Auction house displays its almost-living dolls

Collection: Annapolis-based Theriault's will sell rare automatons estimated to be worth $1.5 million.

December 13, 2003|By Rona Kobell | Rona Kobell,SUN STAFF

These dolls can smoke, juggle, play the mandolin and perform magic tricks. And, being of 19th-century French vintage, they often do it all with a well-groomed dog in tow.

They are among Parisian Christian Bailly's collection of rare automatons, mechanical dolls from Europe's golden age of toy making.

Through a series of pull-and-push movements set to music and operated by clockworks, the dolls make gentle, surprising movements -- charming snakes, selling flowers, playing the flute -- all without so much as a crease in their crimson coats or embroidered dresses.

Theriault's, an Annapolis-based auction house known throughout the world for its antique dolls and toys, bought the 130-doll collection from Bailly a few weeks ago and flew much of it here from Paris this week. Today, the company will display several of the dolls in the lobby of BankAnnapolis' Bestgate Road headquarters.

The exhibition will put an unusual spotlight on the 30-year-old company, whose workers prefer the obscurity of their nondescript office park on the city's outskirts.

But because the collection was so unusual, company co-owner and co-founder Florence Theriault said it had to be shared.

"As much as we can do beautiful books -- and we do make beautiful books -- you really can't capture the magic of seeing them unless you are actually seeing them," Theriault said as she wound up the Little Drummer Girl, a figure more than a foot tall and wearing a jester-like outfit.

Theriault and her husband, George, learned that the collection was for sale recently, when Bailly called the couple while they were in Paris on business.

Bailly, whose book Automata: The Golden Age is widely considered a bible on mechanical dolls, was known to have one of the rarest and most pristine collections of the papier-mache and porcelain automatons. He was ready to sell, Theriault said, because he wanted to develop a business making modern mechanical dolls.

BankAnnapolis financed Theriault's acquisition of the dolls, which are estimated to be worth $1.5 million. The company plans to exhibit the collection in other cities before it auctions the dolls in Las Vegas in May.

Most of the dolls are worth several thousand dollars apiece, with the value increasing based on how many separate movements each makes.

The bank's senior vice president, Carol Kasper, said Theriault's approached the bank about the display shortly after the auction house finished the transaction.

"They try to keep a low profile, but they kind of wanted to let the community know about this," Kasper said. "Those are marvelous dolls, and you don't usually get to see them unless you're going to an auction."

Word of the collection's availability is beginning to trickle out to what Theriault calls the "doll people" and "toy people," many of whom had long hoped they might someday glimpse Bailly's delicate creatures.

"It's a real feather in Theriault's hat," said Frank Mohr, a retired minister who collects antique toys in the Chicago area. "This collection is something that only comes up once in a great while. This man has been the safekeeper of the collection, and now he will pass it along to other people."

Mohr has 30 automatons in his collection -- including a suffragette, a woman who irons and a boy wearing a dunce cap who sticks out his tongue at the teacher when he moves. Mohr plans to be at the Las Vegas auction and might buy if he can save enough money.

Automatons are thought to have originated in the Middle East, where members of kings' courts would try to outdo one another by showing off more and more elaborate creations. They gained prominence in the 19th century, when toy makers honed their craft in specialty shops throughout France, Germany and Italy.

At world's fairs and exhibitions, children and adults alike would watch, transfixed, as ordinary characters from European life -- a chef, a flower girl -- would pull the covers back from a souffle dish or a basket to reveal a crying cat or a monkey with clattering teeth.

At the end of the 19th century, French and German dolls became mass-produced, and trade laws made it more expensive for French toys to reach the United States. Because of their delicate material, automated dolls often broke before one generation could pass them to the next. Many of the artisans who had crafted the dolls went out of business, and few apprentices took their places.

After World War I, automatons were increasingly rare. The American doll market, with its focus on celebrity dolls, was able to make inexpensive toys more efficiently.

Theriault's collection of automatons bears little resemblance to the bland plastic figures marketed to today's children. Not only are the dolls adorned with elaborate costumes, but many also unabashedly exhibit conduct unbecoming a role model.

One appears to be playing three-card monte while conducting a magic trick. Another is the devil himself -- Mephistopheles, playing the mandolin.

And, in a move that the French might declare gauche, one dandy takes a drag on his cigarette, gives his French poodle a puff, then takes it back to inhale again.

"They say they were children's toys," Theriault said, "but you know what? I think the market was always the grown-ups."

Theriault's collection of 19th-century automatons will be on display today from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at BankAnnapolis, 1000 Bestgate Road. Experts will offer free appraisals of antique dolls.

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