Mechanical creatures have captured imaginations for centuries

Terry and Kim Kovel
Is it a music box, a toy, a showpiece or a robot? Wind it with a key, and a feathery bird pops out to chirp and flutter in a lifelike way.

Robots may sound like current cutting-edge technology or science-fiction dreams of the future, but automated mechanical creatures have captured people's imaginations for centuries. Animals and music were always popular themes.

Legends say that King Solomon surrounded his throne with mechanical animals, including lions that would raise their paws and roar when he approached and birds that would descend to give him his crown and a scroll. Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician from the first century, wrote a treatise called "On Automaton-Making" with designs for a water basin with singing birds among other inventions.

There are records from the Middle Ages and Renaissance of clever inventors in Europe and Asia creating mechanical animals and musicians. Despite all this innovation, the "Golden Age of Automata" did not arrive until the 19th century. Technology had advanced enough to make automata accessible outside of royal palaces, but not so much that the novelty had worn off. All kinds of automata were made with different levels of complexity, from pictures with moving paper figures to life-size three-dimensional mechanical puppets.

Music boxes with mechanical features were popular, too. A favorite style was the singing bird, like this one that sold for $4,560 at Morphy Auctions. It was made in Germany in the late 19th century and winds with a key. When it is wound, a small bird with red feathers pops out of the enameled box to chirp and flap its wings. 

Question: My brothers and I inherited a picture that had been hanging in my grandparents' home until they died. It's a work by Grandma Moses. A stamp on the back says "No. 1216, Subject: Early Spring (the rest is illegible) Artist Grandma Moses." Unfortunately, there is a small bit of damage to the lower right corner of the picture. Can you tell me what it is worth?

Answer: Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961), an American folk artist, was known as Grandma Moses. She began painting when she was 77 years old. She did paintings of rural scenes she called "old timey" and sold them for a few dollars each. Her work became well known after an art collector bought several of her paintings in 1939. She did hundreds of paintings during her lifetime, and they have been reproduced many times. Some of her original paintings have sold for several thousand dollars, and some are in museums.

The picture you have, "Early Springtime on the Farm," was painted in 1945. The number means it was probably part of a limited edition. Many reproduction prints sell for $5 to $10, but with damage the value would be less. Your picture would have to be seen to be properly evaluated. Take it to an art gallery or museum to see if they can tell you if it is real or a reproduction. 

Q: I enjoy reading your column in our newspaper. I have a Boy Scout handbook, "Revised Edition, 13th Printing, One Hundred Thousand Copies." It has a list of copyrights from 1911 to 1930. It is in fair condition. The cover and first page are torn, and the back is taped. What is it worth?

A: The Boy Scouts of America started in 1910. The first handbook, titled "The Official Handbook for Boys," was published in 1911. The title of the handbook has been changed several times. From 1927 to 1948, it was "Revised Handbook for Boys." The copyright dates in your handbook indicate it was printed in 1930 or shortly after.

A Norman Rockwell painting called "Spirit of America," originally made for a 1929 Boy Scout calendar, was used for the cover art on the handbook from 1927 through 1937. It pictures the profile of a Boy Scout against a blue background with profiles of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, a frontiersman and an American Indian. Copies in poor condition usually sell for $10 or less.

Q: Can you tell me the value of a Tiffany ID bracelet? The ID plate is attached to a mesh stretch band. The plate is engraved "NY," "T & Co" and "1837" and is attached by two pieces, one marked "steel" and the other "T & Co., Italy."

A: Your bracelet is part of Tiffany's 1837 collection, which commemorates the company's beginning in 1837. Each piece is inscribed with that year. Charles Lewis Tiffany and James B. Young founded Tiffany & Young, a stationery and fancy goods store, in New York in 1837. The company began selling imported jewelry in 1844. The company began selling its own jewelry and silver in 1848. Charles Tiffany took over the business in 1853 and renamed it Tiffany & Company.

Your bracelet is made of stainless steel. It originally came in a Tiffany blue felt pouch and matching blue box. These bracelets sell for $115 or more, depending on condition. With the original packaging, some have sold for $175 to $230.

TIP: Spray the inside of a glass flower vase with nonstick food spray. It will keep the water from staining the glass. 

Current Prices

Current prices are recorded from antiques shows, flea markets, sales and auctions throughout the United States. Prices vary in different locations because of local economic conditions.

Card set, Funny Valentine, multicolor illustration and inscription on front, insult on reverse, black and white with red accents, Topps, 1959, 66 pieces, $85.

Rookwood pottery vase, standard glaze, shaded brown, leaves and orange berries around shoulder, bulbous, flared neck, No. 488E, marked and signed, Sallie Toohey, 6 x 5 ½ inches, $185.

Textile, tapestry, millefleur, two figures in medieval style dress, man standing, arm extended, woman seated, hands raised, floral and leafy ground, banded border, lined, mounted, Continental, 54 x 43 inches. $330.

Paper, Valentine, cutwork, watercolor, red, yellow, green, ring of eight hearts around center medallion, inscription in each heart, swags, stylized flowers, painted frame, 19th century, 11 inches, $500.

Glass, contemporary, vase, cylindrical, horizontal stripes, painted metallic oxides, etched lozenges, matte finish, signed, Isgard Moje-Wohlgemuth, Germany, 1982, 18 ½ x 8 inches, $575.

Furniture, table, Pembroke, Sheraton, mahogany, shaped drop leaves, drawer, reeded tapered legs, brass caster feet, New York, c. 1805, 29 x 22 x 26 inches, 10 ¼ inch leaves, $625.

Scent vial, pillow shape, allover raised scrolls and flowers, scroll handles, old European cut diamond, oval ruby on reverse, hinged lid, short chain, 14K gold, 1 ¼ inches, $810.

Teddy bear, Teddy Baby replica, brown fur, stitched nose, red collar, yellow tag in ear, Steiff, 1980s, 11 inches. $945.

Watch, hunting case, Riverside, engraved, multicolor accents, black outlines, Roman numerals, subdial, 18K gold, marked, K & U, American Watch Company, c. 1875, $1,355.

Tiffany vase holder, bronze dore, openwork, 10 petals, beaded, leafy scrolls, Favrile glass inserts, No. 1733, marked, Tiffany Studios, 14 inches, $4,375.