THE LEGENDARY ENGLISH antiques dealer, Jack Donovan, used to refer to his collection of musical boxes and automata as “princely toys,” perhaps because mechanical toys have held a well-documented fascination for the royal families of Europe and Asia for at least three centuries.
When Tsar Nicholas wanted to present Princesses Olga and Elizabeth of Greece with a gift, he chose an automaton by the Parisian firm Roullet et Decamps, and in turn Gaston Decamps was inspired by sculptor Rodin’s drawings of the royal dancers of Cambodia on a state visit to France in 1906.
Auction Team Breker’s Spring sale on May 28, 2011 includes an example of a royal automaton in the form of a musical sewing necessaire with complement of gilt-metal tools
and a mechanical seascape fitted into the lid. According to a period inscription on the underside, this luxurious toy was presented to the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) by her friends.
Equally aristocratic is a Roullet et Decamps “Smoking Marquis” automaton still wearing his superb original cream satin costume. Whereas the smoker has a bisque head with standard bébé features, Decamps’ competitor, Leopold Lambert, commissioned a series of unique bisque character faces from dollmaker Jumeau for use on special automata.