Charles Edwin - antique clocks and barometers

  How to Research Your Clock
(or barometer)
Do you have a clock you'd like to know more about? You're not alone. We receive several requests a week to identify clocks for people, and although we'd like to help-- it's an interesting process-- we simply don't have the time to do it properly. However....

Please see http://www.clockswatches.com, a website for clock and watch research.

Also, the British Horological Institute, at http://www.bhi.co.uk, has many other links that will be useful.

The Smithsonian's website includes a Selected Bibliography for Identifying Clocks and Watches

Also, you can do quite a bit of genealogy research on the web these days - one site we use quite a bit is the UK and Ireland Genealogy's website, http://GenUKI.org.uk.  There are business records there going back a couple of centuries in some cases and they can be a lot of help if you start with the name and town of the clockmaker.

If your clock was made in Britain or America up to about 1860, here's how you can do it yourself. (If it's later, we can't help at all. If it's Continental, the process would be the same but you'll need to find the right reference books.)

Ed. note: This process can be applied to barometer research as well. Just read "barometer" for "clock," use a different set of reference books, and ignore the comments about replaced feet.

An admittedly simple-minded approach for a start in dating is to compare the features of your clock's dial and case to photos in reference books. Our Reading List includes the main references, and most of these books are available from specialist booksellers or libraries. Be careful here: the forms of cases and dials changed very gradually according to local fashion and subtle differences can be very significant. The next step is to decipher the name that is painted or engraved on the dial face and see if you can find it (or something similar--spelling was informal, at best) in the makers' listings in Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World by Baillie or Loomes. If the maker's dates fit with the characteristics of the dial and case, then you've got a pretty good idea of when the clock was made.

It is, however, rarely that easy.

Now, read through our article "All these clocks look alike..." and notice the emphasis on rightness. Longcase clocks were made over hundreds of years and the design of their dials and cases evolved according to the fashion of the time and place. Given a long history and the fragility of the object, changes have most probably been made.

Chances are excellent that:

  • the dial isn't original to the case;
  • the name has been added to the dial;
  • the dial has been totally repainted and none of the original features are present;
  • the hood and/or case has been altered to reduce the height of the clock;
  • or that the nice rocking ship was put in last year.

Feet are particularly at risk and are often missing or incorrectly replaced. With some research and a close inspection of your clock case, dial, and movement, you'll have a pretty good idea of what has been done to your clock, and whether it was done properly or not. All restoration isn't bad; it's just necessary to know what and where it is.

As far as valuation goes-- and this is nearly always the second question ("...how old is it and what's it worth?"), with a realistic view of your clock's history and condition you can check around for the prevalent price for that type of clock in that condition. There are enough decent clocks on the market so that the prices have to be pretty competitive. Keep in mind that a specialist dealer has a better feel for the market than the general antiques dealer, and that any dealer really does expect to sell the clock for a bit more than was paid for it, along with the cost of any restoration that might have been necessary. What the buyer gets for the difference in a dealer's cost and price is knowledge, experience, service, and a guarantee that the clock is what the dealer says it is.

Professional appraisers? Be careful. Some are very good and work hard to understand the complexities of clocks (and barometers), but in general they tend to concentrate on antiques that are more commonly traded.

Auction houses? Be very, very careful! Keep in mind that they only see what is brought in to them and they are not held accountable in any way for their appraisals or estimates or descriptions. It is to their benefit to estimate high to get you to place your clock with them because they get a percentage whether or not they come even close. (And as for buying from auction-- how rational is it to buy anything at a price that is determined only by who else is there?)

Jill Probst
3/26/99



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