At Theriault’s November auction of fine automata highlighting the private collection of Jerry and Bunny Steinbaum of Beverly Hills, Calif., there were 23 singing birds, bears beating drums, acrobats performing feats of remarkable agility, clowns juggling balls on a stick, and even Pierrot sitting on a slice of the moon. Collectors vied internationally for these treasures, some so rare as to have been previously undocumented.
The auction weekend began with a preview reception on Saturday evening attended by luminaries in the field who were greeted at the exhibition doors with a boisterous orchestration of music emanating from the fine pieces. Also in prominent attendance were doll collectors who have recently turned their attention to the field. As one noted, “These are, after all, dolls. And they have wonderful movements and music. I love adding them to a group of my traditional dolls because they bring animated life and sound to the scene.”
Top price of the day was earned by a rare pair of “Clown Musicians on Stage” by Vichy/Triboulet inspired by the popular Jean Qui Rit and Jean Qui Pleure pair of laughing/crying clowns that were prominent figures of popular culture in Nineteenth Century France. Apparently performing their musical clown act in unison, the clowns are wonderfully synchronized until the happy clown teasingly turns out-of-step, kicking his fancy pointed shoe at his sad clown partner. The clowns, wearing their original costumes from their 1910 production, were hammered down for $76,000 to a private collector in Arizona. An exceptional model of the Japanese Mask Seller, incredibly preserved with even her original paper fluted parasol and silk embroidered kimono, twirled her parasol all the way to $57,500 and will be moving to her new home in Connecticut.
There was a superb kneeling Egyptian Harpist who blinked her eyes, breathed and turned her head, while her right arm moved laterally with bending wrists as though “plucking” the strings, and her left arm rose and lowered vertically in an arch to “strum” the celestial chords. She strummed all the way, in fact, to $36,000 and will be performing as a centerpiece of a private European collection. A spectacular Grecian Lady Standing at a Harp was a showstopper, in appearance, intricate movements and music, topping at $50,000, where she will be performing in the home of a doll collector. “I came to the auction to buy this piece,” she said. “My doll collection is focused on elegant lady dolls arranged in scenes with antique miniature furniture, and the harpist is not only elegant, but she’s already posed with an exquisite miniature harp. Her music and movement just add to the presentation and make her breathtaking.”
The auction catalog, titled Music, Motion and Fancy, and whose hologram cover gave an illusion of mechanical movement, was divided into chapters emphasizing recurring themes of automaton makers. Of great interest was the automata shown in the Popular Culture section, including Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West Show barnstormed Paris for several years in the 1890s. The automaton featured Bill in authentic costume as seen in period photographs, including his trademark high boots sculpted of papier mache. Buffalo Bill was designed as a “smoker gentleman,” an intricate hidden system of tubing allowing him the very realistic impression of “smoking up a storm.” He was hammered down for $36,000 to a delighted doll collector who plans to gift it to her husband.
Mournful Pierrot, the beloved French Art Nouveau figure of popular culture, was represented in several pieces. There was Pierrot Ecrivain, who for more than 100 years has sat at his desk, penning a letter to his love, only to fall asleep and then awaken and begin to write again; he topped at $42,000. A Massachusetts collector will find a home for him amidst her other dolls and automata. And there was Pierrot Serenading the Moon who sang his way to $26,000.
Other prices included Lady at Her Recamier for $34,000, Femme a la Psyche for $28,000, Fruit Seller with Surprises at $24,000 and Elegant Lady at the Piano for $15,500, all moving to the homes of traditional doll collectors. A fine small group of domed mechanical vignettes included a bisque-headed magician by Phalibois with two accompanying musicians that went to $30,000, three bisque-headed tightrope dancers in a garlanded setting at $15,000 and a pair of acrobats posed beneath a porcelain clock with exceptional and realistic movements for $23,000.
The 150-lot auction realized $2 million. Stuart Holbrook, Theriault’s president confirmed the market strength, and added that the firm’s traditional base of doll collector clientele had proved to be worthy competitors in the automaton arena. “It seems the traditional ‘old boy’ network of automaton collectors is getting whitewashed by the ‘ladies’ who are stepping to the plate to acquire automata in ways they never have before. It makes for a great mix, and opening up the market to diverse interests is simply good for everyone.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium. For information, 800-638-0422 or www.theriaults.com .