It came to auction in Glasgow on April 7from a couple based on the west coast of Scotland whose family had owned it since the 1940s.
As suggested by the catalogue description, ‘possibly by Leopold Lambert or Gustav Vichy’, this is a well-known model made by the great Parisian automaton maker Gustav Vichy (1839-1904) c.1880-90.
When operative the clockwork motor and mechanism performs seven movements in a realistic vignette of a connoisseur opium smoker. Turning his head upward and then left to right, he raises the pipe to his mouth, inhales while opening and closing his eyes, raises his left hand as though to signal his pleasure, and then exhales.
All the mechanics are concealed in the body (rather than in a base) including an internal system of tubing that creates the smoking illusion.
Prices for automata vary widely according to condition. Examples of the Vichy opium smoker, which stands around 2ft 4in (70cm) high on its velvet stand, have brought between £5000-30,000 depending on the degree of repair and replacement.
This Glasgow survivor was in outwardly poor order with the papier-mâché head and hands cracked and with losses and the velvet, silk and lace robe faded and distressed.
However, in its favour was a complete absence of restoration and the sort of inviting estimate that brings everyone to the party.
Ready for an overhaul
The successful buyer, seeing off competition from the US and the south of England, was Michael Start of the House of Automata in Forres. He told ATG the firm – which will feature in several episodes of the forthcoming series of The Restorers – had sold another version of this model just a few weeks ago.
His latest purchase – “with a really good expression, excellent face paint and a good robust body” – would “have its mechanism overhauled, bellows and smoking tubes replaced and be redressed. But we will take our time with this one to find the right materials.”
Dundee whisky relic
It was another niche collectable that provided a surprise bid in the firm’s sale of glass and ceramics the following day. This was the £1400 (estimate £30-50) tendered by a local buyer using thesaleroom.com for a late Victorian cranberry glass water jug enamelled in white script for James Robertson’s Dundee Whisky.
The survival rate of these glass advertising pieces is relatively low – this 6in (14cm) jug seemingly much rarer than a Doulton stoneware flask promoting the JRD brand that brings around £50.
Robertson’s blending operation in Dundee was among those engulfed in the infamous 1906 blaze caused by the ignition of a bonded warehouse. The fire was described by one eyewitness as sending “rivers of burning whisky” through the city.
Serpent slithers in
The core of this sale was provided by a private Scottish collection of French art glass including 26 pieces of Lalique.
Some of the more desirable models were post-war issues, including the Serpent vase offered here in polished and frosted amethyst glass. Period examples of this iconic 1924 design are firmly into five figures but this was part of a much later limited edition of 888. Nonetheless, guided at £1000-1500 it sold at £4600.