Tips of the Trade
Galloping for Rocking Horses?
This fine 19th century rocking horse galloped into the Tucson ROADSHOW.
Horses in fine condition are rare because in almost all cases, they've been used.
The more life-like the head of a rocking horse, the more valuable it is.
Surviving details, such as this horse's tail and saddle, make this toy a find.
Before GameBoy beeped, before miniature robots twirled, before Transformers transformed, before Barbie and Ken introduced themselves to the world, simple wooden rocking horses rocked to the rhythm of small children.
More so than age, condition is the key to collecting these picturesque toys of a bygone era
"Rocking horses have a lot of nostalgic value," says Dean Failey, of Christie's in New York. "They remind people of a pleasant time, if not in their own lives, of an age that was gentler, slower and kinder. A rocker, especially one that looks antique, is often part of holiday decorations. It looks sweet sitting in front of a Christmas tree." We asked Dean, an expert in American furniture and decorative arts, to tell us more about collecting rocking horses, and here's the trail he led us down.
Rocking Horse History
Medieval manuscripts refer to carved rocking horses. As early as the 17th century, some horses were made of flat boards rather than full-bodied carved horses. "These profile horses weren't really functional and were often smaller than the kind children rode on later," Dean says.
Early in the 19th century, woodworkers, most from New England, started making more sculptural horses. "These were hand-made," says Dean. "It was Dad in the woodshop cranking out the first ones. By the mid-19th century there was a good number of them." These creations were commonly fitted with horsehair manes and tails to bring them to life. While almost always made of wood, some were padded and others had leather or cloth saddles and reins, features that have often been lost to time.
But with the industrialization that followed the American Civil War, there came a change in the way rocking horses were made. "After that, rocking horses were primarily mass-produced," Dean says. And it is this kind of mass-produced rocking horse that, many made in the 20th century, that guests most typically bring to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.
What to Look For
"You're almost looking for the impossible," Dean says. "You want an active toy that has remained in nearly new condition for a century or more. Unless it was stuck away in the attic early on, they are very hard to find." Dean suggests looking for rocking horses that have paint that is not chipped, not too heavily scratched, and not too faded. "You want one that has expressive qualities to it," Dean says. "You want the head to be nicely executed. You want realistic-looking facial features and also accessory items, such as the bridle, the saddle and the tail. Condition is the key." But he cautions, because rocking horses get ridden more often than other toys, it's easy to assume mistakenly that one is older than it really is.
Then again, collectors do sometimes desire newer rocking horses manufactured in the television era. Dean remembers a rocking horse he had as a boy in the 1950s that was perched on a metal frame. "It was from Hopalong Cassidy or something like that," Dean remembers. If it was still around today, such a rocking horse would be more valuable than its peers. "Horses that have a popular-culture connection—if they're branded with a Roy Rogers label, for example—then they have that extra value, like a lunchbox from Howdy Doody," Dean explains. A Hopalong Cassidy horse in good condition might be worth about $500, he estimates, compared to a pop-cultureless horse of the same caliber, which might sell for $200.
Horse Sense and Value
Dean says that collectors can usually ride a rocking horse home for a few hundred dollars. "I'd say about 80 percent are in the $200 to $300 range." Many of the earlier, hand-made rocking horses usually don't have the same level of detail as the later manufactured horses and therefore tend to hover in this price range. Most often, serious collectors seek out manufactured rocking horses of the late 19th century because they tend to come with desired accessories and have fine hand-painted details. Even fair-quality horses from this era can sell for as much as $500 to $800, with the best ones going for between $2,000 and $3,500.
Dean saw a horse of that caliber at the Tucson ANTIQUES ROADSHOW. It had a solid provenance as well as original stirrups, a horsehair mane and tail, a leather saddle and bridle, and its original smoke-colored coat of paint. Dean valued it between $2,500 and $3,500.
"Rocking horses have been one of those steady-as-she-goes items," Dean says. "I've been in the business for about 30 years and they've always come in at about the same rate. They haven't changed that much in value either. There's been no 'gold rush' discovery of them."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.