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Time Machines

Antique tall case clocks, once the highest of the high-tech, still keep both time and their value.

Exceptionally early English-made ebony bracket clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, which holds the house record for a clock at Bonhams.

Exceptionally early English-made ebony bracket clock by Ahasuerus Fromanteel, which holds the house record for a clock at Bonhams.

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Excuse me, but do you have the time? Sure you do. Just glance at your cell phone or your computer monitor. Or you can look to your microwave, your stovetop, your entertainment center, your bedside table, or your wrist. If you’re out and about, you can consult your dashboard or the digital display signs of banks, malls and any number of establishments on your route. The 21st century is a time saturated in time. It is as free and abundant as the air, there for the taking, or rather, the telling.

Antique clocks come from a different era in almost every respect. They cannot help but seem charmingly obsolete to us, but when these things were new, they were glorious achievements of science, paragons of bleeding-edge technology on a par with the iPad. The finest clocks are also decorative tours-de-force—beautiful pieces of furniture as well as mechanical marvels. This fact holds true for great antique clocks regardless of when they were made, but it is particularly true for those that predate the 19th century, which brought with it the twin phenomena of the railroad and the industrial revolution. The latter shifted clock production from a custom, handmade affair to something closer to mass production, and the former changed the public’s attitude to time by imposing a level of order that was never previously attainable, or required, on a broad scale.

The clocks at every stop along a far-flung network of rail lines had to be in strict agreement, or all would be chaos and missed connections; reckoning by the position of the sun in the sky or the tolling of the bell in the town square wasn’t good enough anymore. This sort of thinking ultimately led to dividing the globe into 24 discrete vertical segments, dubbed time zones, in 1883, several decades before the rise of commercial air travel and its accompanying bane, jet lag. The need to standardize time across a wide area also helped democratize the clock; by the turn of the 20th century, clocks were a household must-have in the way that phones and computers are now. And by that time, the slim, vertical machines once known as tall case or long case clocks had acquired a new name, the grandfather clock, from a sentimental 1876 popular song that romanticized them.

Humankind has created many tools for measuring time, such as sundials and water clocks, but mechanically-driven clocks did not emerge until the 13th century, when the escapement device was invented by geniuses unknown. Some form of escapement device serves as the heart of every antique mechanical clock, essentially driving it and ensuring that it can keep accurate time. The comparison to a heart carries over to the sound it makes; the escapement is the source of the tick-tick-ticking for which clocks are known. Cathedrals and churches were the main clientele for clockmakers until the 15th century, when clocks designed for home use first appeared. Only the wealthiest and most prosperous could commission a clock, so naturally, they became status symbols. “Clocks were a sign of wealth, intelligence, and importance,” says Sotheby’s expert Erik Gronning. “If you could afford to have a clock, you were an important person.”

Generation after generation of elite clockmakers found breathtaking ways to combine luxury and technology. The stock of Mallett Antiques (based in New York and London) includes a magnificent Louis Philippe mantel clock, created in France around 1835, graced with ormolu-mounted porcelain and a white enamel dial (£75,000–100,000, or $121,000–162,000). It also currently has a superlative George III red lacquer bracket clock, created circa 1770 by British horologist James Smith, who counted King George III among his patrons (£100,001–150,000, or $162,000–243,000). It features an eight-bell quarter musical chime and a case ornamented with chinoiserie, in imitation of Japanese and Chinese motifs that were fashionable then. It is meant to be placed on a matching bracket, a special shelf that would have come with the clock, but the two have long since parted ways. A so-called “silent strike” feature, represented by the smaller dial visible above the main dial, permitted the owner to mute the bell at will. “These pieces were incredibly advanced scientific instruments for keeping time,” says Mallett’s Richard Cave. “Accuracy was very important. It was an obsession. It was a luxury object, but it was very precise at the same time.”

The house record for a clock at Bonhams, the only large global auction house to maintain a dedicated clock department, reflects a turning point in the field of horology, the formal name for the manufacture and study of timekeepers. It is a circa late 1650s clock attributed to Ahasuerus Fromanteel, a Dutch artisan who emigrated to London and founded a clock-making dynasty. The works of the ebony bracket clock contain a pendulum, an invention that greatly improved the accuracy of clocks and had almost as much of an impact on horology as the escapement. The pendulum was a revolutionary new invention in the late 1650s. Johannes, Ahasuerus’ son, is known to have gone to The Hague in 1657 to learn its secrets from Salomon Coster, who died in 1659. Fromanteel clocks are exceedingly rare—fewer than 30 are known—and fewer still date to the late 1650s. “I can’t stress enough how early it is,” says James Stratton, who hammered down the clock for £692,000 ($1.1 million) in June 2011 in London. Two years prior, Bonhams sold an ebony Fromanteel pendulum clock that dated to circa 1670 for £400,000. It took the more familiar slender shape of a long case clock, a design that housed and protected the dangling weights that helped power the mechanism.

Prosperous Americans had an appetite for clocks, too. Sotheby’s New York sold an 18th-century American tall case clock in 2004 that bested the price of the Bonhams Fromanteel bracket clock by half a million dollars. It was the handiwork of Peter Stretch, a Pennsylvanian whose clocks command serious premiums from collectors as it is. Fashioned from mahogany around 1740 and standing just shy of nine feet tall, it is almost certainly the most spectacular piece that Stretch ever made. “It had a really, really elaborate case. For the time period, you’re not going to get more elaborate than this,” says Gronning. “It’s a wonderful clock, it has a great dial, it’s a wonderfully complicated case, and last but not least, it is, in dealer speak, ‘in the black.’ It has been varnished over several times, but it retains its original surface. It is a remarkable survivor.”

The Winterthur museum in Delaware pledged $1.6 million for the masterpiece, a record sum for an American-made clock. But the purchase reflects a strange irony. The mahogany case is gorgeous, but Stretch didn’t carve it; he supplied the works and the brass dial and contracted the cabinet work out to another artisan. The clockmaker signed the finished piece; the cabinetmaker almost never did. For this reason, we don’t know which atelier painted and fired the porcelain in Mallett’s ormolu-mounted beauty, or who graced James Smith’s clock with red lacquer. Nor do we know who fashioned and carved the ebony for the Fromanteels, or who outdid themselves in ornamenting the Stretch tall clock.

On the occasions when an attractive clock’s cabinetmaker can be identified with some surety, bidders express their gratitude. In October 2000, Christie’s New York sold a late 1740s or early 1750s tall case clock for $611,000. It had several points in its favor: its case was made from mahogany, a luxurious imported wood; its concave door featured a so-called block and shell motif, a detail characteristic of 18th century furnishings from Newport, R.I., and especially coveted by modern collectors; its provenance was excellent, with the clock proceeding in a straight line from the clockmaker to the family who owned it for generations to the auction house; and its surface was antique and undisturbed. The Providence clockmaker who signed the dial, Samuel Rockwell, does not rank among the absolute best of his era, but the appearance and the quality of the case connect it to the well-regarded Townsend-Goddard school of cabinetmaking, fostered by artisans bearing those family names. Two years later, Christie’s offered a circa 1755 mahogany block-and-shell tall-case clock by James Wady, with a cabinet attributed to the school of Job Townsend Jr., one of the luminaries of the Townsend-Goddard group. The combination of a gorgeous, complicated silvered brass Wady dial with a Townsend case propelled the clock to a healthy $666,000 price. And three years ago, Christie’s hammered down a mid-18th century walnut tall case clock by Philadelphia clockmaker Edward Duffield, an especially desirable name. The style and quality of the carved case suggested an attribution to Martin Jugiez, an immigrant who worked in partnership with local artisan Nicholas Bernard. It fetched $386,500.

With the possible exception of the Fromanteel bracket clock, which could have been an experiment or prototype, all of these timepieces were commissioned. Clocks were too expensive and labor-intensive to allow clockmakers to work on spec. The closest analogy that the modern marketplace has to purchasing a clock in the 18th century is buying a limited edition supercar, such as a Bugatti Veyron, and even that comparison falls short. A better analogy would be a 20th century titan of industry placing an order for a Murphy-bodied Duesenberg—buying a magnificent car and having specialty coachworks supplied by a second firm. Both the clock and the car are designed to be functional, high-performance machines. “It’s like having a Ferrari in the driveway,” says Andrew Holter of Christie’s. “It makes a statement, but if you need to, you can go to the market and get groceries. The buyers spared no expense. They got all the bells and whistles. They are utilitarian objects and fashion statements, as well.”

An outward sign of the decline of bespoke clockmaking is the shift away from brass dials to so-called “white” dials, named for their color rather than their base material. The ascent of the four Willard brothers, who learned their trade from their father and opened shops in Boston, belong to the transitional period in the late 18th century and early 19th century that saw the clock come within reach of the prosperous middle class. While Simon is regarded as the best clockmaker among the four, Aaron was the best businessman; he employed as many as 30 in a workshop that operated in a manner that resembled mass production. Willard clocks don’t command the sums of a Stretch clock, but they are prized. Bonhams New York will offer an unusual and scarce Willard clock in its January 23 auction. It is one of the few that bear a signature from Ephraim Willard, one of the lesser known brothers, and it features a dial painted by John Ritto Penniman, a known American portrait artist. In addition, the clock is well preserved, with an intact case, and its original parts include its winding key. Bonhams expert Jonathan Snellenburg, says “the combination of the rarity of an Ephraim Willard-signed clock, the condition of the clock, and the link to Penniman” merits a presale estimate of $70,000 to $100,000.

As the 19th century advanced toward the 20th, clocks continued their descent from a status symbol to a common household item. But it was still possible to commission a bespoke clock—it just took a little more effort. Prominent businessman Henry Seligman invested that effort in a spectacular hall clock (so named because while it is tall and vertical like a long case clock, it is powered by a spring, not a pendulum) that he commissioned for a Japanese-style smoking room in his six-story, 20,000-square-foot Gilded Age Manhattan mansion. He imported the case, sumptuously decorated with ivory and black lacquer, and its matching brass and copper dial festooned with Chinese zodiac animals instead of numbers, from Japan, and asked the Tiffany jewelry house to supply the works. Finished in 1901, it is estimated to sell for $40,000–60,000.

The Tiffany clock passes Snellenburg’s personal test with flying colors. “When people ask me what to look for in a clock, I always say they should get something that they like to look at, and will like looking at several times a day,” he says. “It is important that a clock is visually striking.” And with age, antique clocks become time machines in more than one sense of the word. Speaking of the Fromanteel bracket clock, Stratton says, “It’s most fun when you listen to it and think that the same tick was heard before 1660, before the Great Fire of London. I think of the person who heard it running out of the house because the streets of London were burning. Samuel Pepys, in his diary, described people running out with their possessions to escape. This clock could have been one of them.”

Author: Sheila Gibson Stoodley | Publish Date: December 2013

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