The world's most expensive doll won't be found on a shelf at Toys-R-Us. In fact, the only place you're likely to see L'Oiseleur (The Bird Trainer) — a 4-ft-tall figure of a young man carrying a sword, holding a flute, and dressed in embroidered Renaissance garb — is in the Swiss workshop of his creator. French-born Christian Bailly, the genius behind The Bird Trainer and an expert on automata, has written two books on the subject.
We've all seen dolls that blink, cry, wet themselves, walk, and talk, but The Bird Trainer takes the meaning of "doll" to a whole new level. Dressed in silk, satin, and velvet, with skin of painted porcelain, and glass eyes, The Bird Trainer lifts a flute to his mouth and blows the "Marche des Rois" by Georges Bizet. His fingers play the instrument while his eyes dart back and forth. Of course none of this happens until he's been wound with a golden key.
And if that's not enough, a bird perched on the Trainer's shoulder and another in his hand sing along. The tiny birds open and close their beaks, turn their heads, and flap their wings. (No, they don't fly but then we're only talking 6 million bucks here.) Each bird has 62 parts and moves in time with the flute's tune.
There's no motor or electrical power source. Spring-driven cogs and gears hidden within the graceful body drive all the actions. In all, the device has 2,340 gilt or polished-steel parts. The asking price for this one-of-a-kind collectible: $6,250,000. (For comparison, the record price for a doll is $230,000.)
The Bird Trainer came to life in the Swiss workshop of Bailly's company, named for Jacob Frisard, a renowned automata-maker of the late 18th and early 19th century. Twelve craftsmen spent a total of 15,000 hr creating the elaborate device. The piece weighs 122 lb, including the jade and mother-of-pearl pedestal.
The original budget was a paltry $400,000, but costs for precious materials, dressmakers, sculptors, jewelers, wigmakers, and other specialists spiraled out of control. To raise the money, Bailly sold more than a hundred 19th century automatons he'd collected over 40 years. Now, he's looking for one good buyer.
Bailly learned to refurbish automata mechanics in the early 1970s by taking them apart to see how they worked. Today, he repairs them for collectors around the world.
The Bird Trainer was moved only once from Bailly's Sainte-Croix, Switzerland, workshop. It was exhibited at the Baselworld watch and jewelry show last May.
Bailly hasn't cut any corners, using only the finest materials and expert craftsmen. The work was done in the painstaking tradition of the 18th century, and the Trainer's creator won't part with it cheap. Many automatons are made to order, but Bailly only creates one if he likes the buyer. Some notable (and apparently likeable) patrons are Dustin Hoffman, Steven Spielberg, and David Copperfield.
Automata was recently exhibited for the first time in Hong Kong and China. The exhibit included “Writing Pierrot,” who appears to write as long as an oil lamp is lit. When the lamp is turned off he sleeps, and when he wakes he moves his hand to turn it on.
Another Bailly creation, “An Acrobat Clown,” joined the private exhibition. The 90-cm clown balances in a headstand on two chairs, first lifting one chair and then the other.
It’s not hard to understand our fascination with these elaborate humanlike mechanisms. They not only provide a glance backward in time but offer a glimpse into ourselves.