Astronomical Timepiece Tops $1.38 Million Clock Auction
By Jeanne Schinto
Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, August 2003.
What has become the largest and most important clock sale in the country used to be held in Salem, New Hampshire, before the room got too small to accommodate the crowd. Lately R.O. "Bob" Schmitt's auctions have been held in a worthier space, the convention hall at the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn in Manchester.
Over 400 bidder cards were issued to attendees on April 26-27. About 350 others bid by mail, phone, fax, and Internet before the live auction began. What they spent on 741 lots was $1.38 million (the hammer-price total); 762 were offered. Steve Sanborn of Sunapee, New Hampshire, owner of Sanborn's Antique Clocks, who has known Schmitt since "sale number one" in 1979, found that prices were "'very positive,'" a phrase he indicated was meant to be an understatement--"good if you have clocks to sell, not if you want to buy some."
Howard Frisch, a collector who has 450 clocks in his accounting office in Gloucester, Massachusetts, bid on 13 lots; got one. "They raced right through me like I was standing still," said Frisch.
The most remarkable lot of the weekend was the Astronomical Timepiece made by Aaron Dodd Crane, circa 1855, one of only half a dozen believed to be in existence. In outstanding original condition, it still had the same glass dome that was sold with it. Because of the skeleton form, the works are visible, indicating sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset, high tide, the date, and, almost as an afterthought, the time. One yearly wind is all it takes. The clock was bought by dealer Joel Einhorn of Woodbury, Connecticut, who said he had come to the sale for it and it alone. He took the piece home for $84,000 (includes the buyer's premium) on an estimate of $75,000/125,000. (LOT #498)
A huge (nearly nine-foot tall), floor-standing E. Howard & Company Regulator No. 22 with a four-jar mercury pendulum was the other top lot of the sale, bringing $88,480 (est. $75,000/100,000). In excellent restored condition, it came to the sale from Southern California with a provenance that could not be confirmed. The rumor was that it once had belonged to the Southern Pacific Railroad; there's no telling if that made a difference to the successful left bidder, described by Schmitt as "a gentleman who is an oil magnate from Houston, Texas." (LOT #412)
The lot on the catalog's front cover, a Gilbert Regulator No. 8, circa 1900, with a lyre pendulum, was as mammoth as the Howard. In excellent restored condition and in a refinished case, it sold for $13,664 (est. $12,000/16,000) to a man that Schmitt said was renovating a hotel, "an important landmark in Providence, and he bought it for the lobby." (LOT #397) While still a strong price for a standing regulator, it reflects the greater premium that buyers place on the Howard name.
An Aaron Willard shelf clock, circa 1815, sold for $29,120 (est. $25,000/35,000). Norman Croan, owner of Fidelity Restoration Service of Bedford, New Hampshire, said the buyer was a new client of his, adding, "The man spent some money." He's apparently willing to spend more; Croan will make a new weight for it. "I'll find a period weight and take dimensions, or get someone to let me do an impression and I'll cast one from that." The eight-day timepiece with the coveted Willard family name was in otherwise excellent original condition. "That's the straightest Aaron Willard I've seen in many, many years," Croan said. "If ever was there was a textbook example of a museum-grade Willard, it was right there." (LOT #410)
Croan was disappointed in attempts to make purchases of his own. "You're bidding against collectors. I was looking at the two French paperweight clocks. I couldn't even get my hand up." (LOT #525d)
Traditionally at Schmitt's auctions, lesser lots get sold on Saturday night; better items are saved for the Sunday matinee. But bidders remarked this time that even on Saturday, there wasn't the usual fare of gingerbreads, black mantels, and tambours. Schmitt said he has worked hard to become more selective, gradually turning away most "beginner" clocks. "I'm not saying I have eliminated them, but I accept fewer and fewer, and it's because of costs. If I guessed we spend about $50 an item, I wouldn't be far off. So unless an item sells for $250 or above, it doesn't pay its way."
On both days, John Delaney of Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Massachusetts, sat in the front row, as usual, with members of his family. Although underbidders may imagine the Delaneys bought dozens of clocks, they actually bought only a single dozen, with two bidder cards, and were themselves underbidders on some 40 others. As expected, most Delaney purchases were American clocks--for example, a Howard & Davis Banjo No. 4, circa 1850, in need of restoration, for $2352 (est. $1500/2000). (LOT #99b) But they also bought an unusual Swedish timepiece, circa 1820, an elaborately carved gilt wood cartel clock in very good original condition, made by Andres Carlson of Stockholm. The price was $5264 (est. $2000/3000).(LOT #382)
Judging only from this sale, you would erroneously conclude that calendar clocks are plentiful in the wild. There were 55 American and five foreign-made. Peter Janson, a collector and dealer from Springfield, Massachusetts, had consigned, among others, the full set of nine Fashion calendar clocks. And the one that brought the most, $9072, on an estimate of $3250/4250, was the No. 7. (LOT #415)
Besides the Janson clocks, there were two other major consignments in the sale: the lifetime collection of Gregory Gibson (1930-2002) of Bay Head, New Jersey, and the American factory clocks of Steve Petrucelli of Cranbury, New Jersey.
Petrucelli's included the mid 19th-century ripple steeples and beehives that did well at the William Jenack Auctioneers' sale in Chester, New York, in March. The Delaneys bought a mini ripple beehive by J. C. Brown of Forestville, Connecticut, for $5040 (est. $3000/4000). (LOT # 329) A mini ripple steeple by Brown in better condition went much higher to a left bid, $7616, on an estimate of $2500/3500, after the Delaneys dropped out. (LOT #330)
Old-time clock dealer and auctioneer Robert S. "Bobby" Webber of Hampton, New Hampshire, alternated with Schmitt at the podium. Telling jokes and engaging the audience in repartee, the wide-girthed Webber could not be in any greater contrast to the lean, buttoned-down, mild-mannered Schmitt. At one point, Webber himself bid--on what Schmitt described as "the nicest pillar and scroll in the sale." Made by Seth Thomas, circa 1822, it was rare, collectors said, because of its off-center pendulum design. A left bid took it for $5936 (est. $3250/4250). (LOT #379a)
Another shelf clock, a big, impressive striker with carved columns, went for $3472 on an estimate of $1200/1500. Rarity once again drove the bidding. Made by Hotchkiss & Benedict of Auburn, New York, circa 1835, it was less common than the Connecticut version available in several other lots. (LOT #333)
Chelsea buyers vied for 20 clocks made by the esteemed Boston company. Oversized Chelseas always bring in the dollars, and the Commodore ship's bell with an eight-and-a-half-inch dial went to a left bid for $3248 (est. $1500/2000). (LOT #424a)
During the preview, Chelsea expert Andrew Demeter of Topsfield, Massachusetts, had admired what he called a "pre-Chelsea" by Chelsea's precursor, the Boston Clock Company. The office regulator that was sold by H.N. Lockwood, circa 1896, went for $1904 (est. $1250/1750), but Demeter was not a contender. Author of the forthcoming Chelsea Clocks: The First One Hundred Years (i.e., 1897-1997), he said the self-published book has drained his finances. (LOT #428)
George Collord, of Portland, Maine, a collector/dealer in mechanical antiques (his station wagon's license plate says "STEAM"), bought a lot described in the catalog as English, circa 1900, but Collord has gambled that Schmitt's description was wrong. A brass-cased timepiece with an Anglo-Saxon warrior on top, it has a unique layout, with seconds showing on the main, seven-inch dial, and the minutes and hours on a smaller dial within it. No maker mark was obvious. Collord bought it for $1176 (est. $300/400), hoping he would find a mark that would confirm his guess that it was actually made by Victor Giroux of New York, circa 1860. "Then woo! woo!" said Collord. "Even if it's not by Giroux, it was a great buy--very heavy and beautifully made." (LOT #65a)
Collord also was high bidder on a six-and-a-half-foot tall mahogany wall regulator with carved crest and definite railroad connection. Bought for a client, it was made by Blunt & Nichols of New York, circa 1880. Documentation shows it once hung on the wall of the Pennsylvania Railroad station at 35th and Market Streets in Philadelphia. On an estimate of $17,500/22,500, Collord paid $25,760. (LOT #396)
Schmitt was pleased by the prices realized by a couple of wall regulators by Seth Thomas. "They're very Germanic-looking, made by the German cabinetmakers that Seth Thomas hired after the Civil War to spice up the line," he said. Regulator No. 19, in oak, was in excellent condition with original weight, mercury pendulum, pulley, hands, case hardware--and key. It sold to a collector on Long Island for $28,000 (est. $20,000/25,000). "That same clock, just six or seven years ago, was a $10,000 clock," said Schmitt. "It's done very well in appreciating." The other, a Regulator No. 5, in mahogany, went for $13,776 (est. $8000/10,000). (LOTS #408 & 407)
Tall clocks were few and not a strong area of the sale this time. An unsigned New Jersey-made model, circa 1805, with a flaking dial and other problems went for $6440 (est. $3000/5000). Another, made in New Hampshire, circa 1810, had Simon Willard pretensions--that is, the face was signed with his name--but the case and movement were a marriage, and neither was made in the Willard shop. Previously sold, in the 1980s, for a price several times the Schmitt estimate ($5000/7000), it only rose to $3808. (LOTS #393 & 394).
The lot on the catalog's back cover, a French mantel clock by Farcot, circa 1875, with conical pendulum and matching ten-armed candelabra, went for only $41,440 on an estimate of $50,000/75,000. The silver figure of a woman in draped robes was impressive at four feet tall, but the set would have appealed more to a New York auction crowd. In fact, a similar clock without the garnitures sold at Sotheby's Meraux sale in June 1993 for $43,000. (LOT #475)
Several French and German swingers sold for well under their estimates. A French glass-plate skeleton clock, circa 1795, went for a modest $21,280 (est. $22,000/25,000). The Schmitt crowd seems to like big brown American clocks better. (LOT 481)
A French clock that did please the bidders was a miniature lighthouse clock, circa 1900. A similar one sold at the Meraux sale for $2300, and that was exactly the hammer price at Schmitt's ($2576, with buyer's premium), on an estimate of $1250/1750. It was bought by a dealer from Westchester County, New York. (LOT #116)
There were many nice crystal regulators on both days--ovals, enamels, ones with visible escapements--six American-made; 20 French. There were 33 carriage clocks, including several repeaters. The most complicated, two Grand Sonneries, each sold for $1232. (LOTS 530 & 531)
One of the three miniatures was a Swiss-made repeater, circa 1900, just three-and-a-half inches tall. It had a porcelain dial and silver case with engine-turned panels fired with emerald-green enamel. The movement, in need of some repair, was a full clock mechanism, unlike the watch movements often found in these collectible minis. It sold for $4480 (est. $2500/3500) to a left bid. (LOT #391)
The earliest clock offered by Schmitt was a bracket clock, circa 1760, signed "Rich'd. Carrington, London." It had its problems, including a replaced minute hand, splits and repairs in its oak case, and a top handle that appeared to be a 20th-century replacement. But the silvered dial, double-fusee movement, and fully engraved back plate made this a good example from an important period in British horology. An absentee took it for $2464 (est. $2000/3000). (LOT #331b)
The newest clocks were two reproductions by Foster S. Campos of Pembroke, Massachusetts. Forty years ago, Campos worked for Elmer O. Stennes of Weymouth, Massachusetts, until Stennes was murdered after a prison term for murdering his wife. Stennes had built a strong business in selling fine reproductions of early American clocks, and Campos has successfully carried on the trade. The Campos banjo, circa 1993, went for $3584 (est. $3000/3500) to someone in the room. (LOT #494) His girandole, circa 1988, was sold to another attendee in its original shipping box for $8400 ($4000/6000). (LOT #497)
Campos timepieces are signed on movement, weights, and case. There will be no mistaking them for the real thing. Another girandole in the sale dated from the first half of the 20th century. Its anonymous maker put the name of the girandole originator, Lemuel Curtis, on the dial and installed a Howard movement. Somebody must have thought the Howard name was a liability in this instance; it had been obliterated. If an actual Curtis, Schmitt's catalog said, the clock would be worth $200,000. As it was, it made $15,680 on an estimate of $7000/9000. (LOT #479)
For more information, call (603) 432-2237 or visit the Web site (www.roschmittfinearts.com).
LOT #498. A.D. Crane's Twelve-Month Clock or Year Clock, so-called because an annual wind is all this exquisite piece requires. The horizontal pendulum, a figure of a seated woman, rotates slowly above the veined marble base. A legendary clock, it was on the cover of a National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors monograph several years ago, and some people said they had come to the sale expressly to see it. $84,000.
LOT #412. The Howard Regulator No. 22. A large central minute hand sweeps around its 16-inch silvered dial. Two smaller, inner dials show the hours and seconds. The movement runs for three months on a single wind. $88,480.
LOT #397. Victorian walnut Gilbert Regulator No. 8. $13,664.
LOT #410. The catalog said this Aaron Willard shelf clock was found in an attic in Albany, New York. It stands just under three feet tall on gilt brass paw front feet and turned wood back feet. $29,120.
LOT #525d. A large (three-and-three-quarter-inch diameter) French glass ball paperweight calendar clock that was sold by Tiffany & Co., circa 1900, went to a dealer who attended the sale from Westchester County, New York, for $3580 (est. $1000/1500).
LOT #99b. The Howard & Davis Banjo No. 4, had original movement and grain-painted case, but the bottom tablet was a replacement. $2352.
LOT #382. This Swedish wall clock looks dangerous, featuring a spray of arrows, along with eagle, clouds, and lyre. $5264.
LOT #415. The consignor, Peter Janson, said the Fashion No. 7 Calendar Clock "must be even rarer than I thought." Indeed, the price is, unofficially, a record. $9072.
LOT #330. J.C. Brown Mini Ripple Steeple Clock. "We knew that prices for these ripple fronts would be strong," Schmitt said. "But I still tried to estimate them conservatively so that there would be a lot of interest and I wouldn't discourage bidding." $7616.
LOT #379a. Seth Thomas Pillar and Scroll, with original top and feet, but lower tablet replacement. $5936.
LOT #333. A 40-inch tall shelf clock made in New York State. Its painted tablet is not typical of the region. $3472.
LOT #424a. This Chelsea Commodore, with an eight-and-a-half inch dial, sold for $3248. This large and heavy red brass-cased model had a silvered dial with only minor tarnish.
LOT #65a. George Collord retreated to the back of the crowd while a friend flashed the bidder card for him. Collord worried his well-known expertise could drive the price much higher for what he believed was a Victor Giroux timepiece. The underbidder was Bob Boyd of Peterborough, New Hampshire. $1176.
LOT #396. Blunt & Nichols Astronomical Regulator. There were some 30 regulators in the sale. It's a term that confuses beginners. Originally, it defined a highly accurate clock used to "regulate" other timekeepers. A man, passing by a jewelry store, would pull out his pocket watch and set it to the regulator in the window. Later, "regulator" became a generic term for a wall clock of supposed quality and accuracy. It was used by many companies as a selling point. Even cheap modern imports often sport the "regulator" decal on their glass doors. $25,760.
LOT #407. Seth Thomas Regulator No. 5, circa 1885, had the look of German wall clocks from the same era. $13,776.
LOT #474. French double-statue swing clock, circa 1890, was sold within the estimate ($3200/4200) for $3584. The patinated spelter figures of harvest queens support a mystery timepiece with porcelain dial.
LOT #116. This French lighthouse clock, just under 10 inches tall, sold for $2576. Willard lighthouse clocks are much larger, 100 years older, and sell for 100 times more.
LOT #331b. The earliest clock in the sale was made in mid-18th-century London. $2464.
LOT #497. Steve Sanborn said of his friend and colleague, Foster S. Campos, maker of this 1988 repro that went for $8400: "Foster can't understand it. He's too far into the forest to see the trees. But I think he'll be in the time line of clock makers. His are among the last of the handcrafted American clocks. Sure, he uses table saws, but he orchestrates the whole assembly, much like Simon Willard did." Campos is not currently producing this particular model.
LOT #120a. IBM master program clock, circa 1930, in excellent original condition, sold for $1120 (est. $1000/1500). "They are a very important part of American horology," said Schmitt. "They enabled factories and schools to have a very precise timekeeper that would wind automatically."
LOT #135. Hope Nurses Puck, circa 1815. The buyer may have had Mother's Day in mind when buying this French gilt figural clock. $1568 (est. $900/1200)