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Acquiring Quality Antique Clocks
by Bob Brooke


Not 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.

The Willard Brothers
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 clock.

In 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 "Willard."

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.

Thomas and Hoadley purchased Terry's factory that same year and worked together until 1813. Thomas eventually became one of America's best-known clockmakers.

Important American Clockmakers
The 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 McGraw-Edison).

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.

Researching 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 time.

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

An 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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