Charles Edwin - antique clocks and barometers

"These Clocks all Look Alike...
         ... so why do some "

A short guide to telling the difference

This is a question that someone in our show booth asked every once in a while, and it always threw us a bit. To us, every clock is an individual, no two alike, but the question demonstrates that much of the world doesn't see clocks and other antiques with the same eyes dealers do. Subtle differences of form, construction, and decoration are often quite transparent to someone who might be willing to spend a significant amount of money to fill a space in their home with an antique longcase clock, and those subtleties have a direct bearing on what the price is for that clock.

The proper reply, as indeed for all antiques, is that the price is determined by the three factors of age, quality, and condition.

The first longcase clocks in England, where the form was born, were produced about 1660. Spring-wound table clocks and weight-driven wall clocks had been made for a couple of centuries prior to this, but they were not particularly reliable timekeepers and it was the invention of the long pendulum in 1657 (requiring a long case) that created a breakthrough in accuracy, and coincidentally introduced a new and unique form of furniture. The earliest of these new clocks were London-made for royalty or nobility, and, as one would expect, the workmanship was superb. The longcase clock was an exciting development, and these early clocks were both esthetically and horologically interesting. The fine clocks by the most noted makers, from the 1660-1730 golden age of development, are now around 300 years old. It's hard to say how many were made, but the toll of the years makes their original small number even smaller, and good examples of clocks made by the early pioneers such as Tompion and Knibb commonly sell today for well over $500,000.

As the decades rolled by, production expanded. Longcase clocks became more widely available and were less of a novelty, and ways were found to bring the cost of a clock down to meet a wider market. The younger the clock, the lower its price today. No surprises there. With a bit of informed research, it is usually possible to assign a date to a clock within a 10 to 15 year range from its major design features alone. At the time any clock was first made, the fashion of the day determined the form and decoration of its three major components, case, dial, and movement. Each component still carries reliable indicators of the era in which the clock was designed to be as appealing as possible to its initial owner, just as was the furniture, fabrics, porcelains and silver of the time.

The clock above left was made about 1685. It is in a walnut case, with a slim trunk, long door, small bun feet. The features of the brass dial, the twisted hood pillars, and lenticle on the door are typical of this early period.

Some 175 years later, the clock at the right was made to meet the Victorian tastes of the mid-19th century. Note the short trunk door and the bright factory-painted dial with large numerals, both typical of the later period of clock production.

No matter what the period of production, some clocks were always better and more costly than others. Clocks with very complex movements in wonderful cases were aimed at the top of the market, but many more, probably 75%, had simple one-day movements and simply made pine or oak cases to fit the purse of Everyman. By 1800 an enormous variety of clocks was available since nearly every village of any size in England, and indeed the Western world, had its own clockmaker.

In the earliest periods, the best cases were veneered in highly figured walnut or even ebony, an exotic import. Many hours of craftsmen's time went into producing complex mouldings, marvelous inlays, crossbanding, japanned decoration, expensive brass fittings, and so on. Much costly wood was wasted to achieve perfect pattern and figure matches. Mahogany didn't become popular in clock cases until about 1750, almost 20 years after it was commonly available in furniture, but by the time it did it was an expensive wood with a high import tax. Only the better cabinet shops could afford to offer it, and it is no accident that simple and cheap thirty-hour movements are seldom found in cases of walnut or mahogany. The elegant mahogany clock at the right has a typical classic London case that was fashionable during most of last half of the 18th century.

Better dials were beautifully engraved or skillfully painted by highly paid specialists, but some very inexpensive painted dials or simple provincial brass dials were produced quickly with flat and inartistic decoration.

Better movements offered something extra, but again they took more time and engineering skill to produce. Some clocks need winding every day, but for a higher price your clock could run a week or a month or even a year between windings. Almost all have seconds and calendar dials, but a small percentage also have moon dials that let you know when there will be more light for traveling; or tidal dials that tell you when high tide will be in your local bay so that your ship can sail. There are movements that play musical tunes, and ones on whose dials rocking figures move in time with the pendulum. Even among all the mechanical exotica, there are different levels of workmanship. Extra effort and sophistication in the making of a clock added to the value originally, and so they do today.

Regardless of age or quality, the value of a clock as an antique is maintained or destroyed by its condition. This is where the bottom line really is. A lot of clocks were made, and have all been around long enough that some have had horrible things happen to them. Age more often than not brings neglect or accident-- hoods and cases get bashed, feet rot, mouldings dry out and fall off, movements are dropped or badly repaired, dial paint flakes off, and loose parts become lost in a move. Most of these problems can be corrected, and virtually every clock you see has had some restoration. It's important to note that the state of a clock's preservation can easily account for the difference in price between a $4,000 clock in an auction and a $10,000 clock from a good specialist dealer. The "bargain" might very well be lacking $7,000 worth of skilled and appropriate restoration.

What is appropriate restoration? If the feet of a clock's case rot away, is it cricket to replace them? If the finials are lost in the auction salerooms, is it an honorable act to replace them with reproductions? And what if the clock is so dirty and neglected and full of bodged repairs that it just won't run? Is all this maltreatment to be religiously preserved as "the effects of time"? In our opinion, no. Our approach and philosophy about restoration is the same as most major museums: if damage or bad repair exists that is of the wrong form and would be historically misleading, put it right. Don't let deterioration and unsympathetic repairs mask the integrity of the clock. Provided the clock is honorable to start with-- one that hasn't been enhanced or married beyond all recovery-- then we'll invest the time and money to put it back into its original state.

Much worse than simple deterioration is deliberate alteration. Common longcase clocks have always outnumbered the high quality clocks, and it has long been worthwhile to "enhance" the lesser examples for an undeserved profit. A lot can be done to turn a perfectly honest average-quality clock into something quite attractive--and expensive.

Some practices that we see often:

Adding desirable features, such as fitting a rocking ship to the arch area of a dial. Clock suppliers have sold the parts for years. It is relatively easy for an experienced eye to spot a retrofit ship: the surrounding cutout of scenery and the backdrops of waves and sky are distinctive. Unfortunately, they are seen often in the antiques trade. A look at the back of the dial will show that the fittings are new, not just clean.

Making a 30-hour clock into an 8-day clock by changing out the original movement. Several decades ago, ready-made factory movements were offered to the clock trade with exactly this in mind. It was the perfect thing to do with an unsellable 30-hour clock that had a small and pretty brass dial. At the same time, a minute hand was added to the original single hour hand, again via a "conversion kit." The most common examples of these seen today have square brass and silver dials, and are in pretty and petite oak cases, sometimes recently reveneered with walnut.

Marrying elements, such as cases, dials, and movements. Most of the clocks we look at have been married in some way. Usually the dial and movement have been put into a more attractive case, or perhaps have been orphaned and wound up in the next empty case that came along. Here are two clocks to illustrate. The photo at the left shows a brass dial with a moon phase, in its original and elaborate mahogany case.

To the right, an honorable but later and more commonly found Victorian painted-dial clock.

Now hypothetically if the brass dial were to become separated from its case and were put into the later case, it would look like left, below. It looks attractive, but the dial and movement were made about 70 years before the case was, and anyone who knows how clocks evolved could tell you this at a glance. The short door on the case is 1840's, the brass dial is 1770's. Other more subtle clues exist. A close look at the wooden mask framing the dial would show that the lower corner spandrels are covered by the mask, and there are gaps at either end of the dial arch.

With the hood off, the last doubt is removed (see above center): on the sides of the case, there are thick blocks holding up the seatboard (which supports the dial and movement) so that the dial mask will fit as well as it can. The picture above right shows the proper fit for the seatboard that actually belongs in the case.

Marriages in clocks are common, but that doesn't make them any more legitimate or acceptable in the antiques world than marrying the top and bottom of a two-part piece of furniture. The practice of mating unrelated dials and cases has long been defended on the grounds that it allows antique components to survive. Be that as it may, from a specialist dealer's standpoint the result is a kit of unrelated parts and not worth paying for. A marriage is a marriage is a marriage, and no amount of creative defense is going to put the original parts back together again.

Another of our problems with the practice is that the buyer is almost never made aware that she or he is paying far over the fair value for such defective goods. One of the most dismal aspects of dealing in clocks is having to explain to people that the clock they bought many years ago to finance their retirement is simply a collection of parts with very little antique value.

So there it is. Why do some clocks cost more than others? The more expensive ones are the earlier ones with high-quality cases, dials, and movements, and they're in as good condition as proper, sensitive care and restoration can make them. As dealers, we hope the differences are obvious, but then, a bug is a bug to everybody but an entomologist.

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