Antique clocks provide a satisfying combination of masterful mechanics and brilliant beauty, from striking antique mantel clocks to the gentle cluck emanating from a cuckoo clock. Regardless of whether it is the precision of the “tick” that lights your fancy or the great clockmakers that conjured true works of art with their timepieces that drives you, collecting antique clocks can quickly become a lifelong passion. In this article, discover how to identify the best examples at auction, advice on key makers, and evolution of styles over the course of history.
How to Value Antique Clocks
When it comes to collecting antique clocks, making an informed purchase means knowing about makers and styles, but it also means checking several aspects of the clock to ensure that the example you’ve selected is worth its full value. Factors that can determine the value of antique clocks include:
Clocks that are in excellent condition will garner a higher price than those bearing chips, scratches, or those that are missing elements. Even if an antique clock offers a spectacular exterior, you also need to be sure to check that the condition of the clock’s movement, which comprises all the elements that make the clock function, is in equally splendid shape. You should inspect everything from the dial to the escapement, which is the mechanism of springs and weights that keep the hands moving.
While some clocks can return to their former glory with the right restoration, it is important to note that unrestored clocks with original features or glass that are still in exceptional condition tend to sell at higher prices.
Often the authenticity of an antique clock can be confirmed by the presence of a clockmaker’s trademark or insignia that is inscribed on the clock’s movement. Without such markings or an associated label, a clock that is merely attributed to a specific maker will most likely be valued less.
Driving the value of many antique clock prices is when that clock came from a prominent collection. The Breguet Sympathique clock, for example, that was once owned by the Duc d’Orleans, holds the record as one of the most expensive antique clocks to ever appear at auction.
How to Set Your Antique Clock
One of the fascinating aspects of collecting antique clocks is that they reflect an incredible level of hand-craftsmanship that has allowed them to enjoy years of timekeeping. Keeping up these mechanical wonders, though, means setting them correctly and keeping up a regular care regimen.
Adjusting the Pendulum
For those antique clocks that rely upon the momentum of a pendulum to keep time, the first step to setting your antique clock is to ensure that this pendulum is not swinging too fast or too slow. You can adjust the pendulum bob – that is, the weight near the end of the pendulum – up or down to either accelerate or slow down the pendulum’s swing. You will also need to make sure your clock is level so that it can stay “in beat,” meaning that the time between the classic “tick” and “tock” is consistently even. If your antique clock falls out of this rhythm, it will most likely stop.
Winding the Clock
For those antique clocks that use a wound spring to keep time, you will need to fall into a schedule of winding your clock. When it comes time, you will use the clock’s crank to wind the clock until you meet resistance. Do not try to overwind your clock as this can put undue pressure on the mainspring and might even cause damage to the inner workings of the clock. The frequency with which you wind your antique clock will depend on the style. Those that are 8-day clocks, for example, should be wound once a week (ideally on the same day); 30-hour clocks meanwhile, need once-a-day winding.
When resetting your antique clock, always keep in mind that it is best to avoid manually moving the hands of the clock. Such movements can also damage the inner workings of the clock’s movement.
How to Care for Your Antique Clock
Once you have your antique clock ticking away at the correct time, you should begin to think about long-term care for your prized timepiece. Some essential tips include:
- Maintain Optimal Conditions: Avoid keeping your clock in overly hot or humid spaces. This means avoiding placement near a radiator or fireplace. It is also recommended that you do not place your antique clock in direct sunlight.
- Oil Regularly: Antique clocks can run constantly, so once every few years you should plan to oil your clock’s mechanisms. Oiling your clocks requires exceptional skill, though, because too much oil can gum up essential mechanisms. In addition to this routine maintenance, you should also take your clock to a specialist for a full lubrication at least once every ten years.
- When in Doubt, Ask a Specialist: Given the variety of antique clock styles and the many aspects that can impact their performance, it can be wise to address your antique clock repair questions to an expert. They will know about the nuances of your specific maker and model and can help you to maintain it accordingly.
Key Styles of Antique Clocks
With a fascinating history that traces back to the Middle Ages in Europe, antique clocks are particularly popular among collectors as they come in such a wide variety of styles. Beyond the general categories of wall, table, mantel, and grandfather clocks, some of the most coveted antique clock styles include:
Ormolu, Porcelain and Enamel Clocks
Opulent examples of antique clocks that exude an air of past regal elegance still abound on the modern auction market. Beautiful eighteenth- and nineteenth-century porcelain clocks with housings by famed makers such as Meissen, Sevres, and Limoges offer striking showpieces that are as much works of art as they are time-telling tools. Enamel and ormolu accents often also grace these clocks, further adding to their elegant appearance.
Streamlined – yet equally scintillating – luxury can be found in the antique clocks of the early twentieth-century Art Deco era. These sophisticated pieces used brilliant materials like coral and onyx to illuminate the neat geometry of their design.
Skeleton Clocks to Eureka Clocks
Collectors can also be drawn to the realm of antique clock collecting for the technological brilliance of their design, and several innovative makers showcase this aspect quite well. The skeleton clock, for example, that was introduced in the late eighteenth century, was one of the first styles to expose the inner movement of the clock and thus showcased the expert craftsmanship that such timepieces required. The twentieth century witnessed the debut of the Eureka clock, which was revolutionary in that its operation was supported by electric impulse.
The same innovation can be seen in the spectacular antique clocks made by the Breguet et Fils company. Establishing his company in the late years of the eighteenth century, Breguet dazzled early audiences – including Marie Antoinette – with his pioneering self-winding pocket watch; but he also revolutionized the realm of table clocks with his ongoing refinement of each clock’s movements. Breguet also developed new hands that were easier to read while maintaining a slender, elegant appearance across each clock’s face that continues to be a staple of modern Breguet designs.
The array of antique clocks available in today’s market means a satisfying sampling of styles and price points to please most collectors. Understanding the variety, what to look for when searching, and the relative ease with which you can keep your antique clock collection in top form is the first step in building out your collection.
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