Lorne Shields, Bicycle Collector
by Maxine Carter-Lome
Lorne Shields is proof you don’t have to be an avid cyclist to love and collect “Cycliana,” or cycling memorabilia. For over five decades, Shields has amassed and donated some of the most important bicycle and cycling-related collectibles ever assembled. Parts of his collection have been on display at the Smithsonian Institution and other museums in France, The Netherlands, Canada, the U.S. and England. What’s left and what has been newly-acquired line the walls and decorate the rooms of his home in a suburb of Toronto, Canada. When you talk to him about his collection, which I did in early April, you can tell his interest in the subject and collecting has not waned over time. After all these decades, he still gets excited about what he may find next by going to antique shows, auctions, flea markets, and meetings of collectors’ organizations (such as the Ephemera Society and the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors). In fact he shared his shopping list with me in advance of his forthcoming trip to the 28th Annual Bicycle and Automobilia Auction in Copake, New York.
Like a lot of people, collecting is in my DNA. As a child I collected stamps. Then I went on to coins, art, ephemera, photographica, Victorian glass, and various other collectibles as I aged. In the 1960s I was working in the wholesale bike industry when a friend—who was also my mentor and a professional coin, stamp, and ephemera dealer—suggested that I start collecting objects related to my profession. He pointed out that these acquisitions could become a business expense and would provide a greater depth of knowledge of the industry.
Tell us about your collection.
My initial focus was on the bicycles themselves, but that quickly expanded into many aspects of cycling. Since the late 1960s I’ve specialized in collecting this one topic, non-motorized Cycliana – essentially everything historic related to manumotive or pedimotive transport. The collection literally encompasses the history relative to one, two, three, four, five, and more wheeled vehicles; also, bicycles in the air and on the water. There are numerous groups of items related to cycling: art, porcelains, Stevengraphs, photographica, books, manuscript material, cycle accessories, trophies, posters, jewelry, ephemera, early lighting, memorabilia, vanity items, and others.
My mentor taught me to buy the best of the best that I could afford, advice that still guides my collecting philosophy today. Over the years I’ve even mortgaged my house to make an important acquisition. The more I collected the more I found out how little information was out there. There were a few books and catalogues to guide me, but the knowledge I gained incentivized me to locate and buy the rarest, best examples.
In 1981, Canada’s National Museum of Science & Technology in Ottawa acquired a good portion of my collection, giving it one of the best collections of cycles in the world. At that time, they asked me to acquire more related objects in order to give the collection stronger visual appeal and historic relevance. That’s essentially what I’ve specialized in when making my acquisitions over the last 40 years.
Over time, more than 100 feet of rare and important pre-1900 books and journals were transferred to the Museum’s Library. I saved about five feet of rare books (a seed collection) and have been adding more over time. There are now an additional 50 feet of important books for the Library to consider.
A strong aspect of my collection is pre-1900 cycling-related photographic images, which is likely the largest collection in existence, including over 4,000 cycling photographs and over 700 stereoscopic cards.
Are there any bicycles left in your collection?
I have six which all neatly fit in my living room. The earliest is an example of the first commercially made pedal driven bicycle (velocipede) produced by Michaux in France, 1867. His initial run was about 150 bicycles and this is the earliest known example of that production run at this time. Next is a Facile, made in England in 1881, with levers that allowed for a smaller front wheel which made it safer to ride; then another English bicycle, the Kangaroo, 1885, which introduced chains on both sides of the front wheel and is of a similar size to the Facile; an American Star, which is a lever-driven bicycle built in 1885 with a small wheel in the front and big wheel in the back; and two important High-Wheel (penny farthing) bicycles identified as being sold in Toronto.
Why keep these six?
These few bicycles represent a unique time span often called the Golden Age of Cycling. They have great appearance, importance, and represent wonderful memories. And they balance the collection esthetically and historically. Visitors can grasp a lot more context when an antique bicycle is at their side.
What appeals to you about cycliana?
The field covers transportation, sport, society, industry, commerce, and entertainment. It is an integral aspect of the birth and development of automobiles, motorcycles, and even airplanes, along with their huge associated industries.
Bicycle racing became the biggest spectator event in the world. The graphics, history, art, collectibles, and memorabilia were mine to discover and I became fascinated with each aspect within the field. The history of the bicycle is a vast subject and so much more could be added, but space is a limiting factor.
- A French cast Bronze Automaton Clock of a High Wheel cyclist, circa 1890, with revolving wheels, a Thermometer, and Barometer. I acquired this in The Netherlands and could only obtain this by buying the owners complete collection. A complicated and expensive acquisition, but well worth the time, effort, and cost.
- The American Patent Office Model for a bicycle identified as an Otto Dicycle. Built in 1882 it has the wheels side-by-side. I obtained the lead from a dealer, whom I rewarded. I then had to fly to Seattle, Washington to acquire this.
- I consider the Silver & Gold belt buckle from 1869 presented to Charles Delmonico of Delmonico’s Restaurant fame to be one of the finest objects ever created as a piece of cycling memorabilia. I traded a very rare bicycle from a friend and fellow collector in Vermont to obtain it.
- The earliest known (at this time) example of a dated photograph with provenance capturing the image of a manumotive vehicle. Dated 1850, it is a daguerreotype and is by F. B. James of Cincinnati, Ohio who became a Colonel during the Civil War. Provenance came years later when another photo of Frank B. James appeared on the internet as being a part of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Collection in New York. I acquired this on eBay in 2003, but only understood its true historic importance in 2017.
- A primitive piece of art in watercolor capturing the only known example of a lady on a hobby-horse in motion. The image is circa 1819. There is other art with these types of cycles but very few examples known with ladies. I acquired it from an antiques dealer in England after receiving a tip from a fellow collector who did not have interest in this era of cycling.
How has the collector market for cycliana changed over the years?
From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, the best way to acquire objects was from other collectors, antique shops, and a few auctions. Most of the major auction houses produced catalogs that I subscribed to and paid around $3,500 for annually. With few books and virtually no relative price guides, determining values was difficult. Today there are fewer antique shows, dramatically fewer antique shops which have been supplanted by antique malls, and only a few specialist auction houses. As an example, in England during the 1970s and ‘80s, one could buy from Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Christies. Some companies that handled cycling sales either no longer exist or no longer have specialist sales.
The internet has had a huge impact on availability. Two internet collectors’ sites to visit are “The Wheelmen” (thewheelmen.org) and “The Cabe” (thecabe.com). A favorite for many is eBay. Copake Auction in Copake, NY, has an annual specialist vintage and antique cycliana sale.
To find rare and collectible books in the 1970s I had to pay for a “Book Search” service. I might hear from them once a month with an offering or two. Today I can go to AbeBooks.com and buy a library full of cycling books of all types in a very short period of time.
There are many other antique auction and book vending sites. What is mentioned only scratches the surface. So where we search and spend our time today “in the hunt” is hardly the same. Even in the old days when we found something special it was likely the antique dealer who did not know its value to a cycliana collector. Today virtually everyone has availability to the internet so it is more difficult to find the proverbial “sleeper.” Next is the cost factor. As an example, bikes were more economical in relative dollars and there were fewer collectors.
There are lots of factors that changed but the thrill of collecting has not.
What advice do you have for collectors looking at Cycliana?
Before you start collecting in a serious manner – if you have an opportunity – read books about the subject that most interests you. The internet can be a mine of information. Visit cycling museums or local collections. Buy the best you can afford instead of a mass of stuff, and don’t be afraid to buy from advanced collectors. They can usually be trusted and have a myriad of reasons to purge items with experience-based pricing. Restoration is generally frowned upon while conservation is preferred. And, it doesn’t have to be in perfect condition when considering a rarity.
Photography is very condition-oriented. I used to be adamant that the mount needs to be perfect, the image sharp and the colors strong. Today, I’m willing to accept faults if the image is a rarity. It no longer has to be pristine; the importance of the object can take precedence over condition.
Bear in mind the reason for your purchasing decision can be made when you differentiate between collecting and decorating. Finding a focus within the field might come about after spending some time collecting. Perhaps if you are so inclined and wish to get immersed, try to find a vintage or antique bicycle to ride.
To contact Lorne Shields regarding his collection, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org