The lasting allure of 19th century music boxes

The earliest music boxes were originally 18th century gentlemen’s pocket watches that chimed the hours, or decorative snuff containers featuring tiny, automated bells. Initially their tinkling tones were produced by revolving discs, which featured sets of pins that struck tuned metal “combs.” From 1800 through 1905, revolving, permanent cylinders, which offered a small selection pre-picked tunes, replaced the discs. Interchangeable cylinders, which allowed people to build their own personal musical repertoires, soon followed. As more and more musical cylinders became available on the market, these mechanical musical instruments, most powered by precision Swiss clockworks, evolved into larger, more-resonant tabletop and furniture-sized models.

Listen to a tune from Polyphon music box from 1891.

Many crafted between 1890 and 1915 featured interchangeable discs. During these pre-phonograph years, home models charmed fans across Europe and America with live musical performances of polkas, waltzes, hymns and popular orchestral excerpts. Outsized coin-operated cabinet models, which usually offered a variety of tunes, charmed Swiss travelers in train stations and other public venues as well. Built to withstand rough treatment, many, despite their few numbers, have survived into the 21st century. They are avidly sought by collectors with space to spare.

Vintage music boxes are often a delight to behold. Many feature handcrafted marbling, swirling internal designs, decals, mother-of-pearl or rare wood inlay, decorative bedplates, or bronze or ivory handles. Many are crafted from fine woods like burled elm, walnut, rosewood, macassar ebony, zapatero boxwood, or curly sycamore maple.

They may take many forms, round, oval, rectangular, serpentine, square, octagonal, triangular, or heart-shaped. Many also feature compartments for jewelry, pens, rings, or storage areas for additional cylinders, sometimes guarded under lock and key. For many collectors, however, reveals Raphael Cole, the proprietor of Musical Treasures of Miami, the richness and beauty of a music box case is secondary to the resonance and quality of its music. Thus large, many-toned wooden boxes, which may also feature multiple bells and combs or drums and rven castanets, are most desirable.

“Large overture boxes,” Cole said, “which were mainly produced between1850 and 1870, are most collectible.” He cites Nicole Freres’ creations, which were created in true Swiss tradition and custom made in limited editions for wealthy clients.“ Today’s collectors,” he adds, “ can purchase the very finest music boxes from $40,000 to more than $100,000. And naturally, if serial numbers and creators are known, their value increases.”

Listen to a tune from Nicole Freres “Grand Format” overture music box from 1865, valued at $75,000.

His Nicole Freres “Grand Format” Overture Music Box, which was created in 1865, for example, is available for $75,000. Along with ornate mother-of-pearl inlay, brass moldings, and an engraved tune sheet, this flawless antique features a ‘fat’ cylinder, which allows an extended, complex medley off our overtures, Semiramide, Freischutz, Magic Flute and William Tell.

Cole’s unusual fine satinwood Palais Royale Musical Sewing Kit, which was created in 1820, evidently offered British international voyagers the pleasure of sewing to musical accompaniment. Beneath its interior, which is fitted with a movable tray containing original implements, lies a key-wound sectional-comb music box. Interested parties can acquire this “fabulous musical treasure of heirloom quality” for $2,799.

Charles Reuge antique music boxes, crafted in Switzerland and created in limited editions, are highly collectible. So are fine Palliard music boxes, which were created from 1860 through 1910. Germany, as did Switzerland, emerged as a mechanical music box center in the 1890s, hosting companies such as Kalliope, Symphonium, and Polyphon.

Following great European success, several retail outlets were established in the United States in the late 1800s. Regina, Polyphon’s American company, declares in the 1895 Sears and Roebuck Catalog hte machines are “so novel in action, so wonderful in perfect and accurate mechanism and so exquisite in its music producing qualities … that they are an instrument for the wealthiest homes and just as popular and desirable for those who are less able to invest in luxuries.” Reginas, which were manufactured through 1921, were then worth between $9 and $80. Today an especially fine model may command more than $25,000.

Because of the expense involved, dealer James Wilkins, of Music Boxes and Phonographs, advises anyone considering the purchase of an antique music box to first study their history, their various periods, manufacturers, and identifying marks. Then study the market.

“Generally,” he explains, “the larger and more elaborate the box, whether cylinder or disc, the greater its value. Its case, fancy carved or art for example, the number of teeth in its comb, and its overall condition are all determining factors as well.”

“The sounds that a music box produces,” adds Wilkins, “are equally important. No matter what music box may be considered, it must be heard before it is bought. To buy a music box of any size prior to hearing it is like playing roulette with one’s money. The chief purpose of any music box is the enjoyment of the music it produces. How someone can buy one “blindly” by not hearing it first and then pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for it truly amazes me.” If needed, he adds, antique music boxes can undergo professional restoration to restore their musical mechanisms.

His antique fat cylinder Nicole Freres music box, for example, which was created in the late 1840s, measures nearly two feet long. This fine machine, which is in excellent mechanical condition, features, in addition to its original handwritten tune card, 12 beloved arias from Haydn, Handel, and Mendelssohn oratorios.

Although it is a question of personal taste, many collectors prefer earlier, handcrafted cylinder-type music boxes to disc models, which were often factory-made. Naturally they all want “all the box” they can get—the largest size, with the finest sounding comb, the most melodies, and the most elaborate case — for the price they can afford.

Although an antique box may prove a sound investment for the future, collectors are often passionate in the here and now — delighting in historic, live musical command performances.

Melody Amsel-Arieli
is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Antique Trader. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov.” She lives in Israel.

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