Michal Widenský and his collection of vintage mechanical toys


Michal Widenský’s workshop in the town of Pardubice smells of paint, turpentine and wood and is full of old mechanical toys in various stages of disrepair. Many of them were found broken and barely recognizable in someone’s attic, but under his care they return to their former glory, giving pleasure not only to children but also to many adults.

Michal Widensky |  Photo: Michal Widensky Archive

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

“About 25 years ago I found a broken mechanical toy from the old days. It was so badly damaged that at first I couldn’t tell what it was, but as an engineer, I I was intrigued by this and eventually, as I put it together, little by little, it started to emerge and it was a German society cinematographer Bing, a children’s toy that projected images and movies.

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

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

Photo: Michal Widensky Archive

Michal’s first renovation job lasted almost a year, but he got hooked and today he is an avid collector and restorer of old mechanical toys and vintage wooden toys, sought after by other collectors and filmmakers.

“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 as well as a board game. In the film, you can see one of the Empress’ daughters on the rocking horse in the background.

Michal Widenský acquires vintage toys from internet auctions or directly from people who find them in their attics and have no use for them. There are nearly a hundred in his workshop waiting to be repaired. Whenever he acquires a new addition, Michal tries to find out as much as possible from its previous owners. One of the biggest toys is a half-meter-long wooden tram.

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

Photo: Michal Widensky Archive

Michal says people sometimes come to ask him to fix an old toy that has been in the family for years, but because the task of renovating old toys takes so much time, he has to turn down a lot of them and only takes old stuff. friends or as a special favour. He is actively looking for toys to carry out his own projects.

“In 2008, my colleague Miroslav Smaha and I established a museum of vintage mechanical toys and so most of my working time is spent repairing items for our museum and various exhibitions we have across the country. We We have temporary and permanent exhibitions in various places such as castles, for example in Dečín Castle we decorated the room of a girl and a boy with vintage toys.

Michal says some renovations are so complicated that it can take him two or three months to decide the best way to fix a given room.

Photo: Michal Widensky Archive

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

“Dioramas first appeared in France in the middle of the 19th century. My goal is to create dioramas, which accurately depict a given period of history. Here we have a diorama of a scout camp dating back to 1937-1938. Some of the Scout toys are genuine, but the acquisition process was so slow – because you come across one in two years – that we decided to make copies. So here you see twelve to fifteen scouts, but we will need many more.

Photo: Michal Widensky Archive

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

“I had all these toy soldiers from the First Republic and thought it would also be nice to have President Masaryk in the diorama. However, I couldn’t find a model that was just the right fit. size I needed – about 7cm tall – that would go with the rest. So we had to make it ourselves. In the end, three people worked on President Masaryk. He is now the central character in the diorama of 1926 shown next to his new Skoda car, the Hispano-Suiza model.

Photo: Tereza Brázdová, Czech Radio

Great names and significant feats in history are attractive subjects for dioramas, especially when they are local heroes. Michal Widenský proudly displays a diorama in the making.

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

One thing led to another, and Michal’s passion for dioramas eventually led him to become a toy stylist photographer as well. He plans to take photos of his toys in natural settings so that they look real.

“I started toy stylist photography ten years ago. I take toy cars and toy figures with me around the country and place them in sets that will create the most realistic image. In some cases, I’ve been so successful that people think they’re real. It’s a complicated process where you have to pay attention to detail, get exactly the right light and of course find the perfect spot. Sometimes I ride for hours without knowing where I’m going to take pictures, then I come across a place that is exactly what I need.

Photo: Michal Widensky Archive


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