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The butterfly on a musical automaton bird cage clock from 1825–30 (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic, via Sotheby’s/YouTube)

Shimmery, singing birds flit from perch to perch and a butterfly flaps its hand-painted, iridescent wings above an animated fountain on a three-tune musical automaton birdcage clock by Bautte & Moynier. The Swiss timepiece from 1825–30 is part of the Important Watches auction at Sotheby’s this Saturday, and an elaborate example of a luxury mechanical art that flourished in Europe from the 17th to 19th century.

The three tune musical automaton bird cage clock by Bautte & Moynier (Geneva, 1825-30) (courtesy Sotheby’s) (click to enlarge)

The birdcage clock was a relatively late addition to the automata created during this era, but shows its creators at the height of their skills. The mechanics are hidden in the base of the golden bronze cage, and the illusion of flying birds is achieved by discrete swinging arms, with the avians’ flapping wings and flitting tails adding to the effect. Three different melodies accompany the trilling birdsong, which can play on the hour or on demand. Pedro Reiser, the department manager of Sotheby’s Watch Division in Geneva, stated in a release that records “suggest that only one other double-bird cage clock with an automaton butterfly is currently known.”

These musical robots evolved from the 9th–13th century automata of the Arab-Islamic region, such as the Banū Mūsā “instrument which plays by itself.” In Europe, they became opulent entertainment, as shown in the recent The Luxury of Time exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which included a 1610 clock featuring the goddess Diana on a chariot; at a dinner party, she could ride across the table and shoot her bow as the coup de grâce. Singing birds, however, became the most prized of the automata. Sotheby’s has a short catalogue note on bird clocks, which started with the maker Jaquet-Droz and eventually got so tiny that, in the 18th century, they could fit in a pocket watch. While up close you’d never mistake the cockeyed birds for real avians, from a distance the birdcage clock is a cacophonous wonder of nature mimicked through machine.

Sotheby’s Important Watches auction will take place on May 14 the Beau-Rivage Hotel (Quai du Mont-Blanc 13, Geneva).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

2 replies on “A 19th-Century Birdcage Automaton Comes to Life, and Auction”

  1. Love these automatons. Here’s the silver swan from my home -

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