Automatons: The Magical Mystery Of Moving Parts

Animating Mechanical Objects

Automatons have been collectible for hundreds of years, since watch and clockmakers figured out how to utilize the gears inherent in timekeeping to animate mechanical objects, figures, animals and people.

Automatons (moving parts) can be seen in large locomotive-motif clocks with running wheels and smoke stacks, in bird cages, in miniature bird boxes and even pocket in watches that tell time and show maidens pumping water, servants ringing dinner bells and even frankly erotic scenes. All the movement in these pieces is simply powered by a clock or wristwatch mainspring. Minimalized automatons are still made today by some of the most famous watch companies in the world.

With bird boxes and bird cages, valuation is typically determined by the number of complications. In other words, this bird cage has three complications: the tail feathers move, the head moves from left to right, and the beak opens and closes, accompanied by a pleasant chirping sound powered by a hidden bellows (which is powered by the mainspring). 

pocket watch


bird cage


Some birds only have one complication — motion of the beak — and are worth considerably less than the one above. Conversely, a bird that chirps, shakes its tail feathers, spreads its wings and moves its head back and forth can be worth double or triple the bird above, which is valued at about $1,000.

This is an archival article formerly written and is for informational purposes only. The valuations in this article have likely changed since it was first written.

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