Danielle Arnet

The large Ansel Adams print brought $722,500 in a recent Sotheby's New York auction
Ansel Adams Print

The large Ansel Adams print brought $722,500 in a recent Sotheby's New York auction

Q: Value for a late 1880s to early 1900s cylinder music box in an inlaid wood case? It measures 25 inches by 9 inches. How do I have it cleaned and checked?

A: First, let's clue readers about old music boxes. Before phonographs and "talking machines," before records, jukeboxes, Walkmans and I-Pods, homes that could afford one had a floor-standing or tabletop mechanical music box. Large coin-operated boxes stood upright in saloons and arcades.

Basically wooden cases (some very fancy) that hold metal cylinders, these boxes have a metal comb with raised teeth. Crank a lever and release the gear, and the metal disk or cylinder rotates against the comb, creating music as the comb teeth catch against raised metal "notes" on the cylinder. (To picture disk or cylinder teeth, think of the infamous hanging chads so important in the 2000 presidential election.)

Boxes with flat metal disks instead of cylinders came later, but the mechanics were the same.

The rich tone and resonance produced by those early boxes is unforgettable. Anyone who has heard an old box will never forget the impact. They are light years beyond tinkly novelty hand-size music boxes.

In "The Musical Box" (Schiffer, $79.95), Arthur Ord-Hume dates the peak of mechanical music boxes around 1851 into the first decades of the last century, peaking around 1900. Originally hugely expensive novelties, the boxes became more common as a growing middle class acquired disposable income.

Works were made in differing styles: Ord-Hume lists more than 70 variants of sound.

Asked if there was a maker's name in her box, the reader told us she could find only Piccolo Zither. "Piccolo" is one variant, as is "Zither." Both refer to tones the box produces.

Maine auction firm James D. Julia (www.juliaauctions.com) has sold many mechanical boxes. Specialist Andrew Truman told us that too little is known about the reader's box to place value.

"It is a fairly small box," he said, adding that larger boxes with big cylinders often sell for more.

"Music boxes can sell for a few hundred dollars to several thousands," he adds. Price depends on fineness of the box, maker, condition, cylinder size and other variables. Demand for boxes is down, but quality boxes new to the market are selling. Results for tabletop boxes are listed on www.liveauctioneers.com at $250 to $2,450, even $4,250. Highest prices were for Regina boxes and complicated works.

Odds of finding a local repairperson are iffy. Try asking local piano and musical instrument repair people for a name. You may have to send it for repair or maintenance. Many owners ship the works without the box.

Julia works with Ed Openshaw, a New Hampshire music machine consultant. He's at (603)786-9922.

FYI: Several online sites have info on music boxes. Not all are perfect, but cruising a few can provide enough info to understand the field.

Q: Value on my Little Black Sambo and Mammy and Pappy Chef salt and pepper shakers?

A: Smart collectors know that many black Americana ceramic items have been reproduced and are made to this day. Both sets seen in images look old, so repros are not an issue. Collectors go for originals.

The black chef and cook are variants of a common unmarked, hand painted type. Most sell for under $100. Red accents and a gold rolling pin held by the cook make these better grade.

Sambo and the tiger are certainly non-PC. But they are valuable. Many of the sets made by Ceramic Arts Studio are unmarked, but this mark is clear. That, plus excellent condition, puts the set in the $300 range.

AUCTION ACTION: "Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park," shot by noted photographer Ansel Adams in 1938 and printed as a mural size, flush-mounted photo in the 1950s or '60s for the corporate Polaroid Collection, recently sold for $722,500 at Sotheby's New York.

Smart collectors remember recent news stories about the California buyer who found a box of 65 glass plates for $45 at a garage sale years ago, to learn that they were early glass plates by Adams, now worth about $200 mill. OK, you smart collectors -- hit the sales this weekend!


Question: Which company was NOT a maker of mechanical music boxes: Symphonion, Regina, Delmonico, Mermod Freres, Stella, Polyphon?

Answer: Delmonico's was a fine restaurant.






Collecting - Cylinder Music Boxes: 19th Century Home Entertainment System