This genuine carousel horse from the Dentzel Carousel Company and carved by Daniel Muller in 1909, sold for $90,000 at a Sotheby’s sale in 2006. Rather plain examples of the same vintage often sell for more than $5,000, which means there are some who would try to pass off reproductions as the real thing.
Wooden carousel horses are the stuff of childhood legend, though most of us alive today have only ever rode on fiberglass, plastic or aluminum steeds. While most people identify the old carousels with their calliope pipe organs and wooden horses as Victorian relics, the vast majority of these carousel horses actually date to post 1900; the peak production being produced
during the first quarter of the 20th century by companies such as Philadelphia Toboggan, Dentzel Carousel Company, Charles Carmel, Stein and Goldstein, and Herschell/Spillman.
By the mid 1920s, the carousel industry had reached it’s peak. The last carved wooden carousel was manufactured in 1934 by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, as model PTC #89.
By the late 1980s, these wooden horses began to catch the eye of nostalgic Baby Boomers, driving prices for these prancing horses to astronomically heights. This demand spawned a whole series of carousel collectibles, and of course “reproduction” carousel horses made both domestically and from Asia. As usual, it wasn’t long before some enterprising individuals determined that there was money to be made in a market with many buyers and a dwindling supply. Reproductions and terribly damaged 1920s horses suddenly became “restored” examples with new, more elaborate carving and paint as fresh as if they just left Herschell/Spillman’s shop in 1910.
Why would someone go to all the bother of faking an original carousel horse? Well, it’s the usual motive: There are very few experts to pick out the fakes, and the profit margin can be quite large. How large you ask? Well, the horse at the top of this page is a genuine Dentzel carved by Daniel Muller in 1909, and it sold for $90,000 at a Sotheby’s sale in 2006. Not all carousel horses are worth anywhere near this much, but even rather plain examples of the same vintage and produced by any of the makers listed above often sell for more than $5,000. With this kind of demand, it’s easy to sell what looks like a genuine piece—even with no “pedigree”—for substantial amounts of money.
As with most fakes, the fakers tend to get some things wrong, mainly because they often are working from images rather than the original item, or are unclear on original construction details. Here’s some tips to identify an original (or an extremely devious copy):
1. The carving on the two sides of a Carousel Horse are not the same, since you did not see the inside of the horse from the viewing areas, the companies—except for some English and European Horses—did not generally the money to have the horses detailed on both sides. Jewels were usually only places on the outside as well, but there are always a few exceptions.
2. Most all antique carousel horse are hollow, as the main body is actually a laminated wooden box with the head, neck, legs, tail as separate pieces, permanently attached.
3. Authentic carvings are smooth and well-finished; no chisel marks or rough areas.
4. Original North American horses were carved in pine, basswood or poplar. Odd-looking hardwoods or dark colored woods such as mahogany are the sign of an import/reproduction.
5. The hole for the pole should go all the way through the horse, the hole will not go through the saddle
6. Like the other decoration on a carousel horse, the manes were on the outside of the horse, not on both sides, the carving in high relief, not looking like they were carved in a series of “V” grooves.
7. Latest scam is to strip the reproduction horse and leave it out in the weather to crack and age, then repaint.
Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.
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