Rare Automaton sparks international interest

The Black smoker is an unusual addition to the Edinburgh auction house

A rare automaton of a black man smoking a cigarette will be sold at auction by Lyon & Turnbull this week. Valued at around £1500, the piece is made by famous Frenchman Vichy and dates from the period 1860 to 1910, known as “The Golden Age of Automata”.

Sourced from a private collection near Dundee, the Black Smoker has mechanical movement to the eyes, mouth and neck. Douglas Girton from Lyon& Turnbull spoke of how the figure’s unusual qualities have sparked an interest among buyers internationally;

“It’s the most viewed item on our online auction. Our customers are excited by the fact that it’s a bit different and quirky, buyers are definitely very curious about our Black smoker!”

The success of the Hollywood Blockbuster “Hugo”, directed by Martin Scorsese, which featured automatons or mechanical robots, has undoubtedly added to the interest of the piece.

Originally used as a promotional piece in the window of a tobacconist, the antique figure remains in excellent condition with the clockwork mechanism in full working order.


The high price tag attached to this once forgotten family heirloom is down to its renowned manufacturers, as Lee Young, automaton specialist pointed out;

“This is very collectible item, especially as it dates from the period between 1860 and 1910 when many small family based companies of Automata makers thrived in Paris. From their workshops they exported thousands of clockwork automata and mechanical singing birds around the world. It is these French automata that are collected today, although now rare and expensive they attract collectors worldwide.”
Lyon & Turnbull is one of the capital's oldest auction houses.

Gustave Vichy was born in 1839 to a Parisian watch and clock maker who, along with his wife, set up the Vichy Company in 1862 with the aim of building and selling clocks, mechanical objects and toys. In 1866, Gustave took over the company and dedicated his time to developing automata while his wife, a seamstress, dressed the figures. The Vichy Company became part of a group of family businesses that thrived in Paris between 1860 and 1910 and known as the “Golden Age of Automata”. Gustave had great success producing advertising automata and one of his models won the Grand Prix at the Great Exhibition of 1900, the only award given to automata or mechanical toys. His son Henry gradually took control of the firm, incorporating Lioret phonograph mechanisms into some automaton models, which were advertised as being able to sing, speak and play musical instruments.

The black smoker goes on sale on the 28th March 2012 at 11.00am at Lyon & Turnbull, 33 Broughton Place, Edinburgh EH1 3RR.