Monday, May 23, 2011

How Much Is That Automaton in The Window?

A keen-eyed former student sent me an article about an upcoming sale at Christie's (Hong Kong) of a perfectly matched pair of pistols that fire tiny avian automata.

The pistols date from about 1820, and are attributed to the Swiss artisans and horologists Frères Rochat. They are the only matched pair of automata-pistols in existence, although some museums and collections have single pistols from the same period. They are exquisite: made of gold, with red and blue enamel inlay, and encrusted with pearls and diamonds. But what bullets! After priming the pistols with a small key, pull the trigger and...TWEET! A tiny bird, with multi-colored plumage, shoots out of the barrel and perches on the end, singing a little song and flapping its wings for about 20 seconds. The entire mechanism is composed of tiny springs, gears, wires, levers, barrels, and pistons that are all enclosed within the pistol itself.

The tiny birds sound and look incredibly realistic. Similar kinds of automata were known in the medieval period. Several different historical sources mention golden trees with mechanical birds, or mechanical birds conjoined to programmable fountains, as early as the 9th century (Baghdad), and also in the 10th century (Istanbul). The travelers' reports of these marvels took root in the medieval imagination, and mechanical birds (made of gold and covered in gems) appear in numerous medieval histories and romances. In one, the birds are so lifelike that they fool real birds, who flock to the tree looking for mates (a nice avian echo of some old myths when people fall in love with statues).

So, if you've got between $2.5 and $5M to burn, catch a flight over to HK and make a bid! The auction is May 30.

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