On September 25, five dog figures will be among the carousel animals up for auction at Guernsey’s auctioneers in New York City. Listed are four Greyhounds “in the style of Charles Looff” and a Spaniel by Herschell Spillman. Here at Bark we’re fans of the carousel animal carvings, especially rare and delightful canine figures.
Back in 2004, we wrote about carousel animal carver Tim Racer, who creates wonderful, whimsical dogs in the old tradition. We checked back in with Tim this week to get his word on the Guernsey’s auction before the gavel drops. We also got a look-see at his latest creations. (View a slideshow of some of the auction dogs and Racer's recent pair.)
If Racer’s name sounds familiar but you’re not a carousel animal aficionado, it may be for his role as co-founder with his wife Donna Reynolds of Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pit Bulls, or BAD RAP. There’s a strong connection between Tim’s artwork and his advocacy efforts.
The Bark: When we saw these carousel dogs up for auction, we thought of you, of course. What do you think of them?
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Tim Racer: It’s always fun to see carousel figures at auction, and for dog types like myself, even more fun to see a dog or two at the block.
The Herschell Spillman spaniels have a sweet character to them, being more primitive than most of the horses, and represent the Country Fair style of carousel carvings—less detail and realism, but beautiful in their simplicity.
Real Looff Greyhounds are very sought-after pieces and fetch about ten times what the auction pieces termed “in the style of Charles Looff” are estimated to be worth. The original pieces are simply stunning due to their artistic detail and sheer size. These dogs stand as tall as carousel horses, where the Herschell Spillman spaniels are about half the size.
The spaniel brings back special memories for me. After painting carousel animals for Hawk’s Eye Studio for several years, a sort of spot opened up in the woodworking niche of the carousel restoration field. So for my first learning project I hooked up with John Hughes for a weekend, an excellent woodworker in San Jose. We got out a flat bar and began taking apart this Herschell Spillman dog. It was truly a basket case. There were tons of screws and nails in it from decades of attempts to keep it in one piece. It was in dozens of pieces once we were through, so I took it home in boxes and glued it all back together. It was a great learning piece and I’ll never forget it—being nervous that I’d damage it worse than it already was.
When we wrote about carousel animals in 2004, it seemed like the vintage pieces were experiencing a resurgence? Are they still popular? Any idea what these will sell for?
Collectors began buying up carousel pieces and even entire carousels in the 1970s. Their heyday peaked in the 1980s when pieces were being sold for tens of thousands of dollars at auction, and sometimes more than $100,000. Bruno the Saint Bernard sold for $174,900—more than any carousel piece in history. I love the fact that there are thousands of carousel horses out there, but a dog fetched the biggest buck! Again proving our love for human’s best friend.
How rare are dog carousel figures?
Of the more than 50,000 carousel figures carved, less than fifty were dogs. This is part of the reason that some of them are worth so much at auction.
Can you tell me a little about your most recent carving?
My most recent carving of a dog named Joshua was commissioned by Jane Berkey, founder of Animal Farm Foundation (AFF) in upstate New York, a Pit Bull education and rescue group that we at BAD RAP in Oakland consider our sister organization. I carved her other dog Petal first, and Joshua was next. Coincidentally, I am receiving him tomorrow from my painter—Pam Hessey of Hawk’s Eye Studio—in a crate that I can’t wait to open. Pam is the woman that I used to paint for—I send all my pieces to her since she’s simply the best and I just don’t have time to paint my own pieces anymore, since carving them usually requires 400 to 600 hours. She can get going on the paint while I start my next piece.
The Joshua piece has special significance to me for many reasons. Petal was Jane’s first Pit Bull-type dog and prompted her to found AFF (likely a Pit Bull/American Bulldog mix) and Joshua was Petal’s best boy buddy (the two have recently deceased).
My very first carving was of my Pit Bull Sally who also prompted Donna and me to found BAD RAP. So Jane is a kindred soul whose dogs are to her what ours are to us. This is also my first piece that is of two dogs that will appear on the same stand, which should really typify the carousel style.
It’s wonderful how your carving and your advocacy complement each other.
There couldn’t be much more of a connection between my art and BAD RAP and I’m fortunate that it has been able to work out that way. I’ve traveled from Maui, to Minnesota, Chicago, New York, and even Bermuda, all with overlapping carving and BAD RAP duties. I couldn’t have guessed that there would be so much synchronicity with the timing of it all.
View more of Tim Racer’s work at timracer.com.