COLLECTING CLOCKS

Written by Mark Peer

     There is no such thing as an ordinary clock collector. But there may be some collectors with ordinary clocks. Someone somewhere has made a clock out of everything under the sun. Only books seem to have more diversity. As the most important machine of the last millennium, clocks deserve to be carefully studied and preserved. Without clocks, many of today's machines would never have existed. Nearly every civilized country produced very good quality timepieces over the last 200 years, and many volumes of literature have been written on the subject. The largest selection of current horological (the art and science of measuring time) books can be found on the web at: www.usbooks.com.
     Like old cars, clocks are a machine that every handyman and his brother has ogled, fondled, taken apart, moved, dropped or otherwise changed. Luckily for us, so many clocks were made in America in the 19th and 20th centuries that many really good examples still exist. Maybe, by the time you digest this story about American clocks you   will gain insight into one of the most diverse collectables you can find.
     The word clock is derived from the Latin "glocke", meaning bell. In medieval times townspeople had just the bell's toll for timekeeping, for only the wealthy and royalty owned mechanical clocks or watches. The small gilt bronze handmade table clocks depicted in paintings of the 13th century were not very accurate... until the pendulum was first employed in clocks of the late 17th century. Most clocks were custom made until about the year 1810... like adding a motor to a 4 wheeled cart , the clock business began to accelerate as some enterprising young American clockmakers began what is now known as factory mass production.  Life began to change... Life was better because you knew what time it was.  Regular Americans began to own clocks. The average hardworking Joe could save his money and buy a clock. Being the first on your block with a clock was a big thing! Like buying a car today... if you had good credit you could get a nice one and pay for it over time. By the time the 19th century had ended, some clocks were even given away as premiums to merchants who sold their quotas of coffee, grain and various other sundries.
     In 1768 the Willard family near Boston began hand tooling what would become the most sought after American clocks in their own time. By machining rough cast brass clock parts imported from England, then mass producing clock mechanisms and building tall cases of mahogany with native secondary woods, thus creating the "Roxbury tall".  The Willard family also produced the famous "Patent timepiece" aka banjo clock... which is considered to be the first clock uniquely of American design. By far, the most accurate, and comprehensive up to date history of the weight-driven banjo clock is: "WILLARD'S PATENT TIME PIECES" By Paul J. Foley and can be purchased for $90 at: www.roxburyvillagepublishing.com. A must have for anyone serious about the subject... No expert would be caught without it!  Pristine examples of signed Willard and other clocks with impeccable provenance can now fetch well into six figures. 
     The Willards may be the most celebrated American clockmakers of all time, but there were many contemporary clockmakers making fine clocks in America. Most of the pre-1840 American tall clocks found today were custom built by individual makers who each had a unique, if not consistent, method of construction.  Some were signed by their makers and some were not.  Collectors pay quite a premium for signed examples of whatever they collect.  Name recognition plays an important role in determining value and over the years many originally unsigned clocks have mysteriously grown a signature. Imagine that!
     "Caveat emptor" is a term used by many a clock aficionado which means "buyer beware". There are many things to look at in deciding if a tall clock is original. It gets a bit tricky here because clockmakers built clock mechanisms and cabinet makers would build a case for it. Then someone had to fit the clock to the case. Many first time clock purchasers could only afford to buy the mechanism and had to have it cased later. And still others kept up with the times and put their old clock in a new style case. This moving and switching has been going on ever since! Called "marriages" by most horologists, clock cases with recently associated mechanisms or very serious alterations have less value than all original examples. The price gap is expanding as the best examples are becoming very scarce.
     By carefully looking at wood veneers, inside case shadow lines, glue blocks and oxidation of the wood you may find evidence of restoration. New wood is sometimes masked with wood stains, potash or another chemical. It is very hard to duplicate the soft translucent sheen the surface of unfinished wood takes on as it dries out and oxidizes over time. Any evidence of glue should be consistent and may have an amber crystalline appearance. Missing wood parts will have left behind a difference in color on the surface to which it was attached. The dial should fit nicely in the case, and the board connecting the mechanism to the case should be a proper fit with no later alterations to the case side where the board rests. One should look at a signature on a painted clock dial closely with a loupe to see if the stress marks in the paint are consistent throughout the painted name. One of the first things I do when I see a good old wood cased clock is open the door, put my nose in and smell it! A nice original clock usually has a certain unmistakable aroma that only time can produce.
     In the first half of the 19th century American clock makers began producing smaller and cheaper weight driven clocks. Early on, brass was quite expensive, so Eli Terry and his contemporaries produced cheap wood clocks for the masses. The cost of brass dropped and most companies phased out the use of wood for the mechanism by 1840. Some use of the spring for motive power was used in these earlier times, but when the coiled steel spring was proven reliable in the 1850s clocks became even smaller. So started a new fashion and everyone wanted one of the new smaller clocks. The teeny boppers of the 1880s were singing and dancing to the hit tune "My Grandfather's Clock" and knew it meant a tall clock. These children had parents with the fashionable smaller clocks and saw the tall ones in their grandparents' home. And Grandpa was nearly always in charge of the clock!
     By 1860 clocks produced in this country came from large factories along the New York to Boston corridor. Similar to automobiles today, each clock had a make and model name for identification. Most are depicted in Tran Duy Ly's series of books on American clocks, mostly comprised of pictures and data from original clock company catalogs and is available at: www.usbooks.com.
     There are many price guides and much information in books and on the internet. The early handmade clocks are not as easy to appraise as the later mass produced models because of the consistency inherent with mass production. Prices for the most common models are usually lower than one would suspect. High quality clocks are valuable no matter their date of manufacture.  Experimental mechanisms, unusual and or beautiful cases, rarity and special features like calendar, moon's age indicator, and music will all add to the clocks' value. Geography is now becoming less of an issue regarding price as the internet is bringing us all a bit closer.
     For those interested in finding and learning more about old clocks, visit antique clock shops, museums, read books and find the National Association of Clocks and Watch Collectors at www.nawcc.org The NAWCC holds various regional conventions throughout the US and one of the largest will be held Feb. 19-29, 2004 at the Bob Carr Auditorium in Orlando. Be prepared to come early for the bargains, but only NAWCC members are allowed to participate on the mart trading floor.  A yearly membership costs $60 for the first year and around $40 for mart entry.
     The educational programs and museum exhibit are free to the public. The author, Mark Peer, is the owner of Mark of Time, Inc. in Palmetto, FL. Mark specializes in antique clocks from all over the world. Phone 800-277-5275 or visit his website at www.markoftime.com

 

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