NEW YORK – Combining artistry with engineering, automata are mechanical marvels. These mechanical figures move via clockwork mechanisms, allowing them to move their hands, walk, dance and even smoke but they also embody equal parts of fancy and magic, becoming a sort of animated sculpture.
“The best automata have in common a quality of fantasy or romance that touches the heart of the viewer,” said horologist and automata expert Michael Start. He and his wife, Maria, own The House of Automata in Scotland. “A Pierrot sitting on the tip of a horned moon and serenading on a lute, a theater in a woodland setting with curtain rising to reveal a host of tiny dancers twirling to a music box or a tiny bird no bigger than a thumb tip who appears from the top of golden box to flap its wings and sing a beautiful birdsong before disappearing with a snap of the lid. The best automata are not just a mimicry of life, they portray fantasy brought to life.”
Many of the best automata were made by Gustave and Henry Vichy and other makers in Paris, including Leopold Lambert, who was a foreman at Maison Vichy before launching his own business, Roullet et Descamps, and the Bontems family, known for lifelike singing birds and singing bird boxes.
Auction Team Breker in Cologne, Germany, which specializes in mechanical antiques, including automata, explained that automata date back to antiquity with mechanically articulated figures powered by air or water.
The golden age of automata, employing complex mechanisms, spanned the mid-19th century until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and was centered in Paris.
“During this heyday period, Paris was the epicenter for classic French-style automata with the major makers being Alexandre Theroud, Jean Roullet, Gustave Vichy, Leopold Lambert, Bontems, Phalibois, Roullet et Decamps and Triboulet & Renou,” says Jeremie Ryder, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection conservator, Morris Museum in Morristown, N.J. The museum received in 2003 the Guiness collection comprising 750 historic mechanical musical instruments and automata.
Rarity, subject matter and condition are among the driving forces in determining how valuable an antique automaton is but its personality ranks high also. “The pieces that bring the big prices at auction tend to be those with a distinct character or facial expression and a dramatic or surprising element – acrobats, entertainers, smokers and the surreal,” according to Auction Team Breker. A fitting example is the “Fin de Siècle” smoking moon automaton by Gustave & Henry Vichy that auctioned here in November 2015 for $123,879 or such charming pieces as a grand magician standing at a table performing tricks with objects under cups or an acrobat performing a handstand atop a ladder.
“Originality of costume and surface are also key factors, especially for European collectors, according to the auction house. “Sometimes a quite modest piece will command a high price because it is in especially fine condition or comes carefully preserved and unplayed with from the family of the original owners.”
Advanced private collectors and museums gravitate toward pieces that retain their “historic integrity,” meaning as original as possible, all things considered, Ryder says. Owing to the mechanical nature of automata, conservation must be undertaken with care to preserve a piece’s functionality.
“A lot can happen to a 18th or 19th century automaton, a delicate decorative artifact, through its lifetime: wars, scorching attics, moldy basements, fires, direct sunlight,” Ryder said. “One or two hundred years can take its toll. Original aspects such as costuming, face and hand-painted surfaces, structurally sound, complete and functioning clockwork mechanism as well as musical movement, are all key factors.”
Choice examples of automata evoke a strong sense of character or possess a striking personality. “Clockwork automata have been developed to perform all the functions of life and nature – every animal from tortoises to elephants with a preponderance of rabbits and every human function – and I do mean every – and the wonders of nature from radiating sun rays to stormy seas,” Smart said. “The ingenuity with which these actions were portrayed was impressive and tested in the marketplace.”
“These pieces carry a sort of magic, especially when they are able to function and allowed to perform, however briefly,” Ryder said. “That’s the purpose for which they were conceived and fabricated. To remain static and never perform, they are still quite beautiful, but their full story is never told.”
‘Buffet Magique’ (The Magic Cupboard), probably made by Auguste Triboulet for Maison Vichy, Paris, France, circa 1910. Video courtesy of Morris Museum, the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection.