When Edmund Weinberg isn't doctoring small animals, he's chasing horses. The stallions after which the Atlantic Highlands, N.J., veterinarian trots with unbridled passion are a special breed. Dr. Weinberg's "mane" hobby is collecting old rocking horses. He's raced from flea market pastures to treasure-filled barns, even reaching the winner's circle at major auction houses. In the process, he's helped send prices galloping ahead.
He claims he was late to the starting gate of toy collecting when he entered the fray 20 years ago; prices already were high. But since most other collectors were pursuing small toys, he decided to buy bigger, yet more affordable, ones. With his wife, Linda, Dr. Weinberg has amassed an impressive collection of about 30 moving horses which they stable in their basement.
"I bring one toy upstairs every month, and then it goes back to climate-controlled storage and another comes up to be enjoyed," he said.
Dr. Weinberg is particularly interested in the anatomy and history of rocking horses. So, on Monday afternoons, he takes time off from his small animal hospital to pore over microfilmed patent records at the Newark, N.J., public library. Because he's located so many patent drawings, he generally knows more about the rocking horses he buys than the dealers or auctioneers selling them.
"I collect horses that were commercially produced; I like a finished, professional, anatomically correct horse with good proportions," he said. They're "quite different from handmade folk art toys, but that doesn't mean they weren't handmade," he observes.
"Sometimes I just buy with my gut," he said proudly, describing his pre-dawn victory on the fields of the Brimfield, Mass., flea market about 12 years ago. With flashlight in hand he came upon a walnut and brass combination child's chair and rock
ing horse. "We were whipping along fast when Linda saw it first, stopped in her tracks, and yelled, 'Get over here.' A crowd had formed around it, and I had to decide to buy it in an instant," he recalled. "I asked, 'What do you want for it?' and the fellow said, '$2,500,' at that time a high price, and I said, 'OK. Sold.' "
Although it was a quick purchase, it took Dr. Weinberg hours to determine how the device worked. It opens as a rocking chair displaying two carved and painted horse heads, converts to a high chair with the heads neatly folded under the seat, and then opens again as a horse-drawn carriage on wheels.
"I spent years looking for its patent," he admitted. Then after publishing pictures of some of his horses in a toy collectors' magazine, he got a call from a woman researching chil
dren's furniture at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, who had located the elusive patent. "In my search I had been using the wrong descriptor," Dr. Weinberg explained. "It was patented under children's furniture by J. A. Nichols in July 1878."
Some of Dr. Weinberg's horses are rare survivors, while others are more plentiful. For example, he knows of two other horses resembling his abstract, contemporary-looking bentwood model, but his is the only one with the seat intact. One version is at the Strong Museum in Rochester, N.Y., and the other is from the legendary toy collection of the late Bernard M. "Barney" Barenholtz, was sold at Sotheby's in January 1990 for $10,450.
Dr. Weinberg had bought his bentwood horse for about $3,000 several years ago on Long Island, N.Y., at an auction of the estate of Joan Whitney Payson, who owned the New York Mets. Like the one at the Strong Museum, it has a cloth cape at the neck hiding a clumsy joint. When Dr. Weinberg got the horse home, he discovered that it was stamped faintly on its neck with the name of Amesbury, Mass., carriage maker Ernst Kirsch and the date 1871. "That made it easy to find the patent," he said.
At the Barenholtz sale, Dr. Weinberg paid an auction-record $17,600 for a painted pine rocking horse with a leather saddle, cast iron stirrups and real cow's hair tail and mane. Its red-painted rockers have yellow and black pinstripes, and a sailboat decorates the platform base.
"I tried to buy it from Barney for years," Dr. Weinberg said. "The painting on the platform is what makes it spectacular and is so appropriate. The rider is not only rocking on a horse, he can think about rocking on the high seas. It identifies the horse as a boy's toy," he observed.
Dr. Weinberg was gathering information for a book on the history of American rocking horses when he got a call from Australian collector Patricia Mullins, already at work on a world history. "I was delighted to give her my photographs, patent records and research since it would be years before I'd have time to get it all in book form," he recalled.
The result of that call is Ms. Mullins' well-documented and lavishly illustrated coffee-table size book, "The Rocking Horse: A History of Moving Toy Horses," published in London by New Cavendish Books. (It costs $92.95 postpaid from P.E.I. International, 5245 Baywater Drive, Tampa, Fla. 33615). Pictured the book's slipcase is the prize of Dr.Weinberg's collection, a Tally Ho Sulky, patented in 1877 by C. F. W. Dare of New York, better-known for making carousel horses in the 1890s. An American eagle is painted on a plank below the driver's seat. Dr. Weinberg paid a Pennsylvania dealer $24,500 for it about five years ago.
Ms. Mullins' book comes with a helpful supplement, "An International Survey of Rocking Horse Manufacture," by Marguerite Fawdry. The set is an invaluable identification guide and history, revealing a breadth of forms, regional differences and stylistic changes over time.
Among the earliest American-made models, dating from the 1840s, are European-influenced "board-sided rocking horses." The rockers and sides are cut from one plank of wood and what results looks almost like Noah's ark.