Auction Team Breker showcases 200 years of audio Nov. 9-10

Fine silver-gilt and enamel singing bird box automaton by Charles Bruguier, circa 1845
Estimate: €25,000–€30.000/$29,000–$34,800. Auction Team Breker image

COLOGNE, Germany – On Nov. 9-10, Auction Team Breker will be hosting an important auction that celebrates audio technology over the past 200 years. At the heart of the auction is the remarkable collection of the Dutch author and historian Luuk Goldhoorn, whose eye and ear for the rare and the early established him as an authority in the field of mechanical music. Absentee and Internet live bidding is available through LiveAuctioneers.

Though often reserved, Luuk was generous with his knowledge, contributing his expertise to publications, museums and collecting societies across Europe and America. Luuk was particularly known as a connoisseur of musical snuff boxes and objets de vertu, and some of the finest examples of their kind are to be found in his collection.

Musical boxes are found listed in 19th-century French directories in the same category as ‘bibelots’ (decorative toys), ‘fantasies à musique’ and ‘horlogerie’. Though not intended as playthings, many musical boxes have an undeniably toy-like appeal. The Goldhoorn collection boasts several superb examples, including a musical necessaire in the form of a miniature writing desk and another as a gilt-brass and mother-of-pearl piano with a full brace of gold needlework tools.

Fürst Bismarck large battleship by Bing, circa 1909. Estimate: €30,000–€50,000/
$34,200–$57,000. Auction Team Breker image

In addition to producing exquisite miniature versions of everyday items, Paris was also famous for its mechanical toys. Automata like the Monkey Fisherman by Jean-Marie Phalibois called for the talents of several skilled industries: the gear-cutter and horologist for the clockwork motor, the cartonnier for the molded papier-mâché and the couturier for the costume. A toy for the drawing room, too delicate for unsupervised play, this automaton was advertised in the 1884 Silber & Fleming catalog for the princely sum of £ 5,10s, at a time when a senior bank clerk in London earned around £100 a year.

As the century progressed, musical machines grew bigger and left the drawing room. The magnificent Eroica hall clock (below) by Symphonion Musikwerke of Leipzig, named after Beethoven’s Eroica No. 3 Symphony, is a mechanical musical tour-de-force of three discs playing simultaneously in different octaves.

Symphonion Eroica No. 38A disc musical box, circa 1895. Estimate: €30.000–€40.000/$34,800–$46,400. Auction Team Breker image

Musical boxes provided the first pre-programmed entertainment in public locations such as bars and railway stations. While it is debatable how many of these machines were originally destined for the waiting room, the terms ‘boîte de gare’ and ‘Bahnhofsautomat’ have gained currency with collectors describing the elaborate coin-activated musical boxes with audio-visual entertainment.

Bell & Tainter’s photophone/radiophone transmitter, circa 1882. Estimate: €8,000–€15,000/$9,120–$8,560. Auction Team Breker image

Meanwhile, in scientific circles, experiments were underway not only to record but also to transmit live sound. Industry leaders Siemens AG and Ericsson both began with telecommunications technology in the 19th century, while Alexander Graham Bell is less well known for building a selenium-powered microphone than he is for his race to invent the telephone.

First telephone made by L.M. Ericsson, 1878. Estimate: €7,000–€9,000/$8,120–$10,440. Auction Team Breker image

One of the earliest instruments in the auction is a prototype snuff box movement based on Antoine Favre-Salomon’s “musical work without bells” presented to the Geneva Society of Arts in March 1796. Favre’s invention is widely regarded as the first musical work with tuned teeth and, thus, the first musical box.