Question: What does the word automata mean among toy collectors?--P.L.
Answer: Collectors tell us that automata originally referred to battery-operated, low-cost toys primarily imported from Japan, beginning in the 1950s. Many of these early toys were animals, particularly bears. Some were windup models.
Then, about two decades later, these pieces became very collectible and prices zoomed.
Collectors say the more complex the motion of the animal, the higher the collectible price. Also, they say, if you are lucky enough to find one of these animals in its original box, the price could rise another 10% or so.
A recent catalogue check told us that although these items were once sold cheaply through 5-and-10-cent stores, they're currently expensive.
For example, the price on a windup Santa Claus was $125; a battery-operated gorilla, $75; a remote-controlled bear sitting in a rocker knitting, $70, and a battery-operated "barber bear" dressed in a smock cutting the hair of a young bear, $275. All of these toys stand about 9 to 10 inches tall.
Q: How difficult is it to pin down the date and place of manufacture of collectible silver pieces?--W.B.
A: If you're working with genuine collectible silverware, dating and identifying the items shouldn't be too difficult.
Most silver carries a manufacturer's mark. (If it doesn't, the experienced collector will attempt to identify a piece by its style.) Then, knowing the dates when the company or individual operated will give you a big advantage in determining approximate age.
Some silversmiths used just their initials or distinctive marks rather than their full names, but collectors and numerous books on silverware collecting can help you uncover the smiths who did the work.
One book we recently read offered this dating hint: Prior to the American Revolution, silversmiths only marked their products; by the late 18th Century, they began spelling their names out.
Marking silverware in this country was a carry-over from the European tradition where most European silversmiths were required by law to put some sort of identification on their work. American silversmiths, it appears, used identifying marks so consumers would know their designs and to protect themselves from being copied.
For collectors of stainless steel, silverplate and sterling flatware, a mailing from Mrs. Kay's Silverlane (P.O. Box 74184, Los Angeles, Calif. 90004) says the business specializes in discontinued flatware featuring "hard-to-find" patterns.
Ronald R. Soble cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about collectibles. Do not telephone. Write to Your Collectibles, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.