Clocks as we know them today, with dials indicating the hour and minute of the corresponding time, originated in medieval Europe and were predominantly installed in churches and town halls. It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that clocks evolved at an exceedingly swift rate, resulting in greater accuracy, more refined designs, and more frequent appearances in people’s homes.
In both the United States and internationally, astrological, tall-case, year-long runners, and skeleton clocks are in demand. “E. Howard and Seth Thomas are two of the bigger names that collectors are seeking out right now,” says Matt Cottone, auctioneer, appraiser, and specialist at Cottone Auctions. Buyers of antique and vintage clocks today range from collectors who own hundreds of them, to the retail buyers who’ve been looking for the right grandfather clock to display in their living room.
“Collectors pay close attention to rarity and condition,” adds Cottone. “For early American clocks, they look for original glass tablets, original painted dials, and the original finish or actual wood case. With European clocks, specialists tend to be a bit more forgiving in terms of condition because it has more to do with the movements and gears. A replaced gear on a European clock, for example, may be more acceptable than a replaced tablet or dial on an American clock.”
A Brief History
Important 19th-Century Styles
By the 19th century, recognizable innovations and styles began to emerge across Europe. In France, for example, clocks were fitted with extravagant cases mirroring trends in interior design, and by 1850 carriage clocks decorated with Limoges enamel, porcelain, and gilt metal were becoming exceedingly popular.
Meanwhile, Germany specialized in making affordable brass and wooden clocks, most notably cuckoo clocks, which were made in the Black Forest region and exported across Europe. Skeleton clocks were the characteristic choice for British households, churches, and government buildings, as were clocks decorated with Gothic-inspired cases and architectural elements, exemplified most famously by Big Ben.
According to Andreas Preindl, expert in antique Vienna and English clocks from 1780 to 1920 at Auctionata, the most famous and collectible makers produced clocks between 1700 and 1890. “This was the great era of clockmaking, and a time that sparked lots of novelties and inventions in clock movements and cases.”
Important 20th-Century Styles
Twentieth century clocks typically drew inspiration from earlier styles, although the U.S. made, electrically-powered “Eureka” clock is especially indicative of the years leading up to the First World War. The heyday of clock manufacturing took place in the first half of the century, and by the 1950s clocks became increasingly minimalistic in design, reflecting developments in modern art and architecture. Today, clocks are available at a wide range of prices, styles, and sizes, evidencing the long-lived history of these highly valued, sophisticated timekeeping devices.
High-end, valuable clocks tend to be handmade, rare, or limited edition pieces made or decorated with precious materials, such as gold, diamonds, rubies, mother-of-pearl, enamel, porcelain, and high-quality wood. Clocks made by important designers, like Abraham Louis Breguet, or reputable manufacturing companies, like Ansonia, are also highly prized as premium collectible pieces.
Antique Wall Clocks
Wall clocks, which were first made during the 16th and 17th centuries, are among the earliest styles of clocks designed for display within the home. They not only tell time but also serve as sculptural works of art adorning the room. One of the most fashionable styles of antique wall clocks is the Ansonia hanging clock, made by Ansonia Clock Company, which originated in Ansonia, Connecticut in 1851 and moved to Brooklyn, New York in 1878. Ansonia clocks are usually made of a combination of brass and high-quality wood and decorated with ornately executed designs, such as mini-friezes, classicizing figures, and floral and geometric designs inspired by ancient Greek architecture.
Bidermeier clocks, made in Germany and Austria between 1815 and 1848, are another popular type of antique wall clock. Produced primarily for a burgeoning middle class knowledgable of the value of furniture and interior design, Bidermeier clocks exhibit simple yet elegant features. One of the main identifying characteristics of this refined style is the juxtaposition between the sleek, straight lines of the clock’s torso and the delicate curves of the baroque and gothic motifs decorating the upper and lower portions of the case.
Vintage Mantel Clocks
Mantel clocks were first made in France and were typically placed above the fireplace alongside vases or sculptural figurines. Also known as chamber clocks, early mantel clocks oftentimes had handles, enhancing their practical function as portable timekeeping devices that could be easily picked up and moved from mantel to bookshelf to tabletop; however, later versions departed from this design. Vintage mantel clocks, especially those made during the Art Deco period and mid-century, are valued today for their simple yet elegant geometric designs.
Antique Cuckoo Clocks
Cuckoo clocks were first made during the 18th century in the Black Forest region of southwestern Germany, although they also have a long history in Switzerland and Austria. These clocks are of course famous for the automaton cuckoo bird that moves in tandem with musical notes each time the clock strikes the hour. Cuckoo clocks are prized for their lively, interactive quality and handmade, intricately carved designs. Antique versions are typically decorated with forest and hunting scenes and include animal motifs, most notably hounds, deer, rabbits, pheasants, and other woodland creatures.
Antique Grandfather Clocks
Grandfather clocks are named after the 1876 song “My Grandfather’s Clock” (“My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf, So it stood ninety years on the floor”). Also called long-case, tall-case clocks, and floor clocks, grandfather clocks are freestanding, weight-driven pendulum clocks, often outfitted with elaborate ornamentation, especially on the hood of the case.
Invented by the English clockmaker William Clement in 1670, the grandfather clock quickly became popular across Europe and assumed a variety of forms. American grandfather clocks, such as those made in 19th-century New England, are usually eight feet tall and exhibit a wide, sturdy base, whereas French clocks often have slim bodies and flat or slightly rounded hoods. Many antique grandfather clocks include highly detailed metal dials illustrating the passage of the sun and phases of the moon.
“Nowadays, the grandfather clock market has become more specific. If you have the right, rare clock, the sky’s the limit in terms of prices at auction, but there are plenty of more general tall-case clocks on the market,” says Cottone.
Tips for New Collectors
According to Cottone, new collectors should begin with these recommendations:
- Read and research as much as possible about the different makers and styles of clocks.
- Decide what type of style or clock fits you best and what you’re trying to decorate around.
- Find an auction house specialist or dealer who is knowledgeable about the subject and who you can trust to help you determine authenticity, the actual value of the piece, and how you should adjust your bid accordingly if there’s any part that is inauthentic.
- Outside of an Early American tall-case, which is very complicated and hard for specialists to determine authenticity, many clocks can be appraised through photos sent to specialists online.
- If you’re buying a clock with a woodwork movement, know that you’re strictly buying a decorative clock. If you’re buying a clock with a brass movement – if all of the gears are present and everything is intact, the clock is balanced, and the movement is cleaned and oiled – it should last you. “In this case, with grandfather clocks specifically, as long as you wind them, they should run forever.”
See a variety of rare antique clocks up for offer this month in upcoming auctions including Koller Auctions’ Furniture & Sculptures (September 22), Auctionata AG’s Antique Clocks (September 22), Cottone Auctions’ Fine Art, Antique and Clock Auction (September 24), Lyon & Turnbull’s Day 1: Fine Furniture and Works of Art (September 28), and more.