Research on Antiques & Collectibles


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Joshua Logan, who has directed a good many notable names on Broadway and in Hollywood, keeps some of his favorite performers at home. This special troupe—an entourage of twirling ballerinas, somersaulting acrobats, a smiling conjurer, even a mock-ferocious tiger—is frequently put through its paces by the veteran producer-director, who knows a good cast when he sees one. "You see why I love them?" asked Mr. Logan recently, glancing toward the company of mechanical dolls he had just bidden to perform in his New York apartment, where they reside on mantels and tables, peek out from under chairs or stand sentinel in doorways. Activated by a simple turn of a key, these automata, as the dolls are technically known, were going through antics as funny as they were mechanically ingenious. "This is one of my most successful ones," announced their owner, his words turning into a guffaw as a little-girl doll dipped a bubble blower into a dish she was holding, lifted the blower (now filled with bubble solution) to her mouth, and produced a perfect stream of bubbles. "What makes a person get up in the morning and dream of creating such a figure?" asked Mr. Logan.

The little girl, like most of Mr. Logan's other mechanical dolls, was made in late-nineteenth-century France as a charming novelty for the well-heeled Parisian bourgeoisie. And foreign bon vivants, in Paris to savor the pleasures of the Belle Epoque, also brought back mechanical dolls to display at home in St. Petersburg, London or New York.

It was on a trip to France, as well, that Mr. Logan first spied the dolls in 1949. With two hits on Broadway at once—he was co-author and director of both Mr. Roberts and South Pacific, as well as co-producer of the latter—Mr. Logan and his wife, Nedda, made the rounds of the Paris antiques dealers in a buying mood. They found the dolls in a shop specializing in theatrical props. "Nedda and I went into the store," Mr. Logan recalled, "and this bouncy little man saw us and ran around winding up several dolls. Three or four were performing, and I really was just mad about them the moment I saw them. I said to the man, 'Don't tell me how much they are, I want them all'. ..." The Logans bought three dolls for $150 apiece and still display them at home. "You'll see why I became a devoted addict," said their owner, striding across the living room toward one of these original purchases—a French noblewoman sumptuously clothed in embroidered, beaded satin, and sitting before her miniature dressing table. Mr. Logan bent to wind a key discreetly hidden behind the folds of her dress. It activated both a music box and an elaborate beauty ritual carried out by the little French aristocrat. The musical accompaniment is not unusual; musical units from Switzerland or France are generally built into these dolls, which are considered a hybrid creation—part doll, part music box, part robot. While the music box played an appropriately dulcet melody, Mr. Logan's miniature aristocrat lifted a powder puff to her face, looked both to the left and to the right to view her handiwork in the large dressing-table mirror, and finally lifted a hand mirror for a closer inspection. "She's a little marquise," Mr. Logan said softly, the playwright in him plotting the scene. "She has been invited to an important function, and she is very vain."

Because of their delicacy and complexity, such dolls as the marquise were obviously not designed for children. Their satirical aspect, too, is aimed at adults; somehow, these dolls manage to mock the very actions that they imitate. (It's not hard to guess that one of the most popular automata of the nineteenth century, a monkey dressed in human clothing, was making a monkey of us all.) But these charmers bring out the child in the adult. Joshua Logan, for example, "plays with them all the time," said Nedda Logan. Sometimes "he shows them to children, like our grandchildren." And sometimes, she said, he winds them up when he's alone, for the pure fun of it. One of Mr. Logan's favorites is a blackamoor conjurer who was a gift years ago from designer Coco Chanel. The occasion is recalled today with an appropriate sense of the dramatic. At the start of a glittering party near Paris, Mr. Logan reminisced, a friend of his "turned to a woman at our table and said, 'The Logans have the most marvelous collection of automata.' The woman said, 'How chic, I have only one—and it's theirs.' She stood and it was Coco Chanel. The next day she sent the blackamoor to us.

Today the Chanel blackamoor, sporting a salmon-colored fez and an embroidered tailcoat, stands near the Logans' dining room doorway. A grinning con artist, he beguiles the viewer even as he mystifies him with an elaborate variant of the shell game. While the triumphal march from Aida issues from his music box, the conjurer repeatedly lifts one of the metal cups that he holds, each time revealing a different object beneath the cup: there may be a tiny doll, a rooster, three little balls, or perhaps a button. Their sequence of appearance, of course, remains a carefully guarded secret of the smiling, nodding blackamoor.

Over the years, numerous other friends have enlarged Mr. Logan's collection, and a tour of his apartment to view the dolls is likely to be accompanied by a narrative liberally sprinkled with well-known names drawn up from a forty-five-year career on Broadway and in Hollywood. This little mannequin somersaulting across the foyer floor came from actor James Stewart ("He and Hank Fonda and I lived together in 1936 in Beverly Hills"); that elephant was a gift from composer Richard Rodgers, a creative partner in South Pacific; and yet another blackamoor, a turbaned fellow who smokes real tobacco through a hookah, was a present from producer David Merrick. ("He did it to keep me happy. . . . He wanted me to direct for him.") Mr. Logan, of course, did direct for David Merrick, an event commemorated by still another doll. She is a little fishmonger, a gift from Nedda Logan for the 1954 Broadway opening of the musical Fanny—a bittersweet comedy set on the waterfront of Marseilles—of which Mr. Logan was co-author, director and co-producer with Mr. Merrick. "This is Fanny," said Mr. Logan, as he wound her key. "She sells seashells and seafood, but she dreams of being a prima ballerina." On cue, the top of Fanny's basket, covered with seashells, lifted to reveal a tiny ballerina, spinning on toe shoes. "You can't believe what complicated things they are inside," said Mr. Logan watching the little fish-seller's fantasy unfold.

As complex as are the nineteenth-century dolls in Joshua Logan's collection, the heights of mechanical genius may well have been reached in the 1700s, when the first clockspring-driven dolls were made. Imagine, for example, a life-size duck made in 1738 that not only quacked and flapped its wings, but swallowed real corn or oats, digested the food by means of a chemical solution inside, and finally—in what may have been an excess of the maker's zeal—discharged it in biologically accurate fashion. So mechanically sophisticated were such pieces that one family of automaton makers, displaying their creations in Spain, risked being condemned as sorcerers by the Inquisition. In the eighteenth century, it seems, it required temerity as well as skill to make an automaton.

Mr. Logan is notably casual about the facts and figures of his own, later collection. His dolls number "about fourteen," considered a medium-size assemblage in what is a small, highly specialized field. Their "provenance" is no formal pedigree, but a reminiscence of plays and friends, which seems somehow fitting in an apartment where theatrical memorabilia share equal billing with French furnishings of the Second Empire. ("Emiyn Williams calls our living room 'the old curiosity shop,'" said Mr. Logan, moving amidst the artful clutter of fine antiques, posters of old plays and films, and photographs of movie stars that fill his home.) He makes no great claim about the relative merit of his collection, noting that he has the dolls "just because I fell in love with them." But according to Steve Ryder, a Swiss-trained expert on automata, Mr. Logan's mechanical dolls are "good representatives" of the type made in Paris from about 1860 to the turn of the century. The conjuring blackamoor, the "powder puff lady" and the animals owned by Mr. Logan were all great favorites of the day, recurrent characters in a mechanical commedia dell'arte.

In the world of automata, Paris was Mecca, and the greatest craftsmen in the field flocked to the city. Steve Ryder and his brother Jere (who together run AutaMusique, Ltd., the Cranford, New Jersey, doll-restoring firm where Mr. Logan sends his figures for repairs) have identified Mr. Logan's powdering "marquise" as the work of Gustave Pierre Vichy, perhaps the greatest artist among nineteenth-century automata makers. With great finesse, Vichy installed the clockwork mechanism and the intricate sequence of wheels on a rod that send the marquise through each move of her beauty ritual. Had any wheel been misaligned by even a fraction of an inch, notes Steve Ryder, the rhythm of the doll's movement would have been destroyed.

With their natural fragility, mechanical dolls have tended to fall victim to the ravages of time; not many come onto the market anymore. When one does appear, it may easily fetch $2,500 and up, according to Rita Ford, a New York music box dealer. Prices, though, are of limited interest to Mr. Logan. "I don't think we'd ever sell them," he said. Having thus quickly disposed of the subject of money, he walked to yet another of his dolls, this one a satin-clad shepherdess holding a basket and looking for all the world like Marie Antoinette in a pastoral mood. Winding the key, Mr. Logan stepped back and watched as a lamb peered out from the basket, issued an annoyed bleat and promptly disappeared into its straw shelter. "Now isn't that marvelous? You know I couldn't resist her," said Mr. Logan, obviously captivated by yet another performance from his troupe of mechanical mummers. "They amaze me. They're so beautiful, yet so funny while they move. After all," added the playwright-director-producer, "I spend all my time making people do these things."

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