Birds on song; They may not have the feathers of their real-life cousins, but Christopher Proudlove finds demand is sky high for these mechanical music boxes.
Now, the chirping bird turning its head from side to side and fluttering its tail in such a jaunty, cheerful manner is an image that has become almost synonymous with collecting.
As someone not permitted by senior management to have a canary in the house, I've always hankered after owning a mechanical one, which struck me as possibly the next best thing. And then I learned how much they cost -needless to say, I'm still saving.
The value of the late 19th-century clockwork singing birds has taken flight. You won't be left with much change out of pounds 2,000 for a reasonable example in good working order.
For the money you get a tiny feathered mechanical bird or birds, hopefully not too moth-eaten, which open and close their beaks in a semblance of syncopation with the sound of bird song or the tinkling of a music box, the movement of which is located in the base of the cage.
Automata which mimic birds have been around for a long time. Archytas of Tarentum (420-411 BC) is said to have built a mechanical bird propelled by a jet of steam, and in Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale the Chinese emperor had a mechanical nightingale made of gold and diamonds which could both fly and sing.
True mechanical and musical automatons, in which movement and sound are produced by clockwork, first appeared in the 15th century. Not surprisingly, German clockmakers were the finest exponents.
The idea of transferring the figures from clock face to mantelpiece was a natural progression. What helped was the arrival of the barrel organ in the early 16th century, followed by the Carillon (which used bells) and the invention, in 1796, of the musical box.
However, it was the development of the music box in particular which produced some of the most technically brilliant automatons. Probably the most remarkable were those made at the end of the 18th century by a Swiss-born watchmaker Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-1790) and his son, Henri-Louis (1752-1791).
Father's masterpiece was The Writer. When activated, this seated figure of a young boy dips his quill pen in ink, shakes it twice, and writes a phrase of 40 characters - even his eyes move.
The contribution made by Droz jnr. was The Draughtsman, similar in all respects as before, except the figure draws four different diagrammatical images: a portrait of Louis XV, a royal couple (believed to be Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI), a dog with "Mon toutou" ("My doggy") written beside it, and Cupid driving a chariot pulled by a butterfly. The crowned heads of Europe and the emperors of China, India and Japan were among their customers.
The Jaquet-Droz mechanical singing bird, which appeared in about 1780, was subsequently miniaturised and incorporated into the movements of the company's most expensive clocks. Another clockmaker, Jean-Frederic Leschot (1746-1824) joined the Jaquet-Droz company and he perfected the miniaturisation process, later including it in jewel-encrusted gold boxes, notably those for snuff.
Unlike mechanical musical boxes, in which sounds were produced from the teeth of a steel comb being plucked by pins in a revolving brass cylinder, the singing birds rely on tiny bellows.
When a button is pushed, the clockwork mechanism causes a series of rods to move the bird's head from side to side, while at the same time opening and closing its beak and opening, closing and flapping its wings.
Independently to this, the rods also cause a pair of bellows to be squeezed open and closed, forcing air to pass through pipes similar to those in a church organ.
Singing birds in gilded cages come in varying sizes and population. Small examples are found under four inches tall, but the majority are between 11 and 22 inches, the larger versions with two or occasionally three birds. The rarest of all examples are particularly large and ornate and can contain up to 20 birds.
Equally charming and similarly rare are singing bird displays in which the creatures sit in naturalistic surroundings such as the branches of a tree, but trapped beneath a tall and fragile glass dome. These remain somewhat less popular than their caged compatriots, probably because they look rather too realistic for today's market.
If money is no object, the singing birds to seek out are the rich man's toys of the late 18th century, decorating gold snuff and other boxes which were nothing more than a display of wealth. Usually a rectangular metal box, made from gold, tortoiseshell, silver gilt or semi-pressures gemstones, the boxes were used to contain snuff, cashous or jewellery and go by the name of tabatiAre, French for snuff box.
Decorating the lid, or in rarer examples beneath the lid, is a small, pierced cover which flips open at the push of a button to reveal the bird, who snaps to attention to perform his solo as the cover is released.
Most were produced by the French and the Swiss, but several German companies also manufactured singing bird tabatiAres, with the result that the late 19th-century and 20th-century examples are far more affordable, starting at around pounds 2,000 at auction. However, a fully restored example from a dealer can be several times the price.
The movements of good singing-bird tabatiAres are often signed and names to watch out for, in addition to Jaquet- Droz, include Frisard, Bruguier, Rochat, Griesbaum and Bontems. Two makers continue to make singing bird automata today: the German companies Reuge, who purchased both Bontems in the 1900s and Eschle in 1977' and Griesbaum.
Advice to a would-be buyer: by the best you can afford and preferably one in full working order. A singing bird automaton needing restoration is a job for a trained professional - in fact several trained professionals, since so many disciplines are involved in their manufacture. Repairs are timeconsuming and therefore costly.
Left to right : three birds sing for their supper in the 20 th -century automation music box worth pounds 175-250 at auction : a very fine silver and polychrome enamel singing bird box of outstanding quality by Griesbaum of Germany with an asking price of pounds 11,750: a continental singing bird box in a bruguier style cashion - shaped case with fine gilt bronze decoration with an asking price of pounds 67 ( both are for sale through Dougles Fine Antiques, 75 portobello Road, London (tel 07860 680521,www.antique-clocks co uk)' A good late 19th - century Swiss gilt brass and enamel rectangular singing bird music box (far left) which sold in a recent auction for pounds 2,000' (left ) a good early 20 th century German silver gilt - cased rectangular singing bird box, sold for pounds 1.700