A Clock Collection is Sold in Cambridge
By Jeanne Schinto
Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, December 2004.
A Beatles song from The White Album -- "Number 9" -- came to mind during the clock section of the sale at CRN Auctions, Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on August 28, 2004. "Number nine, number nine..." Nine was John Delaney's bidder number. The owner of Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Massachusetts, bought 54 of the 80 timepieces that auction coordinator Karin J. Phillips called.
The CRN staff had arranged folding chairs at the back of the Cambridge Armory. While the preview of general merchandise continued, two dozen anticipatory bidders took their seats. But as Delaney began to win lot after lot, the defeated ones got to looking deflated. Nordblom had a bidder on his cell phone for a while, but he, too, eventually got discouraged.
The clock guys who previewed the rows of 19th-century shelf clocks, virtually all "brown-wood" Connecticut-made examples with engraved maker's labels inside, thought they recognized in them the collecting eye of a fellow member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. They were right. The North Shore of Boston resident, who asked that his name not be printed in M.A.D., said he had deaccessioned them for one reason: space. "And I still have too much stuff," he told us by phone post-sale. Eight years ago, he moved to a rental with the intention of buying a house. His collection -- clocks, scientific instruments, and American furniture -- went into storage. Meanwhile, he built a second collection. When he finally bought his house and brought the two collections together, he saw what he had done: "It was like the scene in Citizen Kane where they're walking through Xanadu and there are just boxes and boxes and boxes. So I got in touch with Carl."
Nordblom was the first auctioneer he contacted, because Nordblom has a reputation for "buying stuff outright," said the collector. "I had it all laid out and organized. He walked through. I told him what I wanted. He said, ‘If you add this, this, and this, we have a deal.'" The collector didn't feel the need to call anybody else. "It was a very mature, clean, fast liquidation."
Some market observers dislike the dynamic when items are owned by the auctioneer rather than a consignor. To their way of thinking, auctioneers who own the lots feel more pressure to sell high, because they have made a bigger investment. Following that logic, these observers say owner-auctioneers may more easily be tempted to achieve their goals illegally. It can easily be argued, however, that non-owner auctioneers feel equal pressures and temptations to engage in shenanigans when they make their profits solely from commissions - with no chance of winning big upon occasion.
Nordblom, for his part, said, "I'm a gambler. That's always been my makeup. I used to bet on the games, at the racetrack." And when he does poorly on items he has bought? What then? "I'm like the supermarket. That's my loss leader."
The North Shore collector, who did not attend the sale, asked us to read him the prices realized. Some were "crazy," we agreed; others were surprisingly soft. There was not a lot of logic to it. Of his own decision to sell rather than consign, the collector said: "I'm glad I did. I'm very pleased. No regrets. If I had consigned them, I'd be in trouble." By his calculations Nordblom had done okay, too. "I gave him a very nice price on everything," he said.
The "everything" included several of the better non-clock pieces in the sale: a continuous-arm Windsor chair, a stenciled mammy's bench, and two signed stick barometers. The fates of these items varied. Neither part of the sale was a knockout, nor was it intended to be. Its advertised purpose was, like the collector's, to create some space in cramped quarters. "This is our annual eclectic clear-out-the-warehouse auction," said CRN's ads. Indeed, in Nordblom's packed depot across the street from the armory, rooms were filled with choicer items saved for the November sale.
The usual suspects gathered for this one - dealers and ardent collectors. One of the latter was the congenial 86-year-old Fred Innis of Cambridge. Innis, a Charles Darwin lookalike, with white beard, expressive eyebrows, and lanky frame, paid a reasonable $575 for a ten-item lot of Arts and Crafts pottery. The items were a Grueby green-matte cylinder vase, a Fulper vase, a Chelsea tile hotplate, and seven orange-glazed cups and saucers. (LOT #202) (All prices include the buyer's premium.) A dealer in the bleachers took another Arts and Crafts item for $172.50, a bargain. The 3 ½" tall hammered-copper covered jar had an enameled top decorated with red flowers on a green field and a salmon-enamel interior. (LOT #197)
That dealer bought multiple lots of decorative items - a Victorian window shade, a floral hooked rug, an empire mahogany mirror. If the price was right, his bidding was casual to say the least. "I didn't even look to see if it was antique," Nordblom said after knocking down to him a Georgian-style mahogany upholstered side chair for $149.50. "Did you?" He hadn't. (LOT #101)
A dealer sitting up front bought heavily in all pre-20th-century furniture styles and categories. His purchases included a pair of New England country grain-painted side chairs with original rush seats ($460) (LOT #33); a painted-leather China trade trunk (same price) (LOT #44); and a pair of 19th-century Venetian-style painted side chairs (same price again) (LOT #94).
Four hundred dollars on the hammer seemed a price point for the dealer in the bleachers, too. That was his final bid for a pair of octagonal painted pedestals (LOT #140); a Heywood Wakefield wicker floor lamp (LOT #198); and a Victorian brass lamp table (LOT #156).
Absentees took a few of the better items; so did some retail people in the room. A handsome mission-oak piece went to a young woman who arrived by motorcycle with her boyfriend. It was a 42" wide bookcase with a geometric Frank Lloyd Wright-like pattern of green-leaded glass in the upper part of its double doors. She paid $1150 for her impulse purchase; her boyfriend went home to get the car. (LOT #208)
Nordblom, along with Phillips (who is now Nordblom's equal business partner and co-owner of the company), runs a very friendly auction. At moments on this summer Saturday the sale resembled nothing so much as a Norman Rockwell painting. A postman wandered in, looking to deliver the armory manager's mail. Buddy, CRN's "auction dog," roamed; so did another canine mascot on a very long tether; a third pup rested in a bidder's arms.
Phillips did not beg for bids during the clock part of the sale. The Delaney factor was so intimidating, it was probably wise that she didn't. But Nordblom, who conducted the non-clock part, occasionally chided his audience. "Don't tell me if you saw that on a table at Brimfield you wouldn't think it was a bargain for a hundred," he said of a 5 ½" tall Native American woven basket with a geometric design. A room bidder added it to his bill for $115. (LOT #193)
For more information, contact CRN Auctions, Inc., at (617) 661-9582 or see the web site (www.crnauctions.com).
CRN with runner: Carl Nordblom, who at 64 has been in the business 30 years, said: "I used to repossess cars for General Motors. I used to be married and my wife took me to my first auction. I watched and thought I could do as well as anybody else at auctioneering." In the meantime, the repo man got another job, as an insurance investigator; then he quit that, too. "I started doing my own auctions. I told my wife, ‘After this auction, I'll look for another job.' I never did."
He went to museums to learn about "better" antiques. "But the best way to learn is to buy," he said. "You'll learn quite a lot from your mistakes."
Nordblom is pictured here selling a watercolor of Petersham Pond, near Worcester, Massachusetts. Signed "F. Whitaker" and dated "6.25.33," the painting was a leftover from a Petersham estate that CRN sold at one of its major sales. A room bidder took the artwork for $115. (LOT #41) Schinto photo.
LOT #2: A New England continuous-arm Windsor chair in old black paint went to the trade at $1265. Schinto photo.
LOT #11: A New England stenciled mammy's rocking bench in black paint went at $805 to an absentee. CRN photo.
LOT #12: A 42" long stick barometer signed "W. Beaser, Cleveland, Ohio," with a little thermometer on the side, went at $575 to this writer's husband, Bob Frishman, owner of Bell-Time Clocks, Andover, Massachusetts. Two lots later (LOT #14), Frishman underbid a 38" long Timby stick barometer (not pictured) signed "John M. Merrick & Co. Worcester, Mass." Its case was rippled, and the Timby name is well known. A collector from Lexington, Massachusetts, was its winner at $862.50. Schinto photo.
LOT #12 CRN photo: Detail of the Beaser stick barometer.
LOT #20: Runners are pictured here with one of the best pieces in the sale, a 48" x 36" x 17 ½" New Hampshire Chippendale grain-painted five-drawer chest; it went to an absentee bidder at $2760. Schinto photo.
LOT #29: "It's from the Grinnell family of Westport, Massachusetts," said Nordblom of the Pilgrim century mushroom armchair. "It's circa seventeen hundreds, and this is its first time out." Two room bidders vied for it; one paid $2760. Schinto photo.
LOT #30: A 25 ½" x 59" x 33" 18th-century tavern table with a stretcher base in old red paint went at $2300 to an absentee. The Native American baskets on top of it were Mic Mac. These and other baskets were sold in multiples at very soft prices, ranging from $200 (for two round Mic Mac examples with covers) to $50 (for three open Mic Mac baskets, one of them cradle-shaped). (LOTS #80 & #86) CRN photo.
LOT #37: A gilt-copper weathervane in the form of a full-bodied eagle with a 25" wingspan made $1955; the buyer was an absentee. CRN photo.
LOT #70: A dealer paid $1265 for the 73" x 41" George III carved mahogany chest on chest with dentil molding and fluted quarter columns. CRN photo.
LOT #71: A pair of painted English Regency stands, 28" tall, with gilt paw feet and round tops inset with Chinese porcelain plaques, went to the trade at $977.50. CRN photo.
LOT #124: An 8" x 12" oil-on-canvas still life with peaches went to a room bidder for $345. It was cataloged 19th-century American school. CRN photo.
LOT #153: Ten Regency-style carved-mahogany dining chairs sold at $1725 to a couple in the room. Here the set is pictured in a line-up at the armory on sale day. Schinto photo.
LOT #153 CRN photo: Two of the chairs in detail.
LOT #183: This runner, pictured with Karin Phillips, took the opportunity to cool himself with a fan from a box lot of them. Schinto photo.
LOT #188: Six painted-wood advertising trade signs - Burma Shave, Tremont Corn, Dainty Bride, Elevator for Freight Only, West River Telephone Company Public Station, and Leon Weltman, Instructor, Violin, Cello, and Harmony - went in one lot to an absentee who outbid a dealer in the room. Price: $1150. Schinto photo.
LOT #501: A Chauncey Jerome with a 30-hour time-and-strike weight-driven brass movement went to John Delaney at $747.50. The glass tablet in the door showed the Fulton steamboat at Albany, New York. Jerome, a protégé of Eli Terry, began his career as a case maker, but after the invention of rolled brass in the 1830s, conceived of replacing wooden-works movements with brass and pioneered a whole industry of dependable, low-priced shelf clocks like this one. He made them in enormous volume, first in Bristol, Connecticut, later in New Haven, revitalizing not only the clock business but the state's brass business. There were seven Jeromes in this sale, and Delaney bought five of them. Schinto photo.
LOT #509: A grain-painted, columned triple decker with an eight-day time-and-strike brass-strap movement went to Delaney at $575. It was originally sold by Luke Pond and Horace Barnes, who ran a clock business in Boston in the 1840s and 1850s. Unlike brass movements with solid plates, brass-strap movements were made with plates made of metal strips fastened at right angles. A kind of skeletonized design, it was meant to be economical at a time when brass was expensive. Schinto photo.
LOT #509 paper label: Virtually all of the clocks in this sale had paper maker's labels. This one had both a Pond & Barnes label and one pasted over it by the clock's Boston retailer, J.J. Beals & Co. Schinto photo.
LOT #510: Good examples of sleigh-front, columned triple deckers by Silas B. Terry of Terryville, Connecticut, are hard to find and can bring in the neighborhood of $1200. Delaney got this one for $805. The weight-driven brass movement was an eight-day time-and-strike; the 32 ½" tall case had one original glass tablet showing an American eagle. Schinto photo.
One photo of two LOTS - #519 and #547: Three miniature 30-hour Ogee shelf clocks went in two lots. The middle one, a Waterbury Clock Company example with a rosewood case and tablet showing a pinwheel design, sold for $402.50. The ones flanking it, by Brewster & Ingrahams of Bristol, Connecticut, had spring-driven time-and-strike movements with separate alarms. The one on the left had a desirable glass tablet with a geometric design by William Fenn; the Fenn glass brought the price for the two up to $460. Both lots were swept by Delaney. Schinto photo.
LOT #520: One of the miniatures in the sale, this 19" tall Seth Thomas had a 30-hour time-and-strike brass spring-driven movement. The address on the maker's label inside was Plymouth Hollow, Connecticut, so it was an early one. In the 1860s, the town was renamed Thomaston. Delaney's price was $517.50. Schinto photo.
One caption for two photos - of LOTS #526 & #543: Delaney didn't win this big (32" tall), rare, eight-day time-and-strike by Birge, Mallory & Company of Bristol, Connecticut. He was bested by a determined middle-aged woman who paid $690 and identified herself as someone who has been a collector since age 13. For the same price the woman bought one of the prettiest clocks in the sale, a 26 ½" Chauncey Jerome Ogee shelf clock with a glass tablet not only made by William Fenn but (a rarity) signed by him. The Fenn picture was of a window treatment: classical drapery and an orange-tasseled shade. The clock's weight-driven brass movement was a 30-hour time-and-strike. Schinto photo.
LOT #528: An absentee bidder succeeded against Delaney on this one, but the price was full retail, $1380. At least it was a "two-for" - a nice clock plus reverse-painted-glass portrait of a woman. The maker: Elisha Hotchkiss, Jr., of Burlington, Connecticut. The movement: a 30-hour time-and-strike weight-driven wooden works with a polychromed- and gilt-wood dial. Schinto photo.
LOT #531: With few people willing to bid against him, Delaney paid only $460 for the double-dial perpetual calendar by the Waterbury Clock Company. An eight-day time-and-strike in a 24 ½" tall case with rope-carved columns and an ornate Victorian crest, the circa 1891 "Calendar No. 40" had its original rollers, dials, and label. Schinto photo.
LOT #533: The bee was a symbol that clockmakers traditionally used to denote industry and prosperity. Chauncey Jerome put a beehive on the bottom tablet of this scarce three-quarter-size (26 ½" tall) grain-painted triple decker. The brass movement, a weight-driven 30-hour time-and-strike, was signed on the dial, and the maker's label showed that it was from Jerome's New Haven days. Delaney paid $805. Schinto photo.
LOT #535: The better example of two Henry Sperry 30-hour cottage clocks in the sale is pictured here. Both went in one lot to collector Jim Powers of East Kingston, New Hampshire. This one had a 12" tall grain-painted case, the Sperry name on its dial, nice glass, and good label. The other was in tough shape and, essentially, a throw-in. Schinto photo.
LOT #537: This 11" x 7" cigar-box cottage timepiece with a 30-hour brass movement by the New England Clock Company of Bristol, Connecticut, inspired several bidders, but none could beat Delaney, who took the lot for $345. Especially nice was its all-glass door, which was decorated with a scrolly black-and-white design. Schinto photo.
LOT #540: Everyone likes to see the underdog win. "Yay, sixteen," said auctioneer Karin Phillips when the bidder with that number was successful against Delaney at $747.50 on the Brewster & Ingrahams steeple clock, second from left. The clock's tablet was frosted floral cut glass. The eight-day time-and-strike movement had its original brass springs. The conical finials on all of the steeples pictured here indicated good age; later ones were lathe-turned. Schinto photo.
LOT #542: Delaney outbid an absentee to take the top timepiece lot at $1840. A so-called transition shelf clock, it was a style that came along in the 1830s, after the pillar-and-scroll clock but before the stenciled looking-glass clock. Made by Charles Kirke (also Kirk) of Bristol, Connecticut, it stood 28 ½" tall, with flat stenciled columns, a crest, and carved paw feet. Pictured is its glass tablet, an architectural scene. CRN photo.
LOT #568: This 30-hour gas-lamp timepiece came with its original extending brass-armed wall bracket and its gas jet still intact. Better still, its painted milk glass face, 6 1/2" tall, had not been cracked or broken by the jet's heat. Intended to keep time and light a room simultaneously, it was a nice example made by a company in Davies, Connecticut. Delaney owned it at $575. Schinto photo.