NEW YORK – Puzzles are toys, games or brain teasers that test a person’s ingenuity. Mechanical puzzles, whether twisted, assembled, disassembled, disentangled, misleading or completely “impossible,” test not only physical skills, but personal mettle as well. They also make delightful collectibles.
Chinese, hand-painted, lidless Fitzhugh Pattern Puzzle Cadogan teapot, 5½ x 7½ x 4in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy of Greenwich Auction and LiveAuctioneers
Ring-puzzles often require long wire loops to be disentangled from networks of wires, much like disentangling a mesh of delicate gold chains. Puzzle-rings, however, are bits of wire cleverly intertwined around a central pivot. Though they may seem indivisible, they separate with a simple twist. These intriguing trinkets developed from gimmels, traditional betrothing rings typically bearing clasped hands. Their challenge, explained Mechanics Magazine in 1829, “lies in disengaging the rings from the wire; and every additional ring increases the difficulty. This puzzle is of great antiquity …”
Intricately crafted Japanese wooden puzzle boxes, famed for beautiful geometric marquetry, seem entirely sealed, with no apparent points of entry. Some open with a simple secret mechanism or two. Though owners may try every trick in the book, others open only by following complex successions of shifting, sliding, inclining, rotating, pushing, pressing and/or lifting movements in precise order.
Japanese puzzle box, 3¼ x 4¾ x 7in. Realized $175 + buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy of Fortune Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers
In addition to keeping secrets safe and documents free from prying eyes, a puzzle box is perfect for storing personal letters, tokens of affection or treasured trinkets. It’s also a charming way to give a gift in a gift.
Cadogan porcelain puzzle teapots, adaptations of traditional Chinese wine-pots, are named for Lord Cadogan (1675-1726), who introduced them to British society. Traditional and peach-form models often feature auspicious dragon, phoenix, lotus, prunus or peony motifs in classic blue-and-white or famille rose or verte palettes. Some, reflecting 18th-century expanding horizons, feature images of merchant fleets, trading posts or the stylized Fitzhugh china pattern, evoking the British East India Company. Other Cadogans, unadorned, glow with bright green, treacle, turquoise or aubergine glazes.
These teatime conversation-starters feature functional handles and pour from spouts, yet lack lids. Inversion is the key. When hot water is poured into wide holes at their bases, it flows into funnel-like, narrowing channels. When turned upright, the liquid pools at the base of these funnels. Bottoms-up!
Pottery puzzle jugs beguiled and befuddled European imbibers through the 17th and 18th centuries. These unique tavern amusements, due to unconventional construction, hindered filling, pouring or drinking without spilling a drop. Discovering their secrets was the name of the game.
Some puzzle jugs, like Cadogan teapots, were filled bottoms-up. Some channeled liquids through hollow handles and rims before reaching their spouts. Some, featuring decorative, perforated necks, could be filled, but not emptied. Others, to drink without drenching, required stopping up one or more holes while sipping from another. Moreover, hidden holes (and increasing tipsiness) could make manipulating puzzle jugs even more demanding. Rare ones that incorporate verse into their designs are particularly charming. A 17th century one, for example, reads, “Here Gentlemen come try y skill, I’le hold a wager if you will, That you don’t drink this liquor all, without you spill or lett, some fall.”
English Delftware puzzle jug with drinking verse, circa 1750, 7in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2017. Image courtesy of Alex Cooper and LiveAuctioneers
Native Americans of the Great Lakes region, believing that puffs of smoke carry thoughts and prayers to the spirit world, used ceremonial pipes during traditional tribal rituals. Those with wooden stems are often highly decorative. Some boast animal hair, dyed quillwork, beadwork, feather, brass tack or hot-file branding adornments. Some spiral from top to bottom or depict carved, low-relief figures of birds, elk, bighorn sheep, turtles, fish or buffalo. Other wooden stems, in addition to spirals and bright pigmented images, feature intricate fretwork hearts, chevrons, triangles or diamond piercings along their lengths. The puzzle is how inhaled air winds its way from pipe bowl to its smoker.
Great Lakes pipe, Ojibwa, late-1800s, black steatite bowl with elaborate lead and catlinite inlays, stem carved with twist and puzzle elements, featuring brass tacks and file branding, 27in. Realized $5,000 + buyer’s premium in 2010. Image courtesy of Skinner and LiveAuctioneers
Model ships-in-bottles, which date from the mid-18th century, are well-known “impossible” mechanical puzzles. (Spoiler: though different techniques exist, their flexible, cabled masts, spars and sails are often rigged tight to hulls while outside, then raised when inside.)
On the other hand, Harry Eng (1932-1996) encapsulated full-sized books, golf balls, tennis balls, decks of cards, padlocks, packs of cigarettes, scissors, signature rope knots and/or puzzling Rubik’s cubes into narrow-necked bottles. Some surmise that he shrank, sliced, unstitched, bent, folded, rolled or disassembled them before slipping them inside. Then, with tweezers, pencils, rubber bands, mini-vises, tiny metal tubes, extreme cleverness and endless patience, perhaps he expanded, glued, stitched, straightened, unfolded, unrolled or reassembled them into their original condition. Or not. According to the Puzzle Museum website, Eng, educational consultant, schoolteacher, magician and inventor, created impossible bottles to make people think.
Impossible Puzzle Bottle, Harry Eng, circa 1990, 10in high. Realized $550 + buyer’s premium in 2015. Image courtesy Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
Though table and floor-assembled jigsaw puzzles are perennially popular, puzzle-carpets take them to a new level. Marcello Morandini, award-winning Italian architect, sculptor and graphic designer, for example, created one featuring seven wool pieces edged with Velcro.
Seven-piece ‘Puzzle carpet’ from PRORGETTI series, wool/Velcro tape, 404 x 99 or 202 x 198 cm, marked Marcello Morandini, circa 1988, made by Melchnau AG, Switzerland, 1990. Realized €1,600 ($2,063) + buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Quittenbaum Kunstauktionen GmbH and LiveAuctioneers
“In my usual ‘black and white’ graphic language,” he explains, “I wanted to design a carpet that is not static in its format and its visual perception, but modifiable in its shapes for the infinite combinations and the different practical spatial needs of living. Life is a puzzle!”