Fontaine’s Auction Gallery
By John Fontaine
It sounds like a cliche to say quality items sell for premium prices, but in the world of vintage and antique clocks that is especially true. A very rare clock will always bring top dollar even in not so mint condition. That point was driven home quite forcefully at our last big clock auction in November, when an E. Howard & Company (Boston) No. 43 astronomical floor regulator, 105 inches tall, brought $254,100.
That was a new world record for an E. Howard No. 43 at auction, and the one major factor that made such a dizzying price possible was rarity, since this clock did have condition issues. It was in fine operating condition – and that’s not always the case when buying a clock at auction. Some clocks aren’t operational at all when they’re put up for bid. This one was in unrestored, as-is condition, with a repainted dial, refinished case and two replaced pendulum jars – plus the cache of the E. Howard name.
Now for a wake-up call. Once you exit the rarefied air of top-tier clocks – an exclusive club that counts among its members the better examples by E. Howard, Seth Thomas, E.N. Welch and others, plus the visually arresting and high-in-demand French industrials and Chinese bracket clocks – the market takes a precipitous dip and prices very quickly settle down to lower (but attainable to collectors) levels.
Clocks that are somewhat rare with condition issues can still perform well at auction, because often rarity will trump condition. It’s all in the perception of the clock up for bid, its provenance and appeal, and the egos in the room that are willing to slug it out on the floor (or online) to claim their prize (even if the clock isn’t functioning). That’s not to say, though, that a beginner can’t snap up a rare clock in need of repair.
Clocks that aren’t rare, but in great condition, are holding their own in today’s market. They fall into that vast net known as the mid-market, a gray and fairly soft place. Someone looking to buy an antique clock that fits that description can easily do so, at the going market rate. But if the plan is to then turn around and flip it quickly at auction for a profit, that person is in for a rude awakening. I don’t see this trend reversing itself anytime soon.
Some areas of the market are softer than others. The tall case clock market, for example, is very soft, except for the very top end. The clock from that category that may have brought $8,000-$12,000 a few years ago might only fetch $4,000-$6,000 today. I see so many oak English tall case clocks with painted dials, I sometimes tell prospective sellers I’ll pass, or I’ll encourage them to just keep it.
Here’s the thing: Grandfather clocks and tall case clocks are a wonderful addition to anyone’s foyer, den or entrance hall. But thousands were produced, and most everyone who appreciates and likes them already has one and most houses can’t accommodate more than one. So the market is glutted right now. It’s possible we’ll see a shake-out there and a game of catch-up, with regard to supply and demand, but the issue there, in part, is purely generational.
Remember, the youth of today don’t even own a watch (except to make a fashion statement). If they want to see what time it is, they look at their cell phone (and, by the way, the time on the phone is 100 percent accurate, never fast or slow, and it automatically corrects for time zone changes and when it’s time to spring forward or fall back).
Speaking of wristwatches and pocket watches, the market for both isn’t moribund, regardless of what I just said in the previous paragraph. In fact, it’s quite healthy, at least for models that are rare and desirable. Wristwatches and watches by high-end makers, like Patek Philippe or Rolex, continue to bring solid prices at auction. Watches that are animated (perform a trick) also do quite well, as do the repeaters.
Anyone thinking about getting into clock collecting at the beginner level should try to get a clock that’s in great condition, if possible, with all original parts. To me that’s of paramount importance. Of course, the clock must also be in the price range the novice can afford. It’s OK to buy a lesser example, in better condition. Later on, they should consider stepping up to something such as a weight-driven or wall-hanging regulator.
I’ve been observing, attending and conducting clock auctions for years, and I can say in all honesty I’m upbeat about the market, in spite of the mid-market pockets of softness and overabundance of inventory in some categories. If the rare, high-end clocks in fabulous condition were taking a tumble in the prices realized department, then I’d really start to worry. But just the opposite is true. They continue to climb.
I spoke of the E. Howard No. 43 in the opening paragraph, bringing $254,100. That was way short of the record price for an E. Howard clock overall. I should know. I held that sale, too, in November 2014, when an E. Howard No. 47 wall-hanging astronomical regulator clock sold for the staggering price of $356,950. That is still the auction record for one of these incredible timepieces. I’m fairly confident that if that same clock were sold at auction today, it would realize even more.
We also have an E. Howard street clock, 14 feet tall, in the same auction. They’re called street clocks because they were positioned outside a place of business, usually a bank, on a downtown sidewalk. The seller had the clock moved from its original place to his residence. He oiled its parts once a week. I have no idea of how much it will bring, but that’s the excitement of rare antique clocks. You just never know.