Acquiring Quality Antique Clocks
by Bob Brooke
every old clock is worth collecting. In fact, collecting clocks can be a
challenge because of the amount of space they take up. So people who do
collect them are very particular.
In selling real estate, location is prime. But in antique clock
collecting, condition is all important. To be worth anything, an antique
clock needs to be in working order—in other words, it needs to tell time
almost as good as it did when it was first made.
Prior to the 19th century, a master clockmaker produced fewer than two
dozen clocks per year. These were tall-case clocks. referred to today as
grandfather clocks. The term grandfather clock wasn't used until after
1876. when a song American composer Henry Clay Work, "My Grandfather's
Clock," became popular. While these early clocks demonstrated the finest
quality of workmanship, the cost of $50 or more excluded anyone but the
very rich from owning one.
Toward the end of the 18th century, two brothers, Simon and Aaron
Willard. made an abbreviated version of the tall clock. The
Massachusetts shelf clock resembled the top half of the grandfather
1802, Simon patented his improved timepiece, a wall clock shaped like a
banjo. This style would be copied many times. Years later, the Waterbury
Clock Company manufactured a number of banjo clocks and used the name
While the Willards introduced new lock styles, it was Gideon Roberts, a
Revolutionary War veteran from Bristol, Conn., who began to make the
clock more affordable. Roberts replaced he brass movements used up to
that time with less expensive wooden movements and also used painted
paper dials. Imitating the German styling known as "wag-on-the-wall,"
Roberts would also make clocks without a case. The exposed works could
be encased for an additional fee. Using these methods, Roberts was able
to produce 10 or more clocks at a time.
While these production methods were innovative, it was Eli Terry who
brought mass-production of clocks to America. In 1797, the U.S. patent
Office granted Terry the first American clock-related patent. In 1807,
he signed a contract to make 4,000 clock movements within three years.
Legend has it that Terry spent the first two years designing and
constructing the machinery, which would allow him to fulfill his
obligation. In 1810, with the help of apprentices Seth Thomas and Silas
Hoadley, Terry's Pillar & Scroll shelf clock became the first
inexpensive, factory-produced clock available to the American public.
Hoadley purchased Terry's factory that same year and worked together
until 1813. Thomas eventually became one of America's best-known
American clock industry continued to thrive through the first half of
the 19th century. An 1850 census listed clockmaker as the occupation of
582 Connecticut residents. Of these, well-known makers included the
Ansonia Clock Company (1850-1929, sold its machines and equipment to the
Russian Government), The Waterbury Clock Company (1850-1944, acquired by
the U.S. Time Corp.), The New Haven Clock Company (1853-1960, sold off
at auction), E.N. Welch Manufacturing Company (1831-1903, name changed
to Sessions Clock Company, which remained in business until 1970),
William L. Gilbert Clock Company (1828-1964, purchased by Spartus
Corporation), and The E. Ingraham Company (1828-1967, sold to
By 1850, technology would change most movements from weight to
spring-driven and brass coiled springs would be replaced by cheaper
steel springs. Among the most popular clocks were the schoolhouse clock,
the pressed oak "gingerbread" kitchen clock, the steeple clock, and the
OG clock, which featured a double continuous S-shaped molding.
an antique clock’s origins can be challenging. Those made in the 18th
and at least the first half of the 19th century bore no labels. Some
clockmakers did sign their works, especially those that made tall case
clocks. Generally, they signed them somewhere on the dial. Many of those
that did have labels in the latter part of the 1800s, lost them over
Rarity, provenance, originality, quality of manufacture, and quality of
restoration all affect value.
The key to acquiring museum quality antique clocks is learning how to
research, properly identify, and evaluate them. The primary things to
consider are condition, originality, rarity, and provenance.
Unfortunately, thousands of clocks on eBay aren't properly identified.
Beware of vague descriptions such as "I'm not really familiar with this
type of clock." Whether you buy online, at auction or at a shop, you
should consider hiring an expert as to broker the sale for
you—especially when paying serious money
antique clock isn’t always as good as it appears. While a clock may look
great from the outside, the condition of its works is what counts. Over
time, abuse and bad repairs can add up, rendering what could have been a
great find nearly worthless.
The sad thing is that many antique clocks cannot be repaired. Even the
best horologist can’t work miracles on many old clockworks. The reason
is that most of them cannot obtain the parts needed to do the repairs.
And the few younger clockmakers in business today just don’t have the
skills necessary to make the parts themselves.
Unlike a piece of antique furniture that has been restored, an antique
clock that isn’t running isn’t worth collecting.
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