Published: July 5, 2022
Review by Z.G. Burnett, Photos Courtesy of Fontaine’s Auction Gallery
PITTSFIELD, MASS. – On June 25, Fontaine’s conducted The Collector’s Auction, which featured mostly Nineteenth to early Twentieth Century advertising objects, music boxes and a combination of the two categories in the form of musical automatons with brand sponsorships. Toys, musical instruments, banks, carved birds, slot machines and Black Forest carvings were also among the offerings. The sale totaled $426,000 with a buy-through rate of 91 percent.
The highest price was achieved by possibly the most antique lot in the sale, an Eighteenth Century carved and painted wood tobacconist figure that sold for $20,000. An unusual form, the countertop sculpture was a full-bodied and black-painted Indian wearing a feather headdress and skirt. Holding spear, the figure stood on natural form ground. Some of the paint has been touched up in the skirt, but the rest is original. The figure came from a New York collection of cigar store Indians.
Another later cigar store Indian was included in the top sales, a late Nineteenth Century figure attributed to Samuel Robb (1851-1928) that came from the same collection as its predecessor. This example also wore a feather headdress but was fully clothed down to his beaded moccasins, and carried tobacco pouches as well as a long, antler-handled knife. Robb began his career as a shipbuilder’s apprentice and then worked for a wood carver, making these figures for tobacco shops. He later opened his own carving shop, which eventually grew to be the largest in New York City at that time, producing a variety of carved and painted goods for commercial use and performing arts purposes. This cigar store Indian sold for $15,000.
Carousel animals were a prominent category in the sale, with the second highest lot occupied by a carved and painted horse from D.C. Muller & Bros (active 1903-14, 1917). Daniel C. Muller (1872-1951) and his brother Alfred built 12 carousels during the lifespan of this company, and this carousel horse was designed to stand on the outside row. The escutcheon on its harness is signed “DEM” and has been dated circa 1910. Similar examples are held in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. The horse trotted home for $20,000.
Another carousel veteran was a carved and painted “hop-toad” frog that leapt away with $10,625. The amphibian friend was created by the Armitage Herschell Company circa 1910, which later became the Allan Herschell Company (active 1915-1970). Many surviving carousels from the company are still operational today, including a 1916 example at the Herschell Carrousel Factory Museum in North Tonawanda, N.Y., at the company’s original factory site. Another “hop-toad” is in the collection of the Henry Ford Museum, which cites the form as being the only American carousel animal wearing human clothing.
Along with music boxes there were quite a few mechanical gaming machines in the sale, including a 5-cent slot machine created by the Caille Bros Manufacturing Company (active 1893-1932). At one time the Caille Bros was the most successful producer of coin-operated machines in the United States and was the largest employer in Detroit, Mich., in 1904. This slot machine is called “The Cupid” due to the image on its lithograph-printed gaming wheel. It was produced around 1895 and is one of about 258 known machines of its kind. It cashed in for $16,250.
The top musical instrument of the sale was a Twentieth Century cello with a mysterious past. Fontaine’s catalog cites the cello’s handwritten and signed label reading “Leandro Bisiach della Scuola Cremonese fece in Milano 1890 Piazza del Duomo” as a forgery, which was determined by specialists. Violins from this maker sell in the tens of thousands of dollars, one example was played by Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Fontaine’s sold an authentic Bisiach cello in 2018 for $68,750. Despite its inauthenticity, the cello still sold for $13,750.
About a century before entire musical libraries could be downloaded with an app, music boxes were created to crank out a tune for the right price in a variety of sizes. The top group lot consisted of 20 American wall coin boxes, which would activate when a coin was inserted. Companies such as Wurlitzer, J.P. Seeburg and Mills Novelty Co were represented in the lot, and the lot more than tripled its high estimate at $11,250.
A grander representative of the music box category was right behind this lot, a “Criterion” example by F.G. Otto & Sons. Operated by a hand crank, this music box contained 29 musical discs within its mahogany case. Despite some losses, it was assessed as being in near mint condition and was fully functional, selling for $10,000.
Prices quoted with buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. Fontaine’s Estates & Interiors online sale will be conducted July 22. For information, www.fontainesauction.com or 413-448-8922.
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