Michal Widenský and his vintage collection of mechanical toys

Michal Widenský is a collector and renovator of vintage toys, and boasts what is probably the biggest collection of antique and mechanical toys in the country. He is also a toy stylist photographer with a passion for dioramas.

Michal Widenský’s atelier in the town of Pardubice smells of paint, turpentine and wood and is crammed with old mechanical toys in various stages of disrepair. Many of them were found broken and barely recognizable in someone’s attic, but in his care, they are transformed back to their former glory giving pleasure not just to children but to many grown-ups as well.

Michal Widenský | Photo: archive of Michal Widenský

Michal, who is a construction engineer, says his passion for collecting and restoring old wind-up toys goes back a long way.

“About 25 years ago, I found a broken mechanical toy from the old days. It was so badly damaged that at first I could not tell what it was, but as an engineer, I was intrigued by it and eventually as I put it together, bit by bit, it started emerging and it was a cinematograph from the German company Bing, a toy for children that projected pictures and films.

“After that I started collecting wind-up trains and cars, and then about ten years ago I gradually expanded to wooden antique toys and rubber toys made by the Bata company.

“And of course each of the mechanical toys has its own wind-up mechanism and key so I started collecting keys of all sizes. For instance, I have a 5mm key to a wind-up mouse made in Germany, that’s the smallest I have come across. But I also have one that’s 10 to 12 centimetres. And even with all those keys I sometimes need to make a new one when nothing fits a broken toy that I get.”

Photo: archive of Michal Widenský

Michal’s first renovation job took the better part of a year, but he was hooked and today he is an avid collector and restorer of old mechanical toys and wooden vintage toys, sought after by other collectors and film makers.

“Last year I renovated a Baroque toy horse for a film about Empress Maria Theresa. It was a large rocking horse made between 1750 and 1780. I lent the filmmakers other period toys and a table game as well. In the film you can see one of the Empress’  daughters on the rocking horse in the background.”

Michal Widenský acquires vintage toys in internet auctions or directly from people who find them in their attics and have no use for them. There are close to a hundred of them in his atelier waiting to be fixed. Whenever he acquires a new addition, Michal tries to find out as much as possible about it from its former owners. One of the biggest toys there is a wooden tram that’s half a meter long.

“This tram was most likely made as a toy, and it was most likely made in Prague because it is a copy of the trams used in Prague between 1905 and 1910. I will have to repair some of the wooden parts, give it new wheels and also new lights.”

Photo: archive of Michal Widenský

Michal says that people sometimes come and ask him to repair an old toy that’s been in the family for years but because the task of renovating old toys is so time-consuming he has to turn many of them away and only takes stuff from friends or as a special favour. He actively searches for toys to fulfil his own plans.

“In 2008 I and my colleague Miroslav Smaha established a museum of mechanical vintage toys and so most of my worktime is spent repairing stuff for our museum and various exhibition that we have around the country. We have temporary and permanent exhibitions in various places such as chateaus. For instance, in Dečín chateau we decorated a girl’s and boy’s room with vintage toys.”

Michal says that some of the renovation work is so complicated that he may take two or three months deciding how to best go about repairing a given piece.

Photo: archive of Michal Widenský

His latest passion are history dioramas – 3-D scenes in which models of vehicles, toys and aircraft play a central role.

“Dioramas first emerged in France in the mid-19th century. My aim is to create dioramas, which accurately portray a given period in history. Here we have a diorama of a Scouts’ camp dating back to 1937-1938. Some of the toy Scouts are authentic but the process of acquiring them was so slow – because you come across one say in two years - that we decided to make copies. So here you see twelve to fifteen Scouts, but we will need a great many more.”

Photo: archive of Michal Widenský

One of the dioramas that attracts the most attention at exhibitions is one where the central figure is the first Czechoslovak president, T.G. Masaryk.

“I had all these toy soldiers dating back to the First Republic and I thought it would be so good to have President Masaryk in the diorama as well. However, I couldn’t find a model that was just the right size I needed –about 7 cm tall -which would match with the rest. So we had to make him ourselves. In the end, three people worked on President Masaryk. Now he is the central figure in the 1926 diorama shown next to his new Skoda car –the Hispano-Suiza model.”

Photo: Tereza Brázdová,  Czech Radio

Big names and important feats in history are attractive topics for dioramas – more especially when they are local heroes. Michal Widenský proudly displays a diorama-in-the-making.

“This will be the Bleriot plane in which the famous Czech aviator undertook the first long-distance flight in Bohemia, flying from Pardubice to Prague on 30 April 1911. Again, I could not find a model the right size so I am having to make it myself. The plane will be above Perštýn Square and there will be an airship on the other side.”

One thing leads to another, and Michal’s passion for dioramas eventually led him to become a Toy Stylist Photographer as well. This envisages taking pictures of his toys in natural settings in such a way that they appear to be real.

“I took up toy stylist photography ten years ago. I take toy cars and figures out with me into the country and place them in settings that will create the most realistic picture. In some cases I have succeeded so well that people think they are real. It is a complicated process where you have to have an eye for detail, get exactly the right light and of course find the perfect place. Sometimes I drive around for hours with no idea where I will be taking pictures and then I come across a place that is just what I need.”

Photo: archive of Michal Widenský
Authors: Daniela Lazarová , Tereza Brázdová
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