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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Narghile smoker; coffee cup in one hand hookah in the other; by Lambert; 24 inches high; $17,625. Photo courtesy of Skinner Auctioneers.
Her piercing blue eyes stare straight ahead. Her wax head, covered in a red bandana, barely contains the wiry black hair sprouting from underneath. The lines in her creased face have obviously been there a long time.

When activated by a lever under her foot, this miniature, elderly gypsy throws a mean right hook. She’s too angry and too frightening to be a child’s doll. Who else but an adult could love her?

At one time, this early-19th century European automaton was part of a larger grouping. The ensemble probably interacted much like animated Christmas figures do today in department store windows. Now the aging gypsy is a solo act.

Elaborate and versatile, automata like this have mesmerized people for thousands of years. If you leafed through Leonardo da Vinci’s sketches in 1495, you would have found the makings of a human-like robot not so different than gypsy. If it was built right, da Vinci’s robot could have moved its arms, twisted its head and sat up.

No evidence exists today that his robot was ever built. But da Vinci’s sketch, rediscovered in the 1950s, is one of the first recorded designs of a human automaton.

It shows the fascination, even in the 15th century, with human form and how it worked. Wind-up clockworks did more than function as timepieces. They lived inside dolls and made them real.

There was the flute player designed by French inventor Jacques de Vaucanson who played 12 tunes. Many automata were attached to music boxes and danced as the music played.

Others, like the 18th century wood and leather monk, moved his arms and danced when the string in his head was pulled. Constructed from metal, wood, leather, wax, and cloth over wire, these lifelike characters entertained royalty as well as the masses.

In 1769, Turk, a chess-playing automaton made by Wolfgang von Kempelen entertained courts all over Europe. In the end, he turned out to be a hoax. Turk’s arms and legs were operated from inside by a hidden human being.

Another automaton designed by an artisan named Camus in the 17th century included a miniature coach, horses, footman, and a page and lady passenger. Louis XIV spent hours as a child enjoying the perfect movement of this mechanical toy.

The most common automata usually raised their arms and nodded their heads. Rare and more expensive are figures made by master clock makers that blinked their eyes and moved their jaws. Any kind of complicated performance like smoking a cigarette, throwing a kiss or rubbing a stomach, adds to the desirability of an automaton.

Rarity of design and manufacturer factor in too. Automata were expensive even when new. Nowadays, the better ones fetch thousands.

The best examples were made in France between 1880 and 1910 by companies such as Vichy, Lambert and Roullet & Decamp.

On Nov 3, Skinner Auctioneers in Bolton, Mass., featured a selection of automata in its Science & Technology Automata and Toys & Dolls auction. Here are some current values.


Spanish serenade; matador playing his mandolin to a maiden in the tower; made by Roullet & Decamps; 25 inches high; $15,275.

Narghile smoker; coffee cup in one hand hookah in the other; by Lambert; 24 inches high; $17,625.

Drunkard; rotund gentleman with dimpled cheeks holding painted beer stein and leaning against a paneled cupboard; by Vichy; 22 inches high; $18,800.

Negre Buveur; black boy sitting on a cane chair drinking bottle of brandy; by Roullet & Decamps; 30 inches high; $28, 200.

Japanese mask seller; in full dress holding her masks and parasol; by Vichy; 35 inches high; $41,125.

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