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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Coca-Cola Sign; Times Square; carved, painted, molded wood and plastic, strobe and neon lights; 1990; sold for $27,485. Photo courtesy of Freeman's.
The name Artkraft Strauss may not mean much to you. But I bet the sliding New Year’s Eve ball in Times Square is something you remember?

Artkraft Strauss is the company that created the first New Year’s Eve ball 87 years ago.

Since the earliest days of neon, Artkraft Strauss has been shining brightly in Times Square with their trademark, one-of-a-kind grand scale displays.

An estimated 10 million people walk through Times Square every week making it one of the most important spots in the world for outdoor advertising. Since 1937, Artkraft Strauss has had a Coke sign installed there. In fact, the company made most of the illuminated signs sparkling in Times Square in the 20th century.

The huge 65-foot-high “Coke” display featured an open bottle being drunk through a straw. There was also the “Happy New Year” sign used when Artkraft Strauss controlled the annual descent of the Times Square ball.

You don’t have to be a social historian or filmmaker to appreciate them. These one-of-a-kind beauties are nostalgic gift horses.

The company also produced the marquee sign for the "Sound Of Music's" 1962 run at Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theatre. Add to the mix a huge hot pink “S” marking the 42nd St. subway stop. Plus, the hand-drawn design for the “Camel” billboard, which sent off smoke rings every four seconds from 1941 to 1966.

“They are part of New York history," said Artkraft President Tama Starr, whose grandfather started the Broadway-based company. "But the days of the neon spectacular are really over. It's all LED or computer-generated pictures in Times Square now. I walked past a souvenir store the other day, and every picture of Times Square was from the mid-'90s, when all the signs were neon.”

“There's something mellow about it, something charming. It's calming and exciting at the same time," Starr said.

The company recently sold nearly 100 of the historic signs illuminated by vibrating gas molecules and also sold drawings and lights symbolizing 20th century New York. They went on the block May 18 at Freeman’s auction house in Philadelphia.

Most outdoor advertisements seen today are made in video or vinyl. They’re also mass-produced for billboards around the world. The Times Square examples featured in the auction were unique.

“The objects in this collection evoke a brief moment, barely a century long, when Times Square, the ‘Crossroads of the World,’ was defined by neon, that glorious and now almost extinct medium that for many years was the super-sign’s soul,” Starr said.

Nowadays, these magical, glowing tubes have become an art form. Some of the strongest images are figures: creative, cartoon drawings in light.

Crashing cars, baton twirlers, exploding bowling pins, they’re not only dramatic but also highly collectible.

For the serious collector, the eccentric Times Square lights represent the crème-de-la-crème. They’re irreplaceable, extraordinary examples of a golden age of handmade industrial art. A place where art and communication merge.

Here are some current values for lights offered from the Artkraft Strauss Collection.

Artkraft Strauss

Neon “Happy New Year” Sign; un-mounted neon tubing; block red letters; $239.

“The Sound of Music” Marquee Sign; white enameled letters traced with light bulbs; 1962; $3,227.

Smoking Camel Cigarette Sign; pencil drawing; together with photo of a later version; repainted twice a year to keep image fresh; 1940; $8,365.

“S” from 42nd Street Subway Stop; entrance; between Broadway and 7th Ave., shaped and enamel metal; featuring over 100 pink light bulbs and mechanical flashers; 1985; $9,560.

Coca-Cola Sign Model; Times Square; carved painted and molded wood and plastic, strobe and neon lights; last in a long series of signs for the Coca-Cola Company; 1990; $27,485.

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