First come the jewelry sales, the big guns like Sotheby’s leading the way with sales as crazy as Marie Antoinette’s jewelry (Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Family of Parma, technically, though it sounds more like a delicious lunch than a sale), but the smaller houses play, too. Skinner’s sale closed December 5, Freeman’s earlier, but later than Sotheby’s. These are not sales I bid in, but they are places to see things you’d might not otherwise see. Garnet bracelets with rose-cut diamond flies? Not something I see gracing the wrists of my fellow Metro riders or grocery shoppers.
Once the serious stuff has sold, the fun begins: the toys! Pook and Pook’s two-day toy sale begins December 7th, and you might call it whimsies and toys, since it begins with shop signs. Who doesn’t want an enormous tin hat? What’s the point, you ask? Why look, if you don’t collect? Because you can collect– information, screen caps of reference images, ideas for things to make, and a visual reference library to fill in the blanks of what you read. The steam engine that breaks in The Railway Children seemed crazy to me as a child, and I assumed it was just a model of a steam locomotive. But no: there were steam toys and accessories, from lighthouses in moats with Indians in sailboats to working looms to….steam locomotives.
The darling thing even looks like Percy, filling in the gaps of the origins of Thomas the Tank Engine, Edwardian children’s stories, and the wonders of the steam age (which you can replicate, if you choose). Hard to believe, in our age of safety, that steam engines might be de rigueur in the parlors of well-to-do Victorian and Edwardian families. (Perhaps your childhood was not as full of E. Nesbitt, Kenneth Grahame, and Arthur Ransome as mine, but if your mother’s primary caregiver was born in late 19th-century Great Britain, you might grow up with an attachment disorder and a taste for fabulist literature of the early 20th century.)
And then there are the dioramas or room boxes, many, if not most, German. These early 20th-century displays give us a sense of the kinds of craft or hobby activities people enjoyed, front-facing dioramas. I think you either “get” them, or you don’t; not everyone wants a miniature world to control or fantasize about, but from the perspective of someone trying to understand what the past looked like, these can provide a three-dimensional view of what are usually only black and white images. Are they perfectly correct? No. But they do give us a sense of the kind of visual stimulation people encountered and enjoyed shopping and playing.
There are dolls, always divisive (they’re creepy or cute, few folks fall in between) and they have they own usefulness. None in this Pook sale tell us much about early toys, but there are a couple of early 19th century examples to remind us of what children played with in the past, and how new fashions were disseminated. In the case of the milliner’s model doll at left, we get a good sense of the Apollo’s knot hairstyle, and a pair of red slippers I would love to have. The back view is equally useful, for it is only with three-dimensional objects (dolls or sculpture) that we can get a complete sense of a hairstyle or costume. With enough looking, you can extrapolate, but there’s nothing like being able to see the past in the round. That’s even better than the telephone-book-thick catalogs from Sears and J.C. Penney that arrived before the holidays in decades past.