An 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, which has a striking looped frame painted in white.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: An 1898 Cygnet “Swan” Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, by the Stoddard Manufacturing Company of Dayton, Ohio. Copake Auction sold it in April 2013 for $24,150, a record for this type of bike.

The expert: Mike Fallon, owner of Copake Auction.

How were ladies’ bikes different from mens’ bikes at the turn of the previous century? You had to have room for skirts. The crossbar, which goes from the steering head to the seat, had to dip down to accommodate bloomers or skirts. It was always lower. Ladies’ bikes often had a skirt guard on the rear tire and guards on the chain, also, where you pedal.

Was this the first example of this bicycle to go to auction? I don’t know, but in my 30 years of experience, only one has sold at auction. Though I could be 100 percent wrong about that. In the antiques world, there are no absolutes.

Detail of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle that shows the front wheel.

How long was the Stoddard Manufacturing Company in business? From 1897 to 1898.

Do we know how many Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycles they made? No.

Was the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle a popular bike? I don’t know, but here’s my guess. If they were only in business for one year, it was probably an expensive bike. There were probably thousands of brands [of bicycles available at the time]. It didn’t catch on. My guess is it was hard to make. It’s a labor-intensive design. Sometimes, really expensive utilitarian items don’t do very well.

Why was its looped frame considered to have an advantage over a diamond-shaped frame? Their idea was to add strength through a continuous stress member, as opposed to hard angles with stress points. I think it probably wasn’t a factor. Welding was a fairly new science at that point. Everyone struggled to be the newest, best, most innovative, except the plain Jane bikes. Probably, people were hesitant to buy things that were very expensive and different.

An 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, shown in full profile.

But the looped frame has a purpose, right? It wasn’t just there to look cool? It was one of its selling points. It was not just for looks. It was industrial design as art. I think it’s the best-looking bike of the period. At the point I sold it, I was told there were only ten [still in existence], but who knows?

Yeah, you never know when someone will stumble across an old warehouse that has ten of them in it. Yes. I’ve heard stories throughout my career [like that], and I’ve been doing this quite a while.

Did the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle get its name from its frame? “Cygnet” is French for “swan.” If you look at it, it has a swan-y look.

A close-up of the brand badge on the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle.

Was it only sold in white? Nobody knows.

The lot notes describe the Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle as “one of the most stunning bicycles ever made.” Could you elaborate? What makes it stunning? I think the Cygnet is the most beautiful bike ever made, from my perspective. If that bike as sitting with 100 other bikes, it’d be the one 50 people are standing around, looking at.

A detail shot of the back wheel of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, which shows decorative gold vines painted on the back fender.

The lot notes describe this example as being in “excellent restored condition”. What does that mean in this context? “Restored condition” means it was refurbished. When I say “excellent”, it means when he [the restorer] finishes, it looks like it came out of the factory, maybe better. I can’t tell you what was repaired on it. I never did find out.

Must an antique bike be rideable, or does that not matter to collectors? One of the interesting things about bicycles in general, and bicycle collectors specifically, is bicycle collectors tend to ride [their] bikes. I don’t ride them. I don’t think it’s appropriate to ride them. If I got on one and it gave way because of a bad weld… The big deal with bike-riders is riding first and rarity second. I’ve sold bikes that are really rare and been told, “It’s rare, but I can’t ride it.” To me, if you have a bike where there’s only ten in existence, I don’t care if it’s hard to ride, I want it in my collection.

But you choose not to ride the antique bikes you sell? I’ll get on a high-wheel if I’m feeling really stupid, but I don’t really ride the bikes. We look at them and know what to look at, and know how to describe them and photograph them. When things come in, they’re not my property. And riding a bike is riding a bike. They’re all about the same.

Detail shot of the seat of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle.

Are unrideable antique bikes always worthless? I’ll tell you a story. Someone called me and said they had a Lindbergh bike–pretty rare and very desirable. It had been outside. The frame was totally rotted, the handlebars were rusted, the wheels were gone. The main thing was the badge [which said “Lindbergh”]. I sold it for $1,400. The man who bought it came from California specifically to buy it. He took the name badge off and put the rest in a Dumpster.

Are ladies’ bikes rarer than mens’ bikes of the period? I think ladies’ bikes were more plentiful, and I’ll tell you why. The 1890s was ladies’ liberation, out on a ride with a boyfriend and without a chaperone. Millions and millions of bikes were made, and ladies tended to take care of their bikes.

What was your role in the auction? I was selling at the podium.

What do you recall of the sale? There was a lot of apprehension about how it would do. One of the kahunas of the bike world told me it’d go for over $10,000. Others said no way. They tend to be a conservative bunch.

How did you present the lot when it came up? We wheeled it onto the stage back then. Now, we wouldn’t.

The Cygnet “Swan” Ladies Bicycle sold for $24,150 against an estimate of $6,000 to $7,000. Did that surprise you? I would say yes, I was surprised. It was an unknown. I’d be surprised if it only went for that today.

Detail shot of the 1898 Cygnet "Swan" Ladies pneumatic safety bicycle, with the swan badge visible.

What is the bike like in person? Stunning is the word I used. It IS stunning. Even if you don’t like bicycles, it’s pretty cool-looking. I’m a pretty critical type of person when it comes to… anything. I can look at something and tell if something’s wrong with it. This bike, there’s nothing wrong with it.

Why will it stick in your memory? Because of its style. It’s a great-looking machine. For industrial design as art, it’s as good as it gets. This thing is just a fabulous object.

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Images are courtesy of Copake Auction.

Copake Auction holds an antique bicycle sale annually, in April, usually around the third weekend of the month.

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