Antique Clocks: time to Buy? Tips and Trends for Dealers and Collectors – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – September 2002
By Jeff Savage
A sea of pretty faces, many accompanied by striking figures, greeted me as I entered the convention hall. They all promised a good time, but I was wary. If I wasn’t careful, I might wind up with one of those pairings that look to all the world like a perfect match, but which really is just a marriage of convenience.
I had just stepped into the sellers’ mart at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors 2002 annual conference in Anaheim, California. The faces belonged to clocks of every shape, size and type, all vying for my attention. A high style Louis XV boulle bracket clock priced at $56,000 sat across from a table spread with humble, late 19th century American black mantel and “gingerbread” clocks by Seth Thomas, Waterbury, Gilbert and others, many of which were priced under $300. There were animated moving eye clocks and brightly hued Royal Bonn porcelain cased clocks with Ansonia movements. “Perpetual motion” Atmos clocks by the Swiss maker, Le Coultre, stood side by side with early 20th century battery operated clocks by Bulle. Wall clocks abounded, including slender two and three-weight Vienna regulators, circular dial clocks and the ubiquitous American drop-trunk “schoolhouse” clock. A smattering of English and American longcase clocks rounded out the offerings.
This was clock heaven, and I was there to talk with its guardian angels.
As editor of the Antique Clocks Identification and Price Guide Online, my goal was to sniff out some current trends in the antique clock market. What was “hot” and what was “not” in American clocks I wondered aloud to dealers? What should a beginning collector look out for? Any sage advice for my readers?
“If you are looking for long term appreciation, buy the best you can afford.” opined one veteran dealer who had traveled from Vermont to offer his wares. “The guy that got me started thirty years ago told me that if I had $100 to spend, buy the best clock you can for that $100, or buy two good ones for $50 each. Don’t bother with a lot of common $5.00 clocks. They’ll never become ‘rare’ or collectible, and you’ll have to spend money to get each one of them repaired or reconditioned.” He admitted that the days of finding premium antique clocks for $100 were long gone but that the principle still held true.
Another dealer chimed in that “condition and originality” are highly important when choosing a clock that will hold its value. “A Royal Bonn with a chip, crack or repair can lose 80% of it’s value versus a perfect one,” he warned. “Stay away from a collectible piece that seems cheap based on its present condition, unless you’re capable of high caliber repairs.” He also cautioned that appearances can be deceiving. “I’ve also seen a lot more ‘marriages’ for sale lately (a case joined with a movement not original to it.) They may look right to an untrained eye, but it’s easy to overpay for them.”
Most dealers I spoke with agreed that with the arrival of eBay (www.ebay.com), the popular online auction company, the market has been thrown some unexpected curves.
“Ebay has caused many of us to revise our notions about which clocks are rare and which are common place,” commented one Pennsylvania dealer. “For example, Ebay sellers have produced a ton of Seth Thomas ship’s clocks with an external bell. Whereas before I only owned one and had a hard time finding another, I now own about two dozen and their prices have dropped considerably. Grand sonnerie Vienna regulators aren’t bringing what they were just a couple of years ago, either. Ebay has provided wider access to what were once hard to find clocks, with a corresponding drop in their values over the short term.”
On the positive side, he felt that Ebay and other online shopping venues save the time and expense of traveling around to antique shops or having to spend all day at an auction waiting for that one desired piece to come up.
On the subject of “what’s hot” in today’s market, most dealers agreed that the current rage in American clocks are the statues, swingers, porcelains & calendars. An American figural swinging arm timepiece may sell at auction in the $3,000 – $4,000 range or more, depending upon rarity and condition. However, many whom I spoke with cautioned that reproductions from overseas, particularly of the statue clocks & swingers, are eroding the market and making knowledgeable buyers very cautious. Investment buyers may see losses in their investments as a consequence of the glut of reproductions.
Clocks bringing much steeper prices include the finest examples produced by early 19th century American clock makers such as Eli Terry, Joseph Ives, J.C. Brown, Aaron Willard, and other pioneering names. Prices reached towards the sky at last year’s auction of collector Peter Zaharis’ estate by Cottone Auctions in upstate New York www.cottoneauctions.com. A rare carved column shelf clock by Mark Leavenworth (Waterbury, CT., c. 1828) brought $53,900 (est. $10,000-$15,000) and a finely decorated stovepipe shelf clock by Asa Munger scored a record for an upstate New York clock – $57,750 (est. $20,000-$30,000)
Even these figures pale in comparison to the record price of $611,000 paid by dealer Bill Samaha for an American 18th century mahogany tallcase clock at Christies in October, 2000.
With such fierce competition driving up prices for the rarer 18th and early 19th century American timepieces, are there any bargains left in the $1,000 and under price range?
Up and coming categories that are still relatively affordable but rising in value include early battery powered clocks (some made as early as the 1840’s), animated clocks (with blinking eyes or automaton movements), and interesting novelty clocks. Bob Schmitt, a well respected New Hampshire auctioneer (www.roschmittfinearts.com), always has a smattering of electric powered clocks in his twice yearly auctions. A No. 100 Bulle Dome battery powered mantel timepiece, C.1935, 15″ high and in very good original condition, sold for $750 – 25% higher than the presale estimate of $500-$600. Other battery powered clocks usually brought more than expected as well. A Warren Clock Co. (Ashland, Mass.) mantel clock with original glass dome sold for $870, almost twice its reserve price of $450. A 1928 Poole Manufacturing Co. (Westport, CT and Ithaca, NY) shelf clock, “The Executive”, sold for $380, more than twice the low estimate.
Interest in the Art Deco period has peaked, but Mid-Century Modern electric clocks by famous designers such as George Nelson and Gilbert Rohde for Herman Miller have seen increasing interest as nostalgia for the period grows amongst the baby boomers of the 1950’s. David Rago Auctions, a Lambertville, New Jersey auction house (www.ragoarts.com) specializing in 20th century decorative arts, reports recent sales of Nelson’s Starburst and Asterisk design wall clocks in the $300 range. Last year a Rohde “Z” desk clock with tubular chrome frame and circular glass face, in as-is condition, needing a new motor and hands, sold for $1,000. The same model in mint condition sold for $5,000 at the same auction!
Mass produced American clocks of the late 19th through early 20th century are the ones most commonly found today in antique stores and collectives throughout the United States. These include the boxey black mantel clocks, pressed wood kitchen or “Gingerbread” clocks, and tambour clocks, sometimes called “Napolean Hat” or humpback clocks because of their shape. Millions of these clocks were made. As such, they tend to trade in a relatively narrow price range ($100-300 for most) and have not seen a significant appreciation in prices in recent years.
There are an endless variety of ages, styles, sizes, conditions, qualities and price ranges of clocks. You’ll have no trouble finding them for sale throughout the country, at estate sales and flea markets, country auctions and posh city salesrooms; at general antiques shops and dealers specializing in antique timepieces both on and off the Internet.
The challenge lies in “buying right”, especially important for dealers who must make a fair profit on their purchase or for collectors who want to buy the very best their budget will allow. Too often in my 30 year career as a professional appraiser I’ve had the unhappy duty of informing a client they had dearly overpaid for an antique clock, or that it was not as represented by the seller. The recipe for avoiding their mistakes contains three main ingredients: an eye for quality, some basic knowledge, and a healthy dose of skepticism.
1. Develop Your Connoisseurship
Americans are fortunate to have led the world in clockmaking production for most of the 19th century, and many of these good antique clocks can still be found at reasonable prices in antique stores throughout the nation. You won’t have to travel far to find many fine specimens available either for study or purchase. Visiting museums and dealers in fine clocks will familiarize you with a wide range of clock case styles and materials, movement types and construction techniques. You’ll generally find clock dealers and collectors quite willing to share their knowledge with a generous and sincere enthusiasm for their subject. For those with internet access the National Association of Watch and Clock Collector’s web site www.nawcc.org is an excellent place to begin. Local NAWCC chapters meet regularly throughout the US and provide an excellent opportunity for hands-on learning about antique clocks. Before long you’ll have the pleasure of discerning for yourself the qualities that separate the good, the better and the best of clocks.
2. Learn the Basics of Clock History, Technology and Value Trends
The more you know about the history, construction techniques and factors which influence current price trends of clocks, the more likely it is that you’ll pay a fair price or be able to spot a true bargain.
How much should you pay for an antique clock? Budgetary considerations aside, here are six factors that may influence your decision:
Pricing Data: Knowing what similar clocks have sold for in the past can help you decide if a dealer’s asking price is fair. It can also help guide you on how high to bid at auction. Be wary of using printed price guides to aid your decision. Many are so lacking in descriptive details as to be virtually useless or harmfully misleading. Some of the better ones include Tran Duy Ly’s series on American clocks, available from Arlington Books www.arlingtonbooks.com More useful is the study of well written catalogs of the major horological auctions, including the pre-sale estimates and the final hammer price of the items. More and more, these catalogues are available for viewing on the Internet. Specialized databases like the Antique Clocks Identification and Price Guide Online www.AntiqueClocksPriceGuide.com give values for more than 5,700 clocks sold at auction, each with a color photo and a direct link to the source of each value.
Guarantees: Any clock sold on an “as-is” basis should be approached with caution. You may wind up with a bargain, but more often will find yourself bearing additional costs of repair or restoration. You may decide it is worth it to pay a little more for a clock in exchange for a seller’s guarantee of authenticity or serviceability. Don’t rely solely on a manufacturer’s label affixed to a wood cased clock. The label may be a reproduction or may not be original to the case.
Condition: A clock whose case and movement are in excellent condition will sell for far more than a similar clock in average or poor condition. An un-restored or unaltered, all-original, clock with its original case finish; a clock which has its maker’s label or signature intact; a clock with its original glass and decorative elements; a well-preserved, clean, working movement – all can increase the value of a clock considerably. Depending on your collecting goals, you may want to pay less for something in fair condition or more for something in tiptop shape.
- Identifying marks: If an authentic label, signature, or other marking can tie the clock to a well known clockmaker or manufacturer, you may decide it is worth paying more for that clock than for a similar clock without such documentation.
- Quality: As in every category of antiques and works of art, some clocks command high premiums due to their master craftsmanship of both case and movement.
- Provenance: A clock may command a much dearer price if it once belonged to a celebrity, a royal or someone of lasting historical importance.
Other considerations include potential crating, transportation and set-up fees, insurance costs, current fashion trends, periodic cleaning and maintenance, complexity of movement, and more.
3. Employ a Healthy Skepticism and Seek Expert Advice If In Doubt
Although most dealers are honest and most auction houses describe their offerings accurately, it’s still best to have a “buyer beware” attitude. Avoid being the victim of an unscrupulous dealer or well meaning but unknowledgeable seller. Don’t rely only on the seller’s verbal assurances of authenticity. Reproductions of old clock labels can be purchased for a few dollars, signatures can be forged, labels can be switched, works from one clock can be “married” to a different case. If an important provenance is claimed, you should insist on a paper trail that conclusively ties the clock to its purported former owner.
If buying through an online auction, read the complete description more than once to catch any subtle wording that the clock may not be all it first appears. As one dealer recently told me, “I see reproductions peddled online as antigue – yes! discreetly so – by using vague, unfocused pictures and an ‘I know nothing about clocks’ line of baloney.” Don’t assume anything. A reputable dealer or auction house should provide a written guarantee specifying the right to a refund if any descriptive claims about the clock are later found to be untrue.
If you are making what, for you, is a substantial financial investment, consider hiring an expert clock dealer or an ISA or ASA accredited professional appraiser to counsel you. Choose an impartial advisor with no conflict of interest; one whose fee is not contingent on whether or not you buy a particular clock. Expect to pay an hourly rate or flat fee for such assistance.
I returned from the NAWCC conference in a philosophical mood. After all, what has influenced the history of civilization and regulates our daily life as much as the concept of time and its measurement? The simple alarm clock at my bedside table owes its existence to more than 6,000 years of thinking about time and tinkering with devices to accurately mark its passage. I also renewed my enthusiasm for the buying opportunities still available to the average dealer or collector whose budget may not always match his or her dreams. It may take some time and study to find that special clock that will quicken your pulse without cleaning out your purse, but the satisfaction is timeless.
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