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Wessex Gallery - A Guide To Collecting Clocks

In this article I will be outlining my experiences on a 15 year journey building a collection of clocks. Hopefully the information I provide will help you, the aspiring collector, to determine how to proceed and in which direction. I have been buying and selling clocks for over 15 years and I am still refining my personal collection.

Throughout the article I will include images of my clocks, many of which can now be purchased through my website.

Rare Tiffany Pagoda Topped Chinoiserie Clock

I am assuming that anyone reading this article will already be familiar with most of the commonly used terms relating to clocks and have an idea of what type of clocks you wish to collect. If not, then I suggest that you do as much research as possible. There are literally hundreds of good horology books available for purchase, either new or secondhand, and there are many Horological Societies worldwide. Try joining one of these and meet up with a host of fellow enthusiasts who can be an immense source of knowledge, experience and advice. There is also a vast amount of information that can be gleaned from the Internet.

Let me state at the outset that when I purchase a clock it is always with the intent to reinstate it to good working condition, not to over restore but return to a condition which means it looks attractive, will run reliably for many years (subject to periodic servicing) and importantly will enable me to maximise the return should I choose to sell it on. Having said that, many of the clocks in my collection would sell at a loss due to the amount of time/work invested in returning them to a good condition. If it is important to you to maintain a positive equity in your purchases i.e. to not make a loss should you chose to sell, I'll elaborate on that point later in this article in the 'What & Where to Buy' sections.

How did I start

My very first horological purchase was really just an impulse buy off Ebay. I was looking through the listings of a house clearance specialist when I spotted a small red pagoda top Chinoiserie decorated timepiece - it was love at first sight. It was in far from perfect condition. The movement needed servicing and the case had latticed fretwork around the bottom, which was incomplete, and the case therefore needed repair and cleaning However, what appealed to me was the decorative features of the clock, not its intrinsic value. It cried out to me to be rescued and so it was.

Servicing & Repair

Getting the movement serviced was not an issue. However, finding someone who could repair the case was not so easy. I contacted several clock repairers and eventually found one who could take on the challenge.

This leads me on to a point worth noting. It would be most unusual to find a clock repairer who can undertake all aspects of a restoration. In reality what usually happens is that the repairs to different parts of the clock are subcontracted out to different specialist trades. For example, repairs to the movement may be undertaken by the principal but repairs to the case, face or metalwork may be sent out to a specialist.

Rare Lyre shaped case with 8 day movement

If you think about it, clock cases could be wood veneer, ebonised, painted with Chinoiserie or other decoration, brass, gilded, marble, alabaster, Champleve enamel, porcelain etc, etc. There are clock faces which are painted. enameled, metal, silver or brass plated or a combination e.g brass plated with a silvered chapter ring. Metalwork may need to be cleaned, repaired or re-plated. Enameled faces are frequently chipped around the wind holes or crazed and require specialist restoration.

There are also a host of specialist suppliers of replacement parts ranging from components of the movement, glass, hands, decorative items/trim for the case etc. Sourcing parts from these suppliers will usually be cheaper than trying to get them repaired or re-manufactured locally. Try to find a clock repairer who has specialist contacts who can address all aspects of the work, either directly or through subcontractors and suppliers.

If you find a good repairer, then be prepared for repairs to take weeks or possibly months depending on the amount of work to be undertaken. These guys are hard to find and usually in great demand and the subcontracting and ordering of parts all adds to the repair time. However, if you persevere, you should be rewarded with a well repaired clock.

Highly decorated two train with silver engine turned face

I was really attracted by the aesthetic qualities of Chinoiserie clocks and over the last few years I have acquired a sizeable collection with diverse colours, case styles and movements. Colours included black, blue, red, gold, green and cream. Case shapes, which are predominantly English in origin, include lyre, art deco, Georgian, portico, desk clocks and miniature longcase, of which I now have four. The movements range from simple single train timepieces (non striking) through to quality fusee movements; most movements are French with a few English including the fusee movements.

Chinoiserie clocks used to be relatively plentiful in the market. However, over the last few years it has become increasingly difficult to source good quality clocks in any condition. I believe this is predominantly because these clocks have great decorative value and are keenly sought after by both private collectors and interior designers alike. Also, at one auction I found myself bidding against someone bidding from China and who had very deep pockets. With a burgeoning Chinese middle class, it could well be that a number of these clocks are heading that way.

What am I buying now

I still look out for good Chinoiserie clocks. By good I mean clocks that have a desirable attractive case shape/style. My primary motivation for making any purchase is always the decorative qualities although technical prowess or history add to the attraction. I tend to avoid clocks where the Chinoiserie painting is in a very poor state. Minor touch ups are feasible but major damage may suggest the paintwork is unstable and would undoubtedly be very expensive to repair; assuming you can locate a specialist to undertake the work.

I am always looking for something special. However, I rarely find it.

Diversifying my collection

Over the years my tastes and interest have broadened and I now buy a diverse range of clocks, not just Chinoiserie. The image to the left shows some of my miniature longcase clocks. You will see that the one on the right is a rococo style with faux compensating pendulum, not Chinoiserie. This clock has had the complete works, movement rebuilt, case cleaned and re-polished and all the metal work cleaned resulting in a very attractive and rare clock.

Front and left is one of the most unusual designs in my collection, acquired on my last trip to the UK, being a French red marble, bronze and guilt mantle clock circa 1880. Overall 53cm in height. The movement stamped Charpentier Ft De Bronzes for the famous Paris bronze foundry.

George III Bracket clock

Back wind Georgian bracket clock with pull repeat and

This next example is also a departure from the Chinoiserie theme. The George III bracket clock was sourced from a U.K. auction. It has a rare miniature twin fusee movement (my clock repairer says he has only seen three in 10 years) with pull repeat and a profusely engraved backplate. The rear winding movement is currently converted from verge to anchor escapement. However, the verge movement can be reinstated with relative ease by my clock guru, at a fairly hefty price. This would put the clock back to pretty much an original state when it was made approximately 230 years ago. The white painted arched dial is inscribed with the name of the maker, Hunter, London. This probably represents Thomas & William Hunter recorded as working in Fenchurch Street, London from around 1790.

This clock was in a very sorry state when I purchased it. Thankfully this was reflected in the price. Basically all aspects of the clock needed a lot of love. The case was very tired. The metal work was also in a poor state needing repair and cleaning and the movement had a lot of attention to correct inferior repairs that had been undertaken over its life.

I hope that you will agree that after a substantial repair bill and a long wait the clock is now beautiful and ready for another 200 years service.

Elephant Clock

Before and after.

Also, acquired at auction on my last trip to the UK. This is a Victorian gilt bronze mantel clock with an enameled dial, set within agates and patinated bronze. Judging by the crest on the top of this clock I believe it would originally have been made for the Eastern market.

The clock was essentially sound when purchased but the clock case and movement needed a good clean. During the cleaning, to my surprise, the elephants heads which initially appeared to be bronze actually turned out to be silvered. How much brighter does the gilded case look now.

This clock was probably retailed by Howell James & Co (Clock makers to Queen Victoria). This prestigious company are responsible for some very attractive and unusual quality clocks. Check out these following examples of Howell James Designs:

What to Buy

What you purchase really depends on three factors:

  • your own personal taste - clocks come in all shapes and sizes - research the Internet, read books or join a Horological Society to refine your taste

  • what you can afford - you can buy a clock for next to nothing or alternatively pay a million plus. As a general rule I would recommend buying the best you can afford. Whilst there is no guarantee your purchase will hold its price, as a general rule, the best quality items will be the most sought after and therefore more likely to maintain value.

  • what you are prepared to take on - do you want to purchase a clock in pristine condition or are you prepared to take on a project.

Mappin & Webb Chinoiserie Two Train

Before you start, consider these guidelines:

  • My advice is never be motivated by investment potential when buying a clock. Prices can fluctuate; try talking with someone who bought so called 'brown furniture' at the height of the market and has now seen up to a 75% depreciating in value. Always factor this in. If you love the item you are purchasing and don't overpay when you purchase, then you will always have something beautiful to enjoy. If you cannot afford to make a loss then perhaps you need to review your motivation before making any purchases. I have some pieces of furniture which I love but I would lose money if I tried to sell. This doesn't bother me as I love the pieces and bought them to furnish my home so I am comfortable with this. Who knows if or when the furniture market will recover but in my case it really is not a concern.

  • Be sure to factor in any packing/shipping/insurance costs and, if buying overseas, any potential export licencing requirements/fees and any import fees.

  • It is always good if you can inspect a potential purchase directly to determine condition but, if this is not possible, ask the vendor as many questions as possible to determine if this is the clock for you and request as many photo images as possible including the case from all angles, the clock face and the movement. Check out their return/refund policy incase the item turns out to be 'not as described'.

  • Originality and potential restoration costs are important. If a clock has been modified this will almost certainly reduce its desirability and hence may impact your recovery if you need to sell. As an analogy, say you chose to purchase a MkII Jaguar to restore, the smart buyer would look for an original 3.8 litre manual, the most sought after and therefore most valuable. If you purchase a 3.4 litre, 2.4 litre or automatic, it may cost just as much to restore as the 3.8 manual but be less desirable and, in the current market, worth considerably less.

Where to Buy

I source clocks globally, generally through auction houses but have acquired a number of cheaper items on Ebay and I always buy what I like at a price I can afford. This frequently means I miss out at auctions but hey there is always another day and another sale. Personally, I get a lot of enjoyment hunting down interesting projects. I love the challenge of searching through countless auctions and then bidding. If successful, I then get a great buzz from seeing something in a run down condition returned to its former glory - a bit like restoring a classic car, an old building or a painting.

For someone prepared to take on a project, you can buy pretty much anywhere - at auction, on Ebay, antiques centre or through the many websites that specialise in clock sales.

For those who want to acquire a clock that requires no work, then I recommend that you:

  • either purchase from a specialist dealer. You can find them on the Internet or many advertise in antiques magazines and journals and attend antiques fairs. If you find a dealer that you like and have a rapport with, even if they don't have anything in stock that you wish to purchase, they may be able to source a clock through the trade to meet your requirements. A retailer has a reputation to protect and should therefore consistently demonstrate integrity to attract and retain clients. Additionally, a retailer should provide you with a written warranty/guarantee for any purchase.

  • or buy at auction. Auction houses get a diverse range of clocks consigned by vendors so you get a great choice. Check the auction house's 'Conditions of Business' before signing up to bid. Also, proceed with caution before bidding on an item as many auction purchases will require some degree of work. Talk to the auctioneers in-house specialist before proceeding with a purchase and in this way you can be an informed purchaser. Remember that, as long as the item is as described, once the hammer falls you are committed to buy and you will not get a warranty/guarantee. Refer to my Auction Buying Guide for a detailed guide on how to buy at auction.

Items from Wessex Gallery Current Stock

Collecting clocks can be a lot of fun - enjoy yourself.

I hope you find this article interesting and informative and remember that if you want to contact me for advice or guidance, please follow the contacts link on my website

Martin Ayers

Managing Director

Wessex Gallery, Melbourne

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