, study chatty newsletters, send each other paper dolls instead of greeting cards and convene once a year to dress up as fantasy characters.

And, yes, they play with dolls too. "I play all day long," says John Darcy Noble, a Vista, Calif., resident and "toy curator emeritus" of the Museum of the City of New York. "I have always played and I have never stopped playing since I was a child. ... The most highly evolved animals are always playing -- monkeys, whales play all the time.

"Only stupid humanity has stopped playing. The whole stupid world has gone crackers."

Noble is an aristocrat to Southern California's knot of enthusiasts, one of the country's larger groups of collectors, about 50 of whom meet regularly. (Serious collectors are a select group -- there are only an estimated 1,000 nationwide.)

They are women of a certain age who remember playing with Mary Pickford paper dolls. They are historians, of course. They are artists and art dealers, like Barb Rausch, a comics illustrator whose style is detectable to aficionados, even though her official Barbie paper dolls are unsigned. There is Evelyn Gathings, who resurrects the 19th-century fashion of putting monkeys and insects into costume. There is Noble himself, who draws on his own sometimes fantastic experiences to create such dolls as his bride, now under construction, who trips down the aisle with a cat snoozing on her train.

But the hard-core paper doll fan sets his sights quite a bit further than the nearest gift or museum shop, where some of the fancier paper dolls can be found. In fact, Noble's own collecting preference stretches back a couple of centuries.

"It's the earlier and earlier things that excite me," he says. "I'm not terribly into the late Victorian things. I get excited about 1860, and 1820, I'm jumping with joy. Eighteenth century, I'm like a humming top."

His choicest pieces include tiny toy theaters modeled after productions of actual English melodramas popular in the 1820s, European paper dolls with moving parts, and "tinsel pictures" -- paper dolls of knights in armor that young boys would collect and decorate with bright bits, to be hung in English parlors. There is a paper Noah's ark and tiny boxed landscapes that you peep at through a pinhole -- an 18th-century castle with stags and hounds, a party at Versailles and a hermit in his cell.

The highlight of his collection is a bitty French kitchen from the 1850s. "It is in an alcove with curtains. The paper stove opens on a hinge and there are paper saucepans. There's a paper dresser with paper cups and saucers and the drawer opens and there are paper knives and forks. The paper cook, he has a paper hat you can take off and you can put a ladle in his hand. It's enchanting," he says.

But paper doll collecting isn't just charm, nostalgia and fairy dust. It's big bucks these days. "Like the real dolls, it's getting so it is quite an important collecting area," Noble says. "It's not like collecting milk bottle caps. When you pay $2,000 for a handful of paper, the handful of paper is something precious and important."

"If I sold all my paper dolls, I could move into a smaller house, my closets are so full," says Williams, a college art history lecturer.

The trophies of this world, the ones that bring up to five figures at auction, are the earliest paper dolls from France and Germany that date back to the mid-18th century, dolls that paraded the latest fashions for adult aristocrats, or came with moving parts to amuse the French court in puppet shows. For decades, paper dolls did the job of fashion magazines and advertisements, championing such products as flour, stove polish and mercerized thread. And women studied them, in front and side views, for fashion tips for make-your-own wear.

The last people whom paper dolls were intended for were children.

But by the time the Depression rolled around, paper dolls had become America's favorite dime store toy -- and an inspiration for generations of designers. "One thing I found out from designers was that every one of them started with paper dolls as a kid," Tierney saysi during a telephone interview. "Here are people making millions of dollars, and paper dolls got them started. ... A lot of designers learned how to design through paper dolls."

The favorites were paper dolls of the stars, Shirley Temple and the like. But by the '50s, the economical Shirleys had succumbed to an even more compelling force: Barbie.

"Barbie is indestructible," Tierney says. "No matter what they do to her, she survives. When Barbie came out, here was a plastic doll that was affordable. People switched. Betsy McCall was a paper doll in McCall's, but finally Barbie killed off Betsy."

Still, even the humble paper doll is seeing its day of resurrection. Western Publishing Co., a Racine, Wis., company that bills itself as the largest commercial paper doll manufacturer, declines to disclose sales figures but says the children's market for paper dolls seems to be growing.

And as far as the zealous adult market goes, you can thank Tom Tierney for putting paper dolls back on the shelves. Tierney, considered one of the most successful paper doll artists ever, is credited with triggering a comeback for paper dolls. More than 1 million copies of his 58 books are sold each year at $3.95 a pop, often in pairs -- one to keep and one to cut.

Tierney, a former fashion illustrator, began a dozen years ago with paper dolls of such movie stars as Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe and moved on to such unlikely playmates as Gertrude Stein, Golda Meir, Christian Science Church founder Mary Baker Eddy and the pope, whose paper wardrobe includes a historically correct ski outfit.

Tierney is particularly keen on researching wardrobe, to produce what he calls "biographical paper dolls." Tierney's pope wears a wristwatch and leather shoes instead of the traditional velvet slippers. When Tierney produced his book of the presidential Kennedys, he consulted Oleg Cassini's assistants on color and fabric, because most photos of John and Jackie were black-and-white. His insistence on accuracy has earned him mixed reviews, particularly in the case of his paper Egyptian women.

"Cleopatra is bare-bosomed, as is Nefertiti. We got a lot of fan mail from people who say, 'You have guts,' and the others say, 'Why would you do a paper doll for children with bare bosoms?' I write back and say, 'I'm sorry I offended you, but they're historically accurate.' "

So no cracks about Tierney's virtually svelte Barbara Bush doll. "I think a lot of people were surprised that I drew her as she is, but she's really not that big and fat. She's big-boned, as we say."

Such details are important to paper doll folk, who figure that, in another century or two, posterity will look to these objects of their affection for clues to the images of early astronauts and mythical monsters, to presidents and popes.

Says Noble: "If you built a house in 1930, it's probably fallen down or you sold it. If you built furniture, it's tattered. But the paper things survive. They somehow follow you around the world.

"I have things that were made in Yorkshire in 1810, and they're still here and they're still intact, although houses and towns fall down in decay. This is the great magic of paper. It's immortal."