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mechanical marvels

Auction Team Breker presents mechanical marvels May 16

mechanical marvels
Lioret No. 3 phonograph with original tripod, weight and contemporary transport case, circa 1897. Estimate: €7,000–€9,000/$7,900–$10,200. Auction Team Breker image

COLOGNE, Garmany – Auction Team Breker will present science and technology, mechanical music machines, automata and toys in a nearly 500-lot online auction on Saturday, May 16. Bid absentee or live online through LiveAuctioneers.  

The mechanical march of the Thomas Edison talking dolls onto the American market in August 1889 prompted Jumeau to approach horologist Henri Lioret with the commission to build a speaking mechanism small and stable enough to fit into the torso of his dolls. Not only was Lioret’s phonograph much lighter than Edison’s, but it was clockwork (not hand-turned) and his celluloid sound-cylinders were uniquely constructed. Lioret was the first to use durable celluloid as a recording medium as well as the first to duplicate recorded cylinders in a mold.

When the “Bébé Liographe” failed to meet with the success he had hoped for, Lioret refined his design and created two more models, the potable spring-driven No. 2 and the large weight-driven No. 3, which he demonstrated to a full house at the Trocadéro auditorium in 1897. Auction Team Breker will be offering a rare example of the Lioret No. 3 (above) in their May 16.

The musical silver watch by Thomas Sauvél of Paris tells another story. Built around 1820, this timepiece (below) provided one of the first forms of personal programmed musical entertainment, with two airs played on 24 notes via a tiny pinned disc. It would have represented a special commission from a small workshop and have been well beyond the pockets of even well-heeled customers.

mechanical marvels
‘Sur-Plateau’ pocket watch by Thomas Sauvél, Paris, circa 1820. Estimate: €3,000–€4,000/$3,260–$4,350. Auction Team Breker image

Large-scale manufacturers, seizing upon Leipzig’s its new status as a railway hub and center of printing and learning in Saxony, transformed the city into the mechanical music capital of Europe. Firms such as the Polyphon and Symphonion Musikwerke built disc-playing musical boxes for every taste and occasion, while the retailers Ernst Holzweissig and Gustav Uhlig supplied customers across Europe with a stock of mechanical pianos, accordions, clocks, toys and household goods.

The casework of the musical machines from Leipzig reflected contemporary trends in architecture, from the Wilhelmian columns and capitals to the fluid lines of the Art-Nouveau movement, that can still be seen on display on a walk through the city’s outer districts.

mechanical marvels
Polyphon Musikwerke Style 4 Automatic disc-changing music box in an Art-Nouveau walnut case, circa 1900. Estimate: €18,000–€22,000/$19,570–$24,000. Auction Team Breker image

While Germany focused on serial production, France remained the center of the luxury market. The growth in demand for so-called “fancy goods” was in part the result of social and cartographic changes at work in Paris. Under Napoleon III and his prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the heart of the city was reimagined with sweeping boulevards and squares, an underground water system and two major railway stations to attract newly mobile tourists from Britain and continental Europe. Musical instruments built in Switzerland were often cased in Paris. The musical secretaire in Breker’s auction is a fine example of an interchangeable Swiss movement in a purpose-built French cabinet, decorated with harvest scenes in the Vernis Martin manner.

mechanical marvels
Swiss-made Interchangeable Forte Piccolo Musical Secretaire by George Baker & Co., circa 1890. Estimate: €10,000–€15,000/$10,870–$16,300. Auction Team Breker image

The production of automata was a distinctive and significant subset of the Parisian toy industry during this period, demanding not only skilled doll makers but also clockmakers and gear-cutters, seamstresses and mechanics.

The historian Léo Claretie provides a contemporary view of this genre in a visit to an exhibition in around 1894 where he was impressed by several prestigious automata identifiable today as the work of Gustave Vichy. One of these was the sleeping clown banjo player or Sonnette de l’Entracte, whose appearance and effect upon the public received a long and lyrical commentary.

mechanical marvels
Sonnette de l’Entracte by Gustave and Henry Vichy, circa 1895. Estimate: €8,000–€12,000/$8,900–$13,200. Auction Team Breker image

The auction will conclude with more than 100 lots of vintage toys and toy phonographs.

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mechanical marvels