Noel Barrett’s auction of the Kuper circus toy collection takes place under the big top, Oct. 7-9 in New Hope, Pa.
NEW HOPE, Pa. - Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. It’s time for the greatest toy show on earth, brought to you by Noel Barrett Auctions, Oct. 7, 8 and 9 at the Eagle Fire Hall in scenic New Hope, Pa. Your ringmaster, Noel Barrett, promises you’ll see some of the rarest and most visually spectacular circus-themed toys, original art and memorabilia available anywhere in the world when the Larry and Barbara Kuper collection takes the center ring. As always, LiveAuctioneers will be on hand to enable bidders anywhere in the world to participate via the Internet.
Theatrics aside, there is probably no way to overstate the impact of a collection like that of the Kupers – built over 25 years – which headlines the 1,400-lot auction and is the centerpiece of the Saturday session. “I think the collectors are really going to enjoy this sale,” Noel Barrett said. “For the past couple of years I’ve been concentrating almost exclusively on the Ward Kimball collection and Flora Gill Jacobs’ Washington Doll’s House Museum collection, so the consignments have been backing up. What has been waiting in the wings is of such high quality, we decided to have a three-day sale this time.”
Barrett also predicts there will be a positive reaction to his return to the fire hall venue, which served as the site of such memorable events as the Gottschalk, Haney, Sidlow and Siegel auctions. “This is going to be like the sales we used to have years ago that would include lots of early Christmas and Halloween items, and fine, early antique toys – both American and European. The collectors always liked that sort of mix.”
The opening session on Friday evening will feature 174 holiday lots and an array of black collectibles. Several consignors contributed to the Christmas section, which includes two “incredible” Christmas villages, both of them German made and outfitted with a superb ensemble of hand-carved wood figures, including miniature villagers laden with presents for the Christ Child. Additionally, there are several Santa with reindeer candy container sleighs – described by Barrett as “really choice items” – and a magnificent lineup of papier-mâché belsnickles, including an unusual Santa wearing a crown. Exquisitely rare, a highlight of the category is an early German-made hot-air Christmas pyramid, 5ft tall and fashioned of Gothic-style fretworked wood. “It has crèche figures and wooden animals on turntables that rotate when the hot air from lighted candles turns the windmill blades.”
The Halloween grouping contains jack-o’-lanterns of many different types and a nice array of ephemera pertaining to the holiday. The black collectible selection is multifaceted, containing mostly figural pieces of English or American origin, but with the addition of coveted Currier & Ives prints and a large assortment of ephemera including trade cards and postcards.
Saturday’s session is dominated by the 500-piece Kuper circus collection, whose variety invites crossover bids from all across the toy spectrum. “My take on Larry and Barbara’s collection is that it goes against the grain of how some people approach the hobby. Sometimes a collection that’s offered at auction is so carefully focused on one type of toy, whether it’s pressed-steel automotive or comic character windups, that it just seems there’s too much of one type of toy. The beauty of the Kuper collection is that it is so diverse in its scope – Schoenhuts, paper litho on wood toys, skittles, cast iron, painted tin, automata – it really runs the gamut.” When combined with pieces from other important collections consigned to the sale, such as the one that produced an appealing group of Gunthermann clockwork toys, the buying horizons expand exponentially.
Selections from the Kupers and other consignors joined together to form a stellar lineup of Schoenhut circus animals, including some near- mint glass-eyed examples: a zebu, two wolves, and an elusive rabbit.
Approximately 180 colorfully lithographed and embossed tin sandpails, mostly with circus or amusement park themes and accompanied by shovels, will be offered; as will two very seldom-seen, circa 1890s lithographed paper circus panoramas. These devices were used by schoolteachers when there weren’t enough books to go around in a classroom. Students could view the panorama’s story and pictures on a canvas screen as the teacher turned a crank to activate the internal rollers. Included in the auction are two spectacular examples of circus panoramas by McLoughlin, each of which retains its original slipcase. One of them, titled Panorama of the Greatest Show on Earth, features circus images; while the other tells the nursery rhyme tale of Humpty Dumpty.
Several turn of the 19th century skittles sets will be featured. One of the most exciting is a skillfully painted, old-fashioned clown, belly-down on wheels, whose recess accommodates a complete set of ninepins fashioned as smaller, ruff-collared clowns. Another of the skittles sets is shaped as a demilune, with clown ninepins inside it. Both are in beautiful condition, against all odds, since pull-toys of this type had a low survival rate due to years of having balls thrown at them.
A remarkable papier-mâché tiger on a solid-wood ball automaton by Roullet et Descamps is one of the star attractions of the Kuper collection. “It’s one of my personal favorites in the sale,” said Barrett. “I’ve never seen one before, and it has such a wonderful quality to it. It has simulated fur and an internal clockwork with a very subtle action. The tiger nods its head gently as it balances on the ball.”
Another knockout is the 4 by 3 ft circus theme piece by artist Robert Weaver, who lived in Indianapolis, home to the Hagenbach Circus in the 1920’s and ’30s. In its possibly original frame, the 1937 charcoal on artist’s board titled Back Door - Next Up depicts the busy waiting area behind the flap in the tent from which circus performers emerged to take the stage. The artwork was a winner of the prestigious Chaloner Award.
Perhaps the most imposing item in the Kuper collection is a papier-mâché elephant’s head mounted on a wooden shield, holding a metal and wood dumbbell in its trunk. “We bought it at an auction in 1994, and ever since then, it has hung over the fireplace of our home,” said Larry Kuper. “It originally came from the Danbury (Conn.) State Fairgrounds and ended up in the collection of a gentleman who was a big coin-op collector named Dr. Smith.”
In providing information on the background of items he and his wife consigned to the sale, Kuper also revealed the motivation that had led him to start the 23-year collection. “I was a kid who ran away from home and worked at carnivals, circuses, state parks … Circus toys reminded me of happy times as a child. They gave me instant gratification. I kept everything I ever bought; I didn’t sell or trade. In fact, we built our house around the collection, not the other way around.”
Kuper said he and his wife had several favorites in their collection, among them a boxed Kenton cast-iron Overland bear circus wagon in very rare orange color (“the only one I’ve ever seen … most were red”) and an 1897 Reed paper litho on wood performing polar bear in a horse-drawn circus wagon formerly in the Wilkinson collection. “As it moves along, the bear rears up,” Kuper noted.
Many other toys with a circus or carnival flavor will be offered, including the well-known tinplate European clown lifting a 100-pound weight with his teeth, the dog running through a hoop cast-iron bell toy, and the pony-riding girl who circles a clown who holds an American flag. In most cases, according to the Kupers, their toys were purchased many years ago from upper-echelon auction houses or private dealers, explaining why the collection includes so many rarities of the type seldom seen nowadays.
The Sunday session is an eye-pleasing mix of cast-iron mechanical banks (including several with a circus theme, such as J. & E. Stevens’ elephant whose trunk swoops down to deposit a penny into a tub), trains – highlighted by rare Marklin pieces – and the eclectic and colorful American comic character and wind-up toy collection of longtime ATCA member Myra Wagonheim.
“The train selection is quite diverse,” said Barrett, “and features a small but amazing collection of trains that belonged to the grandfather of a New England consignor. They had been stored away in boxes and left in an attic room until they were discovered in 1953. At that time, they were unpacked, photographed and put back into boxes, where they remained until fairly recently.” Within the cache of treasures, described by Barrett as a “time capsule of early German trains, and accessories”: two Marklin electric trolleys, a scarce draisine (based on the first two-wheeled personal transportation vehicle, invented 1816) with original figures, a Marklin boat carriage (sans boat) and a beautiful Marklin shed. Another consignor sent in a Marklin Grand Central Station similar to the one that sold for $30,000 in the Kimball sale.