An Early Automaton

Whimsical items like this bird cage paved the way for today's innovations

Your Victorian-era wind-up musical bird in a brass cage is a wonderful example of what is known as an automaton. Automatons are typically non-electric objects or machines that wind up and have moving parts that resemble living things, operating mechanically via hidden gears, weights or springs. Essentially they represent the origins of robotics and computers. Starting in ancient Greece and carrying on through the ages, these whimsical objects gained popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries as they were combined with clocks and music as household novelties and conversation pieces. The tradition continues and automatons are still being manufactured today.

Thirty years ago, when I was 11 and had just started working at my parents' antique shop (yes, the same shop that our family runs today!), I remember being mystified by a small enameled silver and gold music box. When a lever was pushed a bird popped up and triumphantly tweeted and flapped its wings. That box was then priced at around $1,000 and is today worth over $5,000. I was mesmerized by it and it started my fascination with automatons and music boxes.

Automatons were designed in countless imaginative forms: bird cages, store window displays with Santa waving hello, cuckoo clocks, etc. From the rarest of automatons, which were dolls that could actually write letters with a quill pen, to chirping birds lurching from clocks, the fascination of creating objects to amaze and entertain continues today. Your chirping bird laid the foundation for future innovations like tin wind-up toys and playing records on a turntable.

Your musical birdcage automaton was made in Germany in the late 1800s. Fabricated from wood, feathers and metal, it rotates and chirps with a key wind mechanism. How fabulous to have such a possession! More elaborate examples of automaton birdcages featuring multiple birds can bring thousands of dollars. Yours is probably from the early- to mid-20th century. Assuming it is still in good working order, I would estimate its value at $500.

Curious about an antique you have?

Send a photo to If there are markings, please take a clear photo of them as well. If your submission is selected, we’ll have expert Jason Hackler appraise it. Hackler, manager/owner of New Hampshire Antique Co-op in Milford and partner of Jason Samuel Antiques, is a past officer of the Granite State Antique and Appraisers Association, a principal of the Active Appraisal Group and a member of the N.H. Antique Dealers Association.



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