Bicycles: combining form and function since 1817

A circa 1888 Singer 48-inch high wheel (ordinary) bicycle realized $15,000 at Copake Auction in April 2014. Photo courtesy of Copake Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Antique bicycles are collectible not only as early forms of transportation but also because of their hybrid nature – they seamlessly blend art with technology.

Ever since Baron Karl von Drais mounted his two-wheeled wooden bicycle in 1817, which was supposedly the first bike ride ever, the artistic design of a bicycle has inspired fans the world over.

“All transportation really started with the horse and then horses and buggies,” said Mike Fallon, who began running dedicated bicycle auctions at Copake (N.Y.) Auction, Inc. in 1991. “But the bicycle was the first machine you could actually buy, order and have delivered. You could get it and go anywhere you wanted. That was new in 1892, and it gave freedom. It created a new atmosphere for how people dated. A guy and a gal could go out and ride a bicycle on a date without a chaperone.”

A King 50-inch high wheel bicycle realized $16,000 in April 2016 at Copake Auction. Photo courtesy of Copake Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Bicycle designers over the years have taken great pains to revolutionize the design of bicycles, turning an industrial item into a work of art. In 1860s Paris, the velocipede, said to be the earliest pedal-driven bicycle, used a front-wheel driven system, unlike modern bicycles that all have rear-wheel systems. The velocipede made its way to America and was initially popular, but did not sell for long because it was hard to manage and power. Later, bicycles added wheel spokes and larger, lighter-weight wheels during the high-wheel craze. The wheels eventually grew shorter, with bicycles having two same-sized wheels instead of one high and one low. In the late 1880s, pneumatic (inflatable) tires replaced wooden wheels and represented a sea change in the bicycle industry. Bikes became safer and more comfortable to ride. In fact, so-called “safety” bicycles got their name because they were deemed safer than high wheels. Modern bikes look very similar but long ago dropped the word “safety” from the name.

A rare Bronco bicycle, White Cycle Co., 1890/92, went for $13,000 in June 2018 at San Rafael Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of San Rafael Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

Among some of the best-selling bicycles that Copake has sold in recent years has been the Elgin Bluebird. Renowned by collectors for its Art Deco styling, it is among the most desirable of prewar bicycles. In 2013, Copake sold a 1937 model for $15,000.

High-wheels may have been challenging to ride, but they remain highly collectible. In 2016, Copake sold a circa-1889, 50-inch high ordinary (safety) bicycle, one of 16 known examples. Made by the King Wheel Company in New York City, it changed hands for $16,000. The most expensive high-wheel Copake has sold was a Telegram, auctioned in 2012 for $23,750.

Other noteworthy bicycles include a 1936 Evinrude Streamflow bicycle, which was a short-lived creation by Evinrude, best known for its outboard boat motors. Their bikes were created using the same aluminum-casting technology that had worked so well in the production of their boat motors. However, the bikes were subject to stress fractures and were expensive. Fewer than 100 are believed to have been made and about a quarter of them still exist.

If condition is king in bicycles – and it is – then provenance comes a close second in determining a antique or vintage bicycle’s value. For example, Arthur Zimmerman was an early cycling champion who won more than 100 biking races. A rare circa-1896 pneumatic safety bicycle made by the Zimmerman Mfg. Co., of Freehold, N.J., hammered at $13,500 at Copake a few years ago. It was the first “Zimmy” Fallon had seen auctioned.

This circa 1896 “Zimmy” pneumatic safety bicycle brought $13,000 at Copake Auction in April 2014. Photo courtesy of Copake Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

As is true with antiques overall, the auction market for bicycles ebbs and flows. “Really good, rare bikes always do well,” he said, adding, however, that for everyday bicycles, high-wheels for instance, some years they bring strong prices while other years they don’t. Airflo bicycles from the 1930s are among the bicycles that always seem to do well, he said.

“If you are dealing with race bikes from the most prominent riders, if you have direct verifiable provenance, it makes them much more valuable,” Fallon said. “If you have a Tour de France bike from someone like Eddy Merckx (Belgian, b. 1945-) and can prove that he won with it, that would be a fairly valuable bike, compared to a model by some guy who came in 20th.”

New collectors should heed the usual rules: know what you are buying and buy from reputable sources. “If you are going to collect bikes, just like collecting cars or art, there are things out there that look good but aren’t,” Fallon said, noting that sometimes restored bicycles can look fine but upon closer inspection, experts can tell if the wrong parts were used. “If you are going to do it for fun, it doesn’t matter, but it matters if you get serious. If you are going to buy expensive bikes, they should be “right.”

A Bowden Spacelander bicycle made $9,500 in April 2016 at Copake Auction. Photo courtesy of Copake Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

“The real money in bicycle collecting is in unrestored original bikes,” Fallon said.

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