“Ethiopian Flutist” French Musical Automaton by Gustave Vichy. Circa 1870’s


France, Circa 1870 c.

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One of the more rare Automaton pieces, “Ethiopian Flutist” was manufactured circa 1870 and was a signature piece aimed at the wealthy international clientele attending the 1878 Paris World Exhibition. It was a luxurious and complicated piece designed more for adults than children, with a price of 1500 francs—a year’s salary for a family of four, barely trying to make ends meet at that time.

The handsome, dark complexioned black man is made of paper-mache to the legs and head, glass eyes, with hair, eyelashes eyebrows, and moustache of mohair. He stands in a relaxed posture ready to play the flute; as he lowers his head, he raises the flute to his mouth. His fingers realistically articulate to the sound of the music as if playing the prescribed song, simulating lifelike gestures and expressions by nodding in approval of likely applause, blinking his eyes, and rotating his head from side to side. The music plays in accordance with the action, and is not playing when the flute is dropped and the fingers are at rest. The automaton has eight movements and 2 songs.

“Ethiopian Flutist” is illustrated on page 72; and a catalogue image appears on page 238 of “Automata” by Christian Bailly written in 1987. Mr. Bailly is well recognized as the leading expert in the world with regards to automaton.

Overall height is 32” (without cushion).
He is redressed with bronze silk trousers, a magenta colored vest with large brass buttons, a muslin cotton white shirt and a bowtie. Because of the age; 140 years, it is unusual to find an automaton with original clothes, and when found as such, because of the disheveled appearance, it is typically redressed anyway. A maple wooden flute completes the outfit.

The Vichy Company of Paris founded in 1862, under the guidance and inspiration of Gustave Vichy (1839-1904) became renowned for their automatons with lifelike expressions and realistic movements.
Gustave Vichy took over his parents clock business in the 1860’s creating mechanical automata, while his wife Marie took on the responsibility of dressing them. At the time of his death he had achieved worldwide fame with a wealthy international clientele, and had amassed a sizable fortune for himself.

Provenance: Clive Devenish Collection

Note: Short one minute video showing operation of the automaton is available as an
attachment via email upon request.