The legendary English antiques dealer, Jack Donovan, used to refer to his collection of musical boxes and automata as ‘princely toys’, perhaps because mechanical toys have held a well-documented fascination for the royal families of Europe and Asia for at least three centuries. When Tsar Nicholas wanted to present Princesses Olga and Elizabeth of Greece with a gift, he chose an automaton by the Parisian firm Roullet et Decamps, and in turn Gaston Decamps was inspired by sculptor Rodin’s drawings of the royal dancers of Cambodia on a state visit to France in 1906.
Auction Team Breker’s Spring sale on May 28, 2011 includes an example of a royal automaton in the form of a musical sewing necessaire with complement of gilt-metal tools and a mechanical seascape fitted into the lid. According to a period inscription on the underside, this luxurious toy was presented to the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) by her friends.
Equally aristocratic is a Roullet et Decamps “Smoking Marquis” automaton still wearing his superb original cream satin costume. Whereas the smoker has a bisque head with standard bébé features, Decamps’ competitor, Leopold Lambert, commissioned a series of unique bisque character faces from dollmaker Jumeau for use on special automata.
In the “Bébé au Polichinelle”, a Jumeau doll laments the loss of a favourite toy while dabbing away glass ‘tears’ from her crying eyes.
A happy child is the subject of another automaton by Lambert, the “Girl with Toys”, who rolls her eyes and kicks with delight as she sees her toy donkey come to life of its own accord.
Musicians will also be making an appearance: an early Jean Roullet Banjo Player serenades his audience to a two-air cylinder musical movement, while an imposing black soldier in French uniform beats a rhythm on a drum, looks from side to side and blinks his leather eyelids.
The sale includes two beautiful examples of Lambert automata in regional dress, both produced in the years leading up to the second world war when the Art Doll movement in France was rediscovering an interest in traditional costume . The first, “Bébé Russe”, depicts a tea-server in emerald green skirt and headdress decorated with cut-glass jewels, the second a gypsy flower seller whose surprising tray reveals a tiny bisque dancer hiding beneath a pyramid of roses.
Also remarkable for its original costume and ingenious action is a lady with parasol by Renou.
As well as automata, the auction features a delightful selection of clockwork tin toys by Fernand Martin, such as the “Mysterious Ball” which was inspired by a real-life act (La Sphere Mysterieuse) performed by Leon LaRoche on a 30-foot spiral track at the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Other less dangerous forms of travel include a sporty two-seater runabout “De Dion Bouton” and a deluxe hand-lacquered open top touring car by Gebrüder Bing.
The production of Ernst Paul Lehmann is represented by “Am Pol (EPL 681)” , “The Naughty Boy” and other humorous toys, mostly in good original condition. A scarce chinese tea drinker by English manufacturer William C. Britain and a large two-player boxing game , whose articulated boxers have built-in pressure points on their bodies, are two of the more unusual early toys in the auction.
For live steam enthusiasts there is a fully-equipped miniature machinist’s workshop with toy furnace, drilling and grinding machines, cutting presses, saws and even an elevator operated by crank or steam engine.
Still more exceptional is a fine Stationary Steam Traction Engine No. 4159 / 94, one of the largest and most expensive toys in the Märklin catalogue. A child’s stove No. 9606 N / 6 by the same firm, with working spirit-burners and nickel-plated utensils, would have made an interesting addition to the nursery, while a rare working fire pumper by Rock & Graner might have come in useful if playful cooking activities ever got out of hand.?
However, the star of the show is an exhibition-quality demonstration model of a steam plant built around 1910, with parts by Wilhelm Bischoff in Dresden (shown left). Standing over 25 inches tall, the working machine has a coal-fired vertical boiler, high and low pressure cylinders, feed pump, steam separator and working governor – a worthy exhibit in even the finest model collection.
Participation in person, by absentee, phone and internet bidding are all welcome at the sale, which also includes early vintage Disney toys, vintage technology, mechanical music and much, much more. A fully illustrated bilingual (English-German) catalogue is available near the end of April for $55. Learn more at Auction Team Breker or by calling +49/2236/38 43 40 or Auction@Breker.com.
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