Based on the more than 400 people who gathered in the ballroom of the Inn at Reading September 30 and October 1, it seemed nearly everyone who was anyone in the doll business turned out to bid in Noel Barrett and Andy Ourant’s auction of antiques from the Mary Merritt Doll & Toy Museum. Another 600 bidders participated online through eBay Live Auctions, but only five percent of the gross was generated from the Internet, a statistic Barrett said was “extraordinary, since usually around 30 percent goes to eBay buyers. Collectors wanted to see these famous toys and dolls one last time. It was one of the largest auction crowds we’ve had in years. They drove in from as far away as California and Washington, and a number of bidders came from abroad.”
After nine months of preparation, carefully clearing the showcases and cataloging the prestigious collection, the Barrett team dispersed 1,073 lots in two days of frenetic bidding, realizing a gross of nearly $2.5 million. The total exceeded the aggregate presale high estimate by $1 million, Noel Barrett confirmed.
Merritt family members in the audience looked on as ecstatic buyers claimed their prizes from the legendary collection amassed by the late Mary and Bob Merritt Sr, founders of the Douglassville, Penn., museum that closed December 31, 2005. But this was more than just an auction; the event was also an acknowledgement of the respect collectors had for the Merritts, who, in their quest to build a world-class collection, made more than 150 trips to Europe.
The first lot to reach the high five figures was a remarkable Nineteenth Century English-made butcher shop. Comprising a pair of two-story Georgian buildings adorned with a British crest, flags and other ornamentation, the scale-model shop with center arcade was stocked with close to 200 miniature accessories, including butcher’s tools and individual carved and painted cuts of “meat.” Estimated at $20/25,000, it was avidly pursued by agents from two museums, one in California and the other in North Carolina. The Southern institution won out, paying $73,700. The shop’s energetic performance on the auction block set a precedent for the estimate-smashing prices that would follow.
“From the second lot into the sale, I knew this would be a memorable event and that it would be a long couple of days,” said Ourant, who commandeered the podium from start to finish. “On most of the lots I didn’t see two or three hands; there would be ten hands bidding. This was a totally captivated audience. It was so different from other auctions where I spent lot of time with the absentee and book bids. It was all happening on the floor.”
A euphoric Atlanta collector wiped tears of happiness from her eyes after lodging the winning $225,500 bid for the sale’s top lot: a mind-boggling mid-Nineteenth Century Scottish dollhouse considered the finest example in the entire museum. The exquisitely furnished architectural masterpiece, known as “Hope Villa,” measured 55 inches wide by 37 inches tall by 27 inches deep, and had been entered in the sale with a $50/75,000 estimate.
An Eighteenth Century English cabinet dollhouse with forward-opening glass-paneled double doors was the oldest house in the museum. Outfitted with many early furnishings — including carved back Chippendale chairs, a primitive Welsh dresser and two canopy beds — the dollhouse garnered $36,300, more than triple its high estimate.
Wall to wall with inventory and ready for business, a mid-Nineteenth Century milliner’s shop from the Netherlands featured shelves amply filled with bolts of fabric and cardboard boxes containing gloves, hand knit stockings, small hats and cards of ribbon and lace. Estimated at $2/3,000, it rang the register at $12,100.
Dolls of every possible description had occupied the Merritt museum, and there were buyers for every category. “Everything did very, very well,” Barrett noted. “There was strong interest in even the types of dolls that hadn’t been the highest flyers lately.”
A circa 1878 Jumeau first series size 5 portrait bébé — a perennial “high flyer” — charmed many bidders, one of whom secured the bisque-head beauty for $30,800. Two coveted circa-1880 French bisque-head bébés made by A. Thullier, which had graced the cover of Barrett’s catalog, were offered as separate lots but sold to the same bidder. The 12-inch example with gusseted kid body, bisque lower arms and maroon satin dress and hat achieved $38,500. The other doll, slightly taller at 12½ inches, with a jointed composition body and red wool caped ensemble, made identical money.
Approximately 20 automata by premium name manufacturers were offered. Leading the group, a circa 1875 Roullet et Descamps boy on a clockwork tricycle earned $34,100 against an estimate of $15/18,000. A rare 29-inch-tall girl automaton holding a toy theater and accompanied by a cat in a wicker basket, also by Roullet et Descamps, handily surpassed its estimate at $20,900.
One of the sale’s shockers was the amount paid for a lot containing ten miniature metal fireplace and cooking accessories, obviously early productions with a primitive look. Estimated at $2/300, the grouping appealed to several determined bidders who pushed the final price to an astonishing $14,300. “The people who bought the Hope Villa also bought this lot,” said Ourant. “They were signed American pieces made by an early Nineteenth Century tinsmith. Americana dealers were pounding away on all the crossover items — the redware, scale-model furniture, etc. Two Americana dealers that you’d never otherwise see at a doll auction spent around $40,000 apiece.”
Prices reported include the ten percent buyer’s premium.
Both Ourant and Barrett expect the final installment of toys and dolls from the Merritt museum to attract a crowd just as large and eager to buy as the one that came to the fall sale. “This collection has been behind glass and teasing the public for 40 years,” Barrett observed. “We tried to divide the collection in half, and felt the first sale had a slightly heavier front end, moneywise, because of the one-of-a-kind pieces like the butcher shop and Hope Villa, but we think the spring sale just might bring similar results. Andy thinks the automata in Part Two are even better than what we just offered.”
Noel Barrett in association with Andy Ourant will present the final auction of toys, dollhouses, dolls and miniatures from the Mary Merritt Doll & Toy Museum on March 31 and April 1 at the Inn at Reading. For information, 215-297-5109, 717-484-1200 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Additional information will appear on Noel Barrett’s website www.noelbarrett.com.