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Potter & Potter ‘Automata: Life & Other Illusions’ sale, August 2019


Our featured auction this week is the Potter & Potter sale ‘Automata: Life & Other Illusions’, which takes place in Chicago on August 24.

The sale offers a remarkable collection of rare antique and contemporary automatons, from 19th century Paris to the present day – and here are ten lots we’d love to own…

How Much!

Estimate: $200 – $300

A contemporary automaton designed by Matt Smith and the British Fourteen Balls Toy Co. in 2014.

The figure brings the price tag up from his elbow and reads it, before his eyes pop out of their sockets in surprise.

Walking Pig

Estimate: $500 – $700

An articulated walking pig automaton made in Paris by Roullet & Decamps, circa 1920, with a leather-covered body, hidden wheels and an “oinking” mechanism.

The Boneshaker

Estimate: $800 – $1,200

A contemporary automaton made by the British Fourteen Balls Toy Co. in 2011 in a series of approximately 20.

The skeleton pedals the bike whilst fleeing from a chasing dog, and occasionally looks back to stare at its relentless pursuer.

Drinking Raccoon

Estimate: $1,500 – $2,500

A drinking racoon automaton made in Paris by Roullet & Decamps, circa 1940s. Made with glass eyes, wooden paws, a real fur-covered body and a metal cup and bottle.

When operated, the racoon raises the cup to its mouth, takes two swigs, and then pours himself another drink.

Vanishing Head

Estimate: $2,000 – $3,000

A ‘Vanishing Head’ automaton, manufacturer and date unknown.

When activated, the drunken man waves the fan over his face and his head disappears, only to pop up from inside the barrel behind him. Another wave and his head reappears, only to vanish again and pop up from the top crate, before finally returning to his body.

The Tiger Tamer

Estimate: $3,000 – $5,000

A Tiger Tamer automaton, hand carved and painted by contemporary craftsman Frank Nelson in 2008. One in a series of five.

When operated, the tiger tamer cracks his whip but the tiger refuses to perform and shakes its head. In a reversal of roles, the tamer then opens his mouth wide and the tiger eventually sticks its head

Pierrot on the Moon

Estimate: $12,000 – $18,000

A Pierrot on the Moon automaton, made in Paris by Lambert circa 1890, with a hand painted composition face, glass eyes, its original velvet costume and a composition moon.

The French clown figure sits on the tip of the moon and plays his instrument, then turns his head and sticks out his tongue, as the Moon opens its mouth and moves its eye.


Estimate: $15,000 – $25,000

A large ‘Levitation’ automaton made in Paris by Roullet & Decamps, circa 1920s.

When operated, the magician’s assistant floats up above the table, as the tuxedo-clad magician passes a hoop along her body to prove she really is ‘levitating’.

Piano Watteau Pianist

Estimate: $15,000 – $25,000

A rare ‘Piano Watteau’ automaton, manufactured by Vichy in Paris in the 1890s, with papier-mache head and hands, glass eyes and its original silk and lace dress.

The female musician plays four songs on the ornately decorated piano-harp, turning her head from side to side, blinking her eyes and moving her hands along the keyboard.

According to legend, this figure belonged to a wealthy Frenchman who smuggled it out of Paris prior to the Nazi invasion in WWII, and later sold it to an attaché to General Douglas MacArthur.

Magician from the film Sleuth

Estimate: $40,000 – $60,000

An almost life-sized magician automaton, made in Paris circa 1925-30 with glass eyes and its original turban and costume.

The magician looks from side to side, mumbles a spell with an articulated lower lip, and waves his wand above a velvet cone before lifting it to reveal one of six different items.

The elaborate antique automaton appeared on-screen as a significant prop in the classic thriller 1972 thriller starring Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Caine.

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