What you see: A Mohr & Krauss double Ferris Wheel toy, dating to circa 1905. Bertoia Auctions estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
The expert: Auctioneer Michael Bertoia of Bertoia Auctions in Vineland, New Jersey.
Who were, or what was Mohr & Krauss? Mohr & Krauss was a German manufacturer out of Nuremberg. There’s not a ton of info about the company itself. This is actually a steam-powered toy. Steam engines were the focus of the company, and it made steam accessories, such as this.
How does the double Ferris Wheel toy work? The entire structure rotates at the top, and the inner wheels rotate as well. At the bottom rear of the toy is a double flywheel that spins a pulley run by a steam engine. You have to have a live steam engine to run it. It’s a steam engine accessory.
Does the toy come with a steam engine? It does not.
If you wanted to operate the double Ferris Wheel toy, how would you do it? You can hand-crank it, or have an auxiliary engine of some sort.
What, like a two-stroke engine, or a lawnmower engine? Probably a battery-powered engine. All you need is a circular spinning engine or a pulley connected with a rope or a wire.
You said that Mohr & Krauss made steam engines and steam accessories, and this toy is considered a steam accessory. What else falls under the heading of “steam accessory”? An example would be a water fountain that uses a steam-driven flywheel to spritz water into the air. Windmills were popular. Any carousel or amusement-type wheel could be a steam accessory.
Is this double Ferris Wheel toy unique? This is the only one I’ve personally seen. Reportedly, two other examples are known. One is in the United States, and I don’t know where the other is. Sotheby’s had one of the others in the 1980s, I don’t know which.
Are the other two identical to this one, or do some of the details and colors vary? The only illustration I’ve seen is in black and white, but they very well could be different.
Why would Mohr & Krauss make a huge, delicate toy such as this? What convinced them they could turn a profit on it? That’s the big question mark here. Unless it was a special order or made as a commemorative… I can’t imagine the time, the labor, the materials it took to make it. It’s very large, and very ornate and intricate. To solder and assemble it had to take hours. It would have been a very expensive toy.
How expensive would it have been? Probably five to ten dollars in 1905, equivalent to the annual wage of the factory worker who would make the toy.
How big is this toy? About two feet from the base to the top of the tower. When it rotates, it spans about 36 inches.
Who was the audience for this double Ferris Wheel toy? Was it children, or was it really for a deep-pocketed adult? I think the audience was the parents as much as the children. We are talking about a toy powered by a live steam engine that burns alcohol. Obviously, you had to have a parent involved to play with it for the child.
The steam engine that powered the toy was driven by alcohol? That’s how the steam engine was fueled, by alcohol.
Might this have been a kind of show-off piece, maybe made for display at a World’s Fair or in the front window of a fancy toy store? It could have been, absolutely. You mention shop windows–Aaron and Abby Schroeder [the husband and wife who built the collection that comprises the auction] unearthed this in a small Pennsylvania town. There was a barber shop with large bay windows, and in one of them was this toy. They stopped and stayed overnight. Aaron got a haircut, and Abby carried out the double Ferris Wheel.
But we don’t know where the barber got the toy? We don’t.
Are the figures and the Ferris Wheel seats cast as one piece, or are the figures loose? They are removable. It’s impressive that they’re still intact and original to the toy.
And it has everything it ought to have–everything it would have left the factory with in the early 20th century? I believe so. The whole toy is quite delicate. Normally, bits and pieces that hang off a toy are the first to break off, such as the flags, or the even more delicate pair of lamp posts at the front. But they’re still intact and preserved.
About those flags at the top–it looks like one is a French flag and I can’t tell what the other country is supposed to be… I assume they’re decorative. There are times when a toymaker uses country flags for a specific market. I wouldn’t wager that to be the case here. They may have been [colored with what was] leftover from what they used to paint the gondolas.
What can we tell, just by looking, about how difficult this double Ferris Wheel toy would have been to make? The hardest part was probably keeping it all level and visually balanced. It was made by hand and soldered and pieced together. To make it uniform and parallel is tricky and impressive. And it has to be level for it to function and move.
How does something this large and fragile survive so well for 120-odd years? It’s a testament as to why so few are known. It’s miraculous for it to have survived in such good condition. The missing paint is a product of the age of the toy. When Abby bought it, it had 100 percent of its paint. Temperature and humidity changes caused the paint to start to lift and flake off. That’s very common in antiques [antique toys].
What is the double Ferris Wheel toy like in person? It has a very commanding presence. A lot of that has to do with the size of it. Artistically, it has an elegant beauty. You want to look at it at a slight angle. Not only is it tall and wide, it’s deep. As you look at it from different angles, your attraction grows.
What is your favorite detail of the double Ferris Wheel toy? The negative space. The fact that it’s so ornately assembled, but with so much open air space, gives it a very attractive look. The framework of the wheels and the tower are not flat pieces of metal. They criss-cross. The Eiffel Tower is a good comparison–if you look at it dead on, it’s a triangle, but if you look at it at an angle, you see how deep the structure is, and how much intricacy there is in the assembly of it.
As we speak on February 23, 2021, the double Ferris Wheel toy has 41 watchers online and has drawn a single bid of $5,000. Is that at all meaningful? Not as of yet. When the toy is an example of this caliber, collectors hold their cards close to their chests and demonstrate their willingness and their desire in the heat of the moment at auction.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? A toy of this size is often crudely assembled or manufactured. This toy is put together artfully, not thrown together the way many toys of the time were. This had something more along the line of the Rolls-Royce treatment. It was constructed in refined style.
Image is courtesy of Bertoia Auctions.
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Michael Bertoia has appeared on The Hot Bid before, talking about a Jackie Robinson doll with its box and accoutrements, and a vintage Tremendous Mike robot toy with box that went on to sell for $11,000.
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