Auction Team Breker presents pre-cinema showpieces Sept. 29

Moisse Molteni Fantascope Skeleton Illusion, circa 1820, animated figure for opaque phantasmagoria projection, operated by concealed wires on ebonized t-frame, 4½ x 7¼in overall. Estimate €30,000-€50,000. Auction Team Breker image

COLOGNE, Germany – Magic lanterns and similar historic projection devices are featured in Auction Team Breker’s sale of Cameras, Photographica and Optical Toys on Sept. 29. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

The rise of the Gothic novel began with Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, followed by tales of suspense and the supernatural such as Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796).

Gothic’s preoccupation with ghosts, the demonic and states of extreme fear opened the cellar door to specters that haunt popular culture to this day. Improvements in lenses during the late 18th century played their part in the birth of Gothic fiction by projecting apparitions and illusions into the public imagination. The mastery of optics was often associated with the diabolic and the devil, whose medium is illusion rather than creation. The first recorded use of the term “l’art trompeur” (the deceptive art) to describe optical effects occurs in a description of a magic lantern show in Nuremberg by French traveler Charles Patin in 1674.

One hundred years later the Phantasmagoria lantern show appeared in Germany. The Fantascope, perfected and patented by the Belgian showman Etienne-Gaspard Robert in 1799, was a complex creation that produced the earliest projected special effects. Its cat’s-eye lens and mechanical autofocus conjured up ghastly apparitions that appeared to float or rush upon the terrified audience.

The Fantascope could also be used to project opaque objects as 3D illusions on a virtual screen. The Moisse Molteni Skeleton (above), one of four 3D illusions illustrated in the Alfred Molteni’s Instructions Pratiques sur l’Emploi des Appareils de Projection, is featured in the auction. The skeleton’s discovery in the attic of the Château de Moisse in central France in 1991 could have come from the pages of Anne Radcliffe herself. The illusion depicts a painted sarcophagus whose lid lifts as the skeleton marionette in a monk’s cowl, jaw chattering and eye sockets hollow, clambers out. Not only is the mechanical illusion a visual artifact and a cultural reference object of its time, but an important link between projected still images and the dawn of cinema. It is expected to sell for €30,000-€50,000/$34,773-$57,950.

Several peep boxes are offered in the auction. Among the earliest is an oak peep box that is probably Dutch, circa 1780. It retains the box, candleholders and three copperplate views with needle pricks. The rare viewer (below) has a €3,500-€5,000 estimate.

Early peep box, circa 1780, probably Dutch, 23 x 15 x 18¼in, with three ‘Vue d’Optique’ (hand-colored copperplate views with needle pricks), size 14¼ x 9in. Estimate €3,500-€5,000. Auction Team Breker image

Magic lanterns in the sale include an attractive biunial magic lantern with Petzval-type Darlot lenses, circa 1885. Probably English, this early projector is estimated at €1,500-€2,000.

Biunial magic lantern with Petzval-type Darlot Lenses, circa 1885, probably English, 23in high x 26in long x 7¾in wide. Estimate €1,500-€2,000. Auction Team Breker image

Eleven large views of European landmarks are included with the Megalethoscope designed by Carlo Ponti of Italy, circa 1870. This large viewer that accepts curved photographic plates is considered an excellent museum piece (est. €3,500-€4,500).

Megalethoscope by Carlo Ponti, 1862, Italy, viewer for curved photographic plates. Dimensions of the viewer 35½ x 25 x 20in, with 11 photographs of 13¾ x 10 in. Estimate €3,500-€4,500. Auction Team Breker image

A series of mirrors arranged as a faceted prism plays a role in the Praxinoscope Theatre, based on Emil Reynaud’s patent of 1878, which anticipated the revolutionary work of Thomas Edison and the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière in bringing still pictures to life. It marks an improvement of the Zoetrope because the mirror drum provides smoother movement without disruption. The Praxinoscope in the auction has
a reproduction umbrella (replaced), candleholder, all original mirrors and eight original strips and eight background pictures (replaced). This important pre-cinema collector’s item has a €2,500-€3,000 estimate.

Original Le Praxinoscope-Théâtre d’Emile Reynaud, Paris, 1878. Estimate €2,500-€3,000. Auction Team Breker image

The auction also features scores of collectible cameras and lenses, starting with many Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras.