Guernsey’s taking over NYC Park Avenue Armory

NEW YORK – Guernsey’s Auction House will host two unique auctions at New York City’s Park Avenue Armory on Sept. 24-25, 2010, including the first major sale of carousel horses and menagerie figures in the last 15 years.

For generations, no one seemed to care about carousel animals. The majority of these hand-carved figures that joyfully spun around whirling carousels for more than a century ended up being destroyed to make way for newer amusement park rides.

In 1983, that all changed when Guernsey’s conducted the very first Carousel Auction. That landmark sale of one man’s carousel collection brought a then-astonishing $1 million and the rest, as they say, is history.

Museums and preservation groups now fiercely protect cherished antique carved horses and other animals (known collectively as “menagerie” figures). The efforts of the most skilled carvers, who worked from the 1880s through the beginning of the Depression, is now widely admired … but because of the rarity of authentic, vintage carousel carvings, there hasn’t been a major Carousel Auction in 15 years. That is all changing as Guernsey’s proudly will be selling approximately 50 of these wonderful figures.

Unlike various other forms of painted antiquities, the condition of the painted surface of carved wooden carousel art can vary greatly while not affecting the value of the carving significantly. This is due in large part to the fact that it was standard practice to have the carousel figures repainted annually, always presenting a fresh appearance to the patrons of the amusement center. ?

Four stages of carousel animals

Original: Original paint used at the time of the carousel’s operation.

Park Paint: Paint can consist of many layers of paint having been applied annually. Park Paint can at times appear to be crudely applied as it was customarily considered a chore to repaint the carousels each spring and relegated to young helpers.

Stripped: Many collectors choose to carefully remove all the paint from a carving. When layer after layer of Park Paint is applied, subtle details and intricate carving can be lost. By completely stripping off the paint, the beautiful carving and many trappings, laminations of the wood and fine delineation of muscles and sinew can be appreciated.

Restored: An exacting process involving careful removal of as many as 30 layers of paint before original colors are discovered, recorded and duplicated. Restoration includes gluing, doweling, and recarving worn and missing parts; filling and sanding; replacement of glass eyes and jewels; and finally painting, often embellishing with pin striping and gold leaf trim. ?

Glossary of Terms Commonly Used in Describing Carousel Art

Stander – Stationary horse with at least three hoofs on platform

Jumper – Horse that goes up and down with no hoofs touching the platform

Prancer – Stationary horse with rear hoofs on platform, front legs raised

Outside Row – Row of animals closest to viewers; the most elaborately decorated figures

Lead Horse – The most outstanding horse on the carousel – lavishly embellished

Menagerie Animal – Any animal other than a horse; rare compared to horses

Rounding Board – Long decorated boards on upper outer facade of carousel

Shields – Decorative carved, mirrored, or painted plaques covering place where rounding boards meet

Scenery/Carved Panel – Boards decorated by carvings, paintings, or mirrors covering the centerpole housing. ?

Guernsey’s history with the carousel animal

The year was 1983. As a young New York City-based auction house, Guernsey’s initial focus was primarily on folk art. It was at that time that we were approached by a gentleman who was in desperate need to raise funds. He offered us his collection of 96 carousel figures. And the rest was history.

Prior to that moment, there had never been a carousel auction. For decades carousel figures had been suffering a terrible fate as many fine old machines were intentionally destroyed to make way for newer, more challenging amusement park rides. Although the owner’s expectations were modest by modern standards (he was hoping to get $50,000 to $60,000 for the collection), that was by no means a sure thing. But we had great enthusiasm for the project and embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign, which has since become a Guernsey’s trademark. Working closely with experts including Charlotte Dinger (who had used the auction to launch her landmark book), the auction attracted great attention. It was previewed on the Today Show, which proved to be the first of many such appearances we have made over the years. And in the end, the collection sold for what was then an astounding $1 million.

Following that initial event, Guernsey’s went on to produce approximately 25 carousel auctions over the next decade. Collectively, the results of those auctions far exceeded all carousel auctions produced by other firms put together. ?

Photos courtesy Gurnsey’s


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