All the Small Things: Tiny Objects that Fetch Huge Prices



2017-03-15 16:32:54

For collectors, size certainly isn't everything.

From the car you can park in a cupboard, to sculptures the width of an eyelash – here's a host of miniature collectibles that can fetch the biggest prices.

The Peel P50 microcar

(Image: RM Sotheby

(Image: RM Sotheby's)

If you're looking for a car that's fuel efficient, easy to park and comes with its own carrying handle, the Peel P50 is the car for you.

The P50 began life as a simple experiment by designers at the British Peel Engineering Company to create the smallest functional car possible.

Built using a molded fiberglass cabin, the car measures just 52.8" long, 39" wide and 39.4" tall – making it roughly the same size as a filing cabinet.

The company exhibited the concept car at the 1962 Earls Court Cycle and Motorcycle Show, and were amazed by the public response. They decided to capitalize on the publicity, and the following year the P50 became the world's smallest production car. 

Peel built a grand total of just 47 examples, with 27 of those known to survive to this day. There could be more hidden away out there though, as it's probably the only car that could genuinely be lost at the back of a cupboard.

The P50 was originally advertised as the perfect city car, with room for "one adult and a shopping bag", and was described as "almost cheaper than walking". Now that's a phrase that will sell an automobile. 

It had three wheels, one door, one headlamp, a top speed of 37mph, and could do 100 miles to the gallon. It also featured no reverse gear; if you wanted to go back where you came from, you could simply get out, pick it up and turn it round.

This example was originally owned by the renowned Bruce Weiner Microcar Museum in Madison, Georgia. Having been beautifully restored, the miniature motor sold at RM Sotheby's in March 2016 for a record $176,000.

The Petit Protector

(Image: Rock Island Auction Company)

(Image: Rock Island Auction Company)

First made in France during the late 19th century, the Petit Protector was perhaps the most dangerous piece of jewelry money could buy.

Designed to be worn as a ring on the index finger, and fired with your thumb, the fully-functioning revolver featured six cylinders firing 4mm pinfire cartridges.

The manufacturers also produced a smaller version for women suitably dubbed the 'Femme Fatale', and the two were often sold together in a set known as 'Les Companions', which is kind of romantic if you don't think about it for too long.

The gun is less powerful that a modern-day pellet gun, but the miniscule bullets could still penetrate through one side of a tin can.

From a practical point of view, the Petit Protector was only a threat from extremely close range, so you probably had to know someone pretty well if you wanted to shoot them with one.

They were most likely worn as a visible deterrent, and could offer a sense of security to wealthy travellers, as well as adding a dash of dangerous style to any outfit.

They were also highly popular with professional gamblers, who always liked to stack the odds in their favour. You could certainly discourage cheats around a poker table by flashing a Petit Protector every time you picked up your cards.

Today these antique weapons of minute destruction are highly popular with collectors, and can fetch anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000 depending on their condition.

Japanese Netsuke lion

(Image: Bonhams)

(Image: Bonhams)

Japanese electronics manufacturers may have perfected the art of making everything smaller during the 1980s – but back in the 17th century, Japanese craftsmen were already busy creating

These sculptures, known as 'netsuke', were used as decorative toggles to fasten bags containing money, tobacco, medicines, or anything else you needed to carry round.

These bags and toggles were a staple part of any gentleman's wardrobe, because nobody had pockets in 17th century Japan.

Over the years these Netsuke evolved from being purely practical objects into delicately carved works of great beauty, made from materials such as ivory, agate, bamboo, coral, walnuts and walrus tusk.

Centuries of Japanese cultural history can be traced through the designs of netsuke, which depict everything from animals, plants and mythological creatures to tradesmen, famous figures, fictional characters, deities and even scenes of an erotic nature.

These small-but-perfectly-formed objects were discovered by Westerners during the mid-19th century, and instantly became popular with collectors.

Today prices can range from a few dollars to six figure sums, depending on the age, subject and rarity of the design.

The current world record price for a netsuke was set in 2011, when this late 18th century ivory carving of a 'shishi' (a Japanese guardian lion) standing less that 2 ½" tall sold at Bonhams for $322,235.

Apollo 14 Micro-Bible

(Image: Heritage Auctions)

(Image: Heritage Auctions)

Ever wondered how many bibles you could fit in a space ship?

Quite a lot, as it turns out – you just need to shrink them down a bit first.

This microform bible features all 1245 pages of the King James Bible (both Old and New Testaments) compressed down to measure just 1 ½" square – which is how Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell managed to stash 100 copies in his flight bag and take them to the moon and back.

The bible was created in 1967, when a group of NASA employees formed The Apollo Prayer League with the mission to land a copy of the Bible on the Moon.

They initially produced 512 copies, which were sent into space in 1970 in the PPK (Personal Preference Kit) of astronaut Jim Lovell, commander of the Apollo 13 mission.

The mission was famously aborted, and the crew returned to Earth without landing on the lunar surface, but the League remained undeterred. The following year, 300 of those same micro bibles were given to Mitchell, who took them with him aboard Apollo 14 when mankind struck out towards the moon once more.

Leaving 200 copies orbiting the moon aboard the Command Module Kittyhawk, Mitchell carried the final 100 bibles to the surface inside the Lunar Module Antares – making it the first published book ever carried onto another celestial body.

These tiny tomes were then returned safely to Earth, and many were presented to dignitaries as mementoes of the mission. One copy even takes pride of place amongst the rare book collection at the Vatican.

In later years, 12 complete copies were placed within 22-karat gold reliquaries, set with symbolic gemstones, and were flight-certified by Mitchell and Apollo Prayer League Representative James W. Stout.

One such copy was offered for sale at Heritage Auctions in May 2014, where it achieved an out-of-this-world $75,000.

Maurizio Cattelan's tiny art installation

(Image: Phillips)

(Image: Phillips)

When it comes to contemporary art, there's a tendency to think that "bigger is better" – whether it's Jeff Koons' gigantic balloon animals, Louise Bourgeois' towering spider sculptures, or even Anthea Hamilton’s enormous buttocks.

But sometimes small artworks can say something the loudest.

This untitled work by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan features a tiny doorway, with a cosy warm glow emanating from beneath the door and a dinky trash can left outside.
It looks almost too cute, as if Jerry the mouse may be inside, tucked up in a bed made from a matchbox.

But listen in closely, and you'll find yourself overhearing an unpleasant domestic argument. It's like discovering you have Borrowers living in your wall – then finding out they're unhappily married.

Cattelan has spent his career poking fun at artistic conventions, and he has been described as "a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our time".

His work combines an ironic sense of humour and a streak of anarchy with genuine meditations on mortality and morality.

Cattelan's most famous works include a sculpture of the Pope being hit by a meteorite; a sculpture of Hitler dressed as a kneeling schoolboy; a fully-functioning solid gold toilet, installed in a bathroom at the Guggenheim Museum in New York; and an installation featuring another artist's work, which he had stolen from a nearby gallery in Amsterdam.

This artwork was originally installed and exhibited in a private apartment at ArtPace in San Antonio, and later sold at Phillips in 2011 for $362,500.

Star Wars miniature spaceship

(Image: Profiles in History)

(Image: Profiles in History)

When it comes to making small things seem big, nowhere does it better than Hollywood. Just look at Tom Cruise.

For almost a century, movie magicians have been using miniature models to create larger-than-life effects, from giant apes climbing skyscrapers to aliens blowing up the White House. And even amidst today's CGI-heavy movies, practical effects using hand-crafted models still have the power to captivate audiences.

One of the biggest revolutions in model effects came in 1977 with the release of Star Wars, which used miniatures and pioneering digital camera techniques and to film incredible space battles.

The film's effects team built a fleet of X-Wing fighters, TIE Fighters, Star Destroyers, the Milennium Falcon and of course, the Death Star – which appeared the size of a small moon, but was in fact the size of a large beach ball.

Many of those original models have since sold at auction, fetching six-figure sums, but the most expensive Star Wars miniature is also the first to appear on screen: the Rebel Blockade Runner.

The model appears during one of cinema history's most iconic opening scenes, in which the small ship flies into shot, pursued by an enormous, looming Star Destroyer.

The sheer scale of the two spacecraft tells the audience everything they need to know: the Rebel Alliance is hopelessly outgunned and outnumbered by the Galactic Empire. Without even seeing the characters, or hearing a line of dialogue, they're immediately rooting for the little guys.

Although the Star Wars production team built multiple examples of most models, they created just a single Rebel Blockade Runner, measuring 16" long.

The model had spent decades in the personal collection of Grant McCune, the Academy Award-winning head of the film's Miniature and Optical Effects Unit, before hitting the auction block.

It currently holds the record as the world's most expensive movie miniature, having sold at Profiles in History in October 2015 for $465,000.

Willard Wigan sculptures

(Image: Willard Wigan)

(Image: Willard Wigan)

Willard Wigan is perhaps the most remarkable artist that you've never heard of. He's also perhaps the only artist in the world who can claim to have accidentally inhaled one of his own artworks.

Wigan creates micro-sculptures, invisible to the naked eye, which can only be viewed when placed beneath a microscope and magnified 500 times.

To put that into context: most of the figures he creates are three times smaller than the full stop at the end of this sentence.

Wigan creates these incredible micro-sculptures using a deep meditation technique, in which he slows down his heart and works between the beats. His home-made tools include scalpels made from microscopic diamond shards, and he paints using a single hair plucked from the leg of a housefly.

"It is murderously difficult, painful even to talk about," he told The Telegraph in 2007. "It doesn't matter how much money they offer me, it's impossible to enjoy it. The only pleasure is in finishing the work, and in watching other people look at it."

Wigan's sculptures include everything from The Last Supper, with Jesus and the 12 Apostles seated within the eye of a needle, to Elvis Presley, swinging his hips on the head of a pin.

Wigan started creating miniature sculptures as a child, whilst struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia and derision from his teachers and classmates. His career has since seen him tour the U.S, appear on numerous TV shows around the world, and in 2007 he was awarded an MBE.

That same year Wigan sold a collection of 70 sculptures – all of which could easily fit into a matchbox with room to spare – to the former British tennis player and art collector David Lloyd. The price was undisclosed, but the collection was later insured for more than $13 million.

You won't find a bigger price for a tinier object anywhere in the world – even if you go looking with a microscope.

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