Monday, April 29, 2013

Two-by-Two to the Floating Zoo

QUESTION: When I was little boy, my grandfather gave me an ark, complete with all the animals, each made of wood. I’ve kept it all these years and wonder about its origin. There are some words in German on the bottom. What can you tell me about it?

ANSWER: You’re very lucky to have such a wonderful toy and to have kept it intact all these years. The problem with toys with lots of pieces is that those pieces tend to get mislaid or lost.

Many religions prohibited frivolous play on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. The only toys they allowed with those religious in nature. And what could be more religious than a toy ark. Children spent hours loading and unloading the animals from the ark, marching the birds and beasts in columns two-by-two.

But these toys were anything but playthings. Their exquisite carvings elevate many of them to the level of folk art and their prices to locations high in the stratosphere. But for those collectors with the means to purchase them and the space to display them, the world of ark collecting can be colorful and satisfying.

Often referred to as “Sunday” toys back in the 19th century, arks came into popularity around the 1850s.  The people of the village of Erzgebirge started making them as a cottage industry. Some families built the arks while others handcrafted the animals and still others painted and added details to finish the pieces. German arks feature lathe-turned animals which later have details carved into them.

The British also made arks but started a bit later. Arks became a popular thing to make to raise money for war relief during World War I. Makers painted them red and green and affixed a war-relief emblem to them. At the same time, German prisoners of war in England built arks with stockade-style roofs. Even the folks in Ireland got in on the act and attached a white dove to the ark as a sign of peace.

Toy arks come in all sizes. Larger ones can be up to 30 inches long and contain over 400 animals, plus 8 human figures representing Noah’s family—Noah and his wife plus three sons and their wives.

It’s hard to tell the age of antique arks since most aren’t marked. However, specific construction characteristics can provide some clues. The shape of the bottom is one. Flat-bottomed arks are older. And those planed by hand rather than machine are also older.  The amount and style of the decoration can also be a clue. Earlier arks tend to have less detail and decoration.

The frieze—the decorative border immediately below the ark’s roof line—can also be a clue to its age. An ark with a more elaborate and colorful frieze is more likely to be newer than one with a simple one. Some makers used a strip of decorative paper as the frieze.

Early arks had fewer and simpler animals since it took longer to make them. As tools improved, ark makers made more animals. The animals that came with German arks were always made of wood that a craftsman first turned on a lathe. The marks of his cutting tool appear on the bottom of each piece. All these clues apply to arks made before 1900. After that, construction became more standardized.

The number of animals was directly related to the production cost of antique arks. As there became greater demand, craftsmen built larger arks with more animals. Antique arks, especially ones with all their parts, amount of detail, and in excellent condition, can sell for as much as $40,000. Most smaller ones sell for somewhere between $250 and $800.

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