Ask About Antiques/Collecting Antique Clocks: The Gift Of Time

by Budd A. Moore, Ed.D.

The interest in clock collecting has grown tremendously over the past few decades. Why all of this fascination with old clocks?

There is the admiration for the early scientists who imagined and executed the mechanical works that form the heart of a clock. They were the observers of natural phenomenon. They were the measurers, the men who wanted to understand the movement of the stars and planets. They were Galileo, Huygens, Newton and many less well-known thinkers and engineers who came before and after them. There is also the fascination with time itself. We all have an intuitive notion of what time is, even if we find it difficult to articulate. If nothing else we have an understanding of its passing, of its apparent unidirectional movement. Then there is the beauty of the cases that house the clock movements. These range from the primitive to the incredibly elaborate. Many are true works of art. And of course there is their place in history and the fine craftsmanship from bygone eras. Clocks reflect a world-view of the times and carry the imprint of their makers. Finally, there is a fascination with the fact that these machines are still capable of accurate time keeping even after a hundred or more (sometimes many more) years of operation. They are marvels of beauty, craftsmanship and engineering.

In looking for the perfect antique clock the first consideration is what you are comfortable with and what pleases you. I would never recommend a clock to a collector that I felt they would not enjoy for many years to come. If you have a particular place in mind for the clock, such as a mantel, table, desk or wall, then begin narrowing your search to those types of clocks. Once you have chosen a clock consider the overall design of the piece and where you would like to display it. On a mantel, shelf, table or desk the clock should be proportional for the space and be stable. Pendulum regulated clocks need to be on a level surface. I suggest that wall clocks be placed such that at least twice their width be clear on both sides, more if space allows. Grandfather or tall case clocks deserve a prominent setting. The entryway into the home, if the clock does not crowd the space, is a pleasing location. A living room or family room also works well. In any case, try to place it in a location that allows it to show off its attractiveness.

Some clocks are best elevated for better appreciation, while others should be seen at eye level. Proper placement will enhance your enjoyment of the clock. You may also consider illuminating the clock with a recessed or track type of lighting. Many clocks were meant to be appreciated for their artistic and esthetic qualities, so show them off well, place them as you would a painting or piece of sculpture.

There are many places to find these pieces. They range from garage sales and flea markets to auctions, general antique shops and antique clock specialty shops. There are no universal rules as to where to look, but some general principles do seem helpful.

Garage sales and flea markets do on occasion provide fruitful hunting grounds, but by and large you will find the number of clocks and their variety very limited. The other problem is that the condition of the clocks is often poor and their running condition at best questionable. This is definitely a case of “let the buyer beware.” If you don’t care if the clock runs, or if the movement is original then you may be satisfied with the occasional find. However, if you want a nice antique clock that has its original parts and is in good running order then you should probably spend your time looking elsewhere.

Auctions are fun and can be a fine place to purchase antiques. Clocks can be found at general estate auctions as well as special sales of clock collections. At auction all items are sold as-is, and in general all sales are final. This means that you should check out the items before the auction begins and then decide on a maximum amount that you will bid. It is easy to get carried away with the biding, but that is a matter of exercising self-control. More difficult is determining the real value of the clocks; the general availability of similar clocks, the condition of the case and the originality and mechanical fitness of the movement.

General antiques shops are another source of antique clocks. Many dealers carry a few clocks and most will be honest about their running condition at the time of sale. However, they may or may not be knowledgeable as to the origin and history of the piece, or to the originality of the movement, dial and case parts. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

This brings us to dealers that specialize in antique clocks. This is probably the best place to find good examples of antique clocks because these are the places where you will find the most knowledgeable people and the largest selection of clocks to choose from. These experts have spent many years studying them from the inside out. They are familiar with the mechanical as well as the case details of the clocks. They can tell you of the history of the clock and its maker or manufacturer, details of the clock’s construction and if the piece appears whole and original. Finally, since they are so familiar with antique clocks, they can guarantee the clock will run. These are just some of the reasons why it pays to deal with an expert.

Auction Action: [Recently sold at Matt Hurley’s Legacy Auction Center, 2800 Buchanan Trail East, Greencastle, PA. 17225]
* 10 pc. Carved Mahogany Chippendale Dining Room Suite, $4275
* John Bell Yellow Ware Mug w/Bennington Finish, $2200
* 8 pc. French Bedroom Suite, $2100
* Ornate Victorian Oak Marble Top Table, $625
* Pair of Old Barber Bottles, $600
* 1835 Greencastle Coverlet, $400.

Moore, Ed.D., is a specialist in the valuation of antique and collectable objects of the last 100 years. He is an educator, counselor, and avid antique enthusiast as well as a candidate member of the American Society of Appraisers. He has been a collector of antique American Art Pottery and has been a dealer for over 20 years. He is familiar with nearly all lines of American Art Pottery, twentieth century glassware, Art Deco, and Art Nouveau categories. If you have a question about antiques or collectibles, you can e-mail him at or drop him a letter at P.O. Box 328, State Line, PA, 17263-0328. An answer to your question may appear in a subsequent column.