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The only known H.C. Evans Man in the Moon shooting gallery target achieved $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Shooting gallery target collectors aim for perfect patinas

The only known H.C. Evans Man in the Moon shooting gallery target achieved $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
The only known H.C. Evans Man in the Moon shooting gallery target achieved $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — With antiques, condition is everything, but when it comes to cast iron shooting gallery targets, what’s known as “original surface” is most important.

Typically taking the form of clowns, animals or figures, shooting gallery targets appeared in a massive mechanical gallery. Rows of targets would flit side to side, daring the would-be sharpshooter to knock them down. These now-pockmarked targets were originally brightly painted and beckoned fairgoers to step right up, take aim and win a prize with their shooting skills.

During years of being struck by bullets and exposed to the elements, their luster has faded, but that has not lessened their appeal. Actually, their weathered look has become an asset. Anyone lucky enough to find an old shooting target at a tag sale or stored in a basement would be foolish to refinish or repaint it.

Of course, these targets were not designed to become collectibles. As they wore out or the carnivals that used them closed, many were sold as scrap iron, and their value was solely in their weight. A few decades ago, prescient collectors with a penchant for folk art and Americana saw something delightful in these targets, and considered them worth retaining for their own beauty. Collectors such as Richard and Valerie Tucker, who began buying rare examples in the 80s, helped create demand. They also wrote the definitive book on the subject in 2014, Step Right Up! Classic American Target and Arcade Forms.

The only known William Mangels clown light-up shooting gallery target earned $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
The only known William Mangels clown light-up shooting gallery target earned $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020. Image courtesy of Soulis Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The Tuckers’ collection headlined a Soulis Auctions sale in September 2020, featuring several scarce examples that showed how strong the market is for antique shooting gallery targets. Clowns are synonymous with carnivals and fairs, and many shooting galleries featured clown-shape targets. While most clown targets are common forms, the rarest will, naturally, command attention. Proving the point is a light-up clown target made by William Mangels, who was based in Brooklyn, N.Y., near Coney Island. Thought to be the only known light-up example of its kind, the clown target achieved $32,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Soulis Auctions. A shooting gallery typically had rows of similar or duplicate figures, but a large figure that lit up was likely the only one in a particular gallery. Measuring 26 by 19½in, this clown’s face was framed with a pair of glasses, a green hat and a ruffled collar.

A 53in cowboy-form shooting gallery target hit $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A 53in cowboy-form shooting gallery target hit $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

When it comes to antique shooting gallery targets, bigger is often better, and Mangels made many fine examples. An early and large version of his bowlegged cowboy target, dubbed Shorty, standing an impressive 53in tall, earned $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Milestone Auctions. “This rare early version of Shorty sports a sharply notched cowboy hat, cast facial and shirt collar details, two applied bullseyes, gun belt with two six-shooters, bowed legs with blue jeans and boots with spurs,” according to the catalog description.

Owls, ducks, horses and other animal forms were common targets in shooting galleries, and can sell well, but figural shooting gallery targets that are hand-painted in fine detail are even more sought after. An unusual example is a full-length lady drummer figure from the 1880s, standing 33in tall and by an unknown maker, which realized $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Entirely hand painted, the figure had a mechanical device on its back, activated by a bullet strike on the bullseye, enabling it to “play” the drum. The paint on the piece is in great condition, and reportedly it was on display in a museum for years. If that’s true, that would explain its high degree of preservation.

An exceptionally well-preserved 1880s hand-painted iron shooting gallery target, resembling a woman drummer, sold for $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
An exceptionally well-preserved 1880s hand-painted iron shooting gallery target, resembling a woman drummer, sold for $22,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2021. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Mangels was not the only producer of shooting targets. Several other companies that made carousel horses or amusement park attractions also set their sights on targets, such as C.W. Parker in Kansas, Philadelphia’s William Wurfflein and California’s John T. Dickman and H.W. Terpening. A very whimsical version of the form is the Man in the Moon target by Chicago’s H.C. Evans, which was thought to be the only known example when it brought $15,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2020 at Soulis Auctions. “This iron caricature of the Man in the Moon, cast in great detail with large open grin and mirthful eyes, is accentuated in ways not typically found on shooting gallery targets,” according to Soulis Auctions.

An H.W. Terpening set of shooting gallery targets in the familiar shapes of suits from playing cards realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
An H.W. Terpening set of shooting gallery targets in the familiar shapes of suits from playing cards realized $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Potter & Potter Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The cover of an H.W. Terpening company catalog from June 1958 pictured a popular shooting targets model for its firm: a suit of playing cards comprising a spade, a heart, a diamond and a club. A set of these well-worn targets from the early 20th century, bearing some original paint residue and the largest measuring 14in tall, sold for $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022 at Potter & Potter Auctions.

While Coney Island’s attractions have moved on from shooting galleries and modern air guns have replaced the old .22 rifles that were once pointed at these now-antique targets, they possess undeniable character and charm. Owing to their scarcity, the odds of finding examples in untouched condition, with nearly all their paint intact, is only slightly better than winning the big prize in a carnival midway game of chance. Not all such games were rigged, but some definitely had the odds stacked in favor of the house, either with gun barrels incorrectly sighted to affect the user’s aim or heavy bases added to the targets, making some impossible to knock down. As artful objects, though, cast iron shooting targets always hit a bullseye.