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Historic steamboat automaton beaurtifully crafted around 1905 to be auctioned
The Klondike, 7 inches tall by 21 inches long, was masterfully constructed with intricate detail throughout. It has a pre-sale estimate of $25,000-$35,000.


CRANSTON, RI.- An American folk art automaton of a steamboat side wheeler, crafted by prospector William “Billy” Briggs of Bristol, Rhode Island upon his return from the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada and completed around 1905, will be offered at public auction by Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers on Saturday, June 3rd, in Bruneau’s gallery at 63 Fourth Avenue in Cranston.

The vessel, dubbed the Klondike, is 7 inches tall by 21 inches long and has a pre-sale estimate of $25,000-$35,000. It was masterfully constructed with intricate detail and is fully manned with 17 miniature carved figures throughout the two decks. The figures are seen waving and tipping their hats along a green painted metal railing, with one African American figure, the rest Caucasian.

The Klondike is the expected headliner in Session 2 of a two-session auction, slated to start at 12 o’clock noon and featuring more than 400 premium lots. Internet bidding will be facilitated by Bidlive.Bruneauandco.com, Invaluable.com, LiveAuctioneers.com and Bidsquare.com. Phone and absentee bids will also be accepted. Session 1, a DiscoverIt sale, will start at 10:30 am and feature 150 lots of antiques and collectibles live in the gallery – no online or absentee bidding.

“It’s always been our goal to bring antiques, fine art and unusual objects to auction,” said Kevin Bruneau, president and auctioneer of Bruneau & Co. Auctioneers. “This superb automaton is the epitome of unusual, from its historical significance relating to the Klondike Gold Rush to its provenance dating back to William ‘Billy’ Briggs, who hailed from our state of Rhode Island.”

Mr. Bruneau added, “The Klondike is one of the rarest pieces of American history and folk art I have ever had the privilege of handling,” Travis Landry, a specialist and auctioneer with Bruneau & Co., echoed that sentiment. “This fine automaton is truly a historic piece of American folk art, exemplifying the Gold Rush, westward expansion and Alaskan history. It belongs in a museum.”

The attention to detail is remarkable. Four lifeboats are strung around the top deck, two each on the port and starboard sides. The bridge is topped with a gilt carved full body eagle weathervane. The boat is decorated with an American flag on the stern, titled “Klondike”, with a flag on the bow and a blue and gold painted paddle box with ‘KLONDIKE’ underlined with wavelike lines.

Mechanical features that make it an automaton include the rotation of the starboard paddlewheel and vertical movement of the steam exhaust and supply pistons activated by the movement of a drawer. The boat sits on a naturalistically modeled base of a flowing river with glistening crests. The glass sides of the case are reverse painted, depicting the turbulent waves of the Yukon River.

The automaton is housed in a custom Victorian Aesthetic ebonized display case with gilt incised tendrils and linear geometric patterns. The case exhibits two front drawers and two side drawers with inset bronze hardware with hinged ring pulls. It measures 48 inches tall by 37 inches wide by 18 inches deep. It’s topped with a hinged butterfly door bonnet with compartmented interior.

The backdrop of the diorama is a watercolor and glitter on paperboard painted representation of the Klondike mountain range with a rising sun in the top right corner. The vessel is accompanied by an assemblage of relative paperwork documenting the history of the piece with photographs.

From William Briggs, the automaton was sold around 1910 to James F. Stoughton, who cared for and appreciated the boat for decades before selling it to the consignor, a collector in Bristol, R.I. The story of the Klondike Gold Rush is as fascinating as the Klondike automaton being offered.

In August 1896, American prospector George Carmack, along with Yukon natives, discovered gold along Rabbit Creek, near Dawson, in the Yukon region of Canada. Thus the Klondike Gold Rush was born, involving a treacherous journey into the Yukon territory of Northwestern Canada from 1896-1899. Of the 100,000 prospectors who made the voyage, only 30,000 completed it.

The Klondike gave prospectors two options: the Chilkoot or White Pass trails. Both led to Alaska but were riddled with malnutrition, illness and often death. The Klondike offered a false hope, with very few prospectors finding success. By the time the masses had arrived, most creeks were claimed and little gold was left for the taking. In September 1898, gold was discovered farther north in Nome, Alaska ending the Klondike and sparking the Nome Gold Rush, from 1898-1909.

Over the three-year period of the Klondike Gold Rush, hundreds of steamboats traversed the Yukon River, funneling money, people, and supplies. Steamers arrived via the Gulf of Alaska, Bearing Sea, or were brought in pieces by land through the White Pass and assembled at White Horse, Yukon. The steamboat played a vital role in propelling the Gold Rush and the settlement of Alaska. It has become a symbol of the legendary Alaskan Gold Rush that we read about today.

Previews will be held on Thursday, June 1st, from 9-5; Friday, June 2nd, from noon to 9 pm; and on Saturday, June 3rd, the date of the auction, from 9 am until the start of sale at 12 o’clock noon.





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