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Early Tech Auction Offers Rarities
by Bob Brooke


We live in an age of technology, so it’s fitting that pieces of early technology should be high on collector’s lists of most wanted items. Auction Team Köln, the premier specialty auction of technical items since 1987, headed by Auction Team Breker, held it’s quarterly Science & Technology, Office Antiques, and Toys and Tin Toys auctions in Cologne, Germany.

The assortment of items offered in all three auctions was astounding, but the sheer number of items–over 12,000 objects in 531 lots–shows how technology has influenced everyday life since the late 18th century. Auction Team Breker offered its largest number of items in its Science and Technology Auction, 331 lots, of which three quarters sold. This could have been because items either didn’t reach their reserves or no one was interested in them. The Toys and Tin Toys Auction did about the same, with 66 percent of its items selling. But the best of the day was the Office Antiques Auction, for which Auction Breker is famous, in which 82 percent of the lots sold. According to Uwe H. Breker, auction owner, the results are typical of Spring sales.

Among the variety of items offered were all sorts of calculators, early telephones and telephone equipment, typewriters, cipher machines, surveying equipment, phonographs, even mousetraps and a Ford Model T touring car. The common thread in all three auctions was technology, as each object had to technically operate in some manner or have to do with technology directly.

Realized prices, which included a 19.3 percent premium plus a 16 percent tax, ranged from a low of $8 for an ordinary German cast-iron bean cutter with a crank drive for three knives to a super high of $38,821 for an extraordinary Edison "Idelia" phonograph, Model D, from 1907. One of the most unique phonographs made, it played two or four-minute cylinders, had two soundboxes, a large petal metal Cygnet Horn No. 11, all fitted into a mahogany case. The reserve on this piece was only $8,750 with an estimate of $7,377 to $15,860. Just a week before this auction, the same model fetched only $14,400 at a specialty auction of phonographs in Union, Ill. Collectors fought over a 1911 Edison "Opera," which sold for $10,795.

The Science and Technology Auction showcased other phonographs and gramophones, plus hard-to-find cylinders and discs. Playing pianolas and orchestrions added to the mix. Music boxes, popular throughout much of the 19th century, were the only entertainment people had for their homes. Some, like the ornate Deluxe Disc "Symphonion Rococo," offered their owners beauty as well as technology. Set in a wooden box with repousse appliques, it played 10 5/8in discs using an 84-tooth duplex comb. With a reserve of $2.815, it sold for $5,398. A classic gramophone, "The Monarch," circa 1915, manufactured by the Gramophone Company Ltd., featured a light oak case and beautifully grained wooden horn, original decals, double spring motor, and an "HMV Exhibition" soundbox, and sold for $1,792, going slightly over it’s high estimate of $1,500.

Besides home entertainment units, Auction Team Breker offered a unique Swiss coin-operated, 19 by 9 by 6in music box by maker "Mermod Frères." circa 1890. With 10 tunes of popular melodies, brass cylinder, 41-tone comb, and original tuning sheet and directions, it had been used as a one-cent trade stimulator on shop counters. It, too, went over its high estimate of $3,130 to sell for $3,285. A coin-operated, American keyboard ochestrion by Vose and Sons, circa 1920, featuring five instruments–automatic piano, xylophone, two drums and cymbal–housed in a decorative case, plus two long-playing rolls with 10 popular songs each, sold for $5,973.

Among the radios, gambling machines, and electrical devices were several clocks. The best of them was a German polyphon-style, musical grandfather clock by Polyphone Musikwerke of Leipzig, Germany. Playing 11¼ in discs on a 54-tooth duplex comb, this 13-day pendulum clock on the top strikes on a gong which starts the music works running. Set in a tall oak case, it sold for $23,144, nearly $4,400 over its high estimate.

In addition to various fun items, Auction Team Breker offered a wide variety of 59 surveying and related instruments, including 40 theodolites–instruments used for the measurement of horizontal and vertical angles in surveying–featuring a small telescope mounted on two graduated circles. The oldest one, an early English brass model by J.R. Brown, circa 1790, with a 24½ in telescope, brought $8,481, going well over its estimate of $4,270 to $6,100. A polished brass French Graphometer, circa 1760, with a diameter of 12¼ inches, featuring a push-on fixture with ball joint head and compass, sold for $3,700, just about at its maximum estimate of $3,750.

A German collector bought an early brass German microscope by E. & S. Merz from1858 $2,312. And an extremely scarce World War II reel-to-reel tape recorder, the AEG Ton S.b.1 from 1944, used by the German Army and complete with amplifier and accessories, made a fantastic $5,242.

Famous for its auctions of office antiques, Auction Team Breker presented a array of items that seemed to span the history of office technology. Of the 121 lots in the office antiques auction, 48 were typewriters. Topping this group was an Edison Mimeograph typewriter from 1894, which an East Asian private collector bought for $11,565. This exceptionally hard-to-find upstroke machine by Thomas Edison, created the first copies using a wax template producer. Up until 1875, when he first invented the machine, making legible copies was difficult because of the pressure differences in handwritten documents. So Edison developed an inscription machine with 78 characters that printed by pressing a key which then pressed a hammer upward against the ribbon. He eventually sold the rights to his invention to A.B. Dick & Co. Another scarce American typewriter, The Chicago, from 1898, with wooden case, sold for $1,493. An American Edland typewriter by Joe E. Edland of Brooklyn, N.Y., from 1891 brought $8,481 while a Keaton Music Typewriter from 1947 sold for $3,392. The highly desirable German Secret & World Typewriter "Discreet" from 1899, which was also a cipher machine, set a new record high of $16,962.

Besides typewriters, Auction Team Breker offered a variety of early calculators, including the Curta I from 1948, selling for $1,387. By using a single step drum to successively actuate each digit setting instead of an individual drum for each setting, Curt Herzstark made his Curta calculator small enough to be handheld during operation. To perform calculations, the drum had to be driven past each of the setting wheels to transfer a number corresponding to the number of teeth encountered. The Brunsviga Model I from 1892, the first of the legendary German spoke wheel calculators, reached a high of $4,471 and 'The Saxonia," from 1895, a exceptional step-drum model by Schumann & Co.,$3,700.

Even early office fans, like an original, museum-quality Edison electric model from 1898, with brass blades and replaced cage, selling for $5,087, excited buyers.

The Toy and Tin Toys auction also showed some surprising results. A racing motorbike, the "Silver Racer," with sidecar by Tipp & Co., from 1957 fetched $2,775. Made of lithographed tinplate and clockwork-operated, it’s just 7¾ in long.

In addition to military-type toys, an assortment of cast iron vehicles, crossword puzzles, banks, the toy auction also featured a superb collection of 22 toy steam engines. An English steam engine, circa 1920, brought $2,005 while a single-cylinder steam engine by Stuart, circa 1930, sold for $2,620. A large, unique, German paper theater "Urania" by Carl Beyer, circa 1885, sold surprisingly high at $3,700.

From the results of this auction, it seems that technology items are hot in today’s antique and collectible marketplace.

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