Another $1 Million Clock Sale in New Hampshire
as Three Collections are Sold
By Jeanne Schinto
Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, September 2004
Why does R.O. "Bob" Schmitt get phenomenal prices for clocks at his auctions? New collector Christopher Marin, a 42-year-old attorney from Rockville Centre, New York, has an answer: "He's got a very gentle, Mr. Rogers-type demeanor, and you feel comfortable buying from him."
The children's TV-character depiction could have come only from someone of Marin's generation. In more general terms Marin said of the mild-mannered Schmitt: "He's extremely honest. If there's a crack somewhere and he knows about it, he's going to tell you. As a collector I would rather pay more at Schmitt's than find a bargain somewhere at some auction where the auctioneer is saying, ‘I have no idea what this is. Found it in the basement.'"
Marin, who attended Schmitt's most recent sale in Manchester, New Hampshire, on May 8-9, 2004, can be seen at previews asking lots of questions. Not everybody is willing to answer them. "The front-row old timers - that's what I call them -- are not particularly helpful," he said. "If I ask them, ‘How does this dial look?', they act like I'm taking food off of their table. I'm glad they're retiring. It's an old-timer mentality. They should understand that they're much better off with an educated consumer."
Marin does pro bono law work for people who "get stuck" with clocks, many of them eBay purchases. ("They have the wrong pendulum or whatever. Generally a nice letter will take care of it.") "And that's another reason why I like going and buying from somebody like Schmitt," he said. "I like buying from the good guys."
Schmitt, it was pointed out, is of the same generation as some of those guys in the front row. "But he has embraced the new technology," said Marin, who attended the sale with his wife. "He has made it work for him. We can all see the photos and the great descriptions [on his Web site]. And he's great when you email him a question about a specific lot. He'll respond."
Having said all that, Marin, who has been known to spend $15,000 at a Schmitt auction, still spent only $716.80 this time. Why? "The prices were just fantastic."
"Staggering" is the word Schmitt used after the sale of 763 lots (only 12 of which did not sell) at the Radisson Hotel. The auctioneer said he would have been pleased to have grossed $850,000. The actual total realized was $1,064,551. (All prices include the buyer's premium.) Schmitt's expectations were modest because he and his wife, Tricia, had noted just before the sale began that the number of registered bidders was down about a hundred in each category - that is, there were 250 bidders in the salesroom and another 230 who had left bids as absentees. (No phone bids are taken during Schmitt's sales.) In the end, the numbers did not represent diminished participation, though. Schmitt invoiced about the same as always: 250.
The number of serious bidders, then, remained steady. And many of them were willing to pay a premium for a prize. Longtime Schmitt customer John Tanner of Southern California came to the sale for a single clock, a British standing astronomical regulator, and he got it, for $23,520. Norbert Fencl of Chicago bagged his one-lot quarry. The top-dollar item of the sale, it was a British miniature astronomical regulator, for which he paid $26,320. Likewise, R. Bruce McAusland of Northeastern Ohio went home with one big purchase only, paying $9800 for an Eli Terry box clock. He said he has wanted one for the last thirty years. (LOTS #429, #415, & #312)
Which is not to ignore the purchasers of multiple lots, John Delaney being the most obvious one. Delaney, owner of Delaney Antique Clocks of West Townsend, Massachusetts, usually attends Schmitt's sales with his business partners: wife, Barbara, and sons, Sean and John. [I]Delaney:[D] it's the name that often comes up when the words "antique clock" are uttered. But the idea that he is buying everything Schmitt offers is an illusion.
"People who watch him should take note," said the auctioneer. "He probably gets two-thirds of what he bids on; as for the other third, once he goes past what he sees as his profitable limit, he stops."
Other observers are not so sanguine - nor so level-headed -- when they speak about Delaney's seemingly Hooverish ways. "He's trying to make the market, almost control the market," one collector said. Another was upset because Delaney is no longer buying just early American clocks. "Nobody can compete with John Delaney when he wants something, but he very rarely ever chased Victorian stuff, and now he does." A third said, "He makes it very difficult for anybody else to buy anything." But the fact is, Delaney and his family bought only their regular quota -- a couple of dozen items - which left about 97 percent for everybody else.
There were, for example, 29 banjo and lyre clocks in this sale, representing all price ranges, time periods, and styles. Two miniatures (19 ½" tall), made by Waltham in the 1930s, sold for $308. A miniature (21" tall) made by Foster Campos of Pembroke, Massachusetts, circa 1978, sold for $924. A "put-together" of standard size (34" tall) with a period (circa 1840) movement brought $784. A standard Waltham with a poorly replaced throat glass and other "hurts" (as Bob Schmitt calls imperfections) went at $1064. "Apparently clock fell off the wall at the repairman's around 1955 (repair note inside)," said the catalog. Two "Willard model" Waltham banjos (41" tall) from the 1920s sold for $2520 and $3304. (LOTS #20, #40, #99, #130, #293, #294)
And then there was the E. Howard & Company No. 5, made in Boston circa 1890. (LOT #372) A bidder in the salesroom, one of half a dozen vying for it, paid a record price, $4928.
Schmitt's catalog copy for the Howard No. 5 was unusual for its brevity: "Cannot see anything negative to say about it. If you are looking for a nice number five to keep for yourself, this is it. Has proper signed movement and dial, original graining, finish, tablets, and pendulum." Seeing the clock, one realized at once that the description was so short because there were no "hurts" to report on a perfect clock.
Schmitt's catalogs are legendary, keepers for one's horological library. In what amounts to a clock appraiser's handbook, he notes replaced glasses, repainted dials, regildings, extra holes, and redrilled ones. He also lists the highlights, along with a mini-history of the clock's manufacturer; restoration tips; sources and suppliers of clock parts, services, and repair; anecdotes about individual collecting styles of the consignors; not to mention delightful turns of phrase. "An oddity for the confident mechanic" is one thumbnail description [I]and[D] a delicate way to recognize different skill levels in the clockmaking world.
We took this opportunity to ask Schmitt how the catalog is written. What's the process? In his introduction he credits Chris H. Bailey, curator of the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and Tom Manning, who is on the museum's board. Who writes what? How does it get put together? Who types?
"We all three contribute," said Schmitt. "I do all the European descriptions and a lot of the American factory-clock descriptions. Tom does all the wooden-works clocks and pre-1850 early American. Chris is the editor-in-chief. He checks all the dates and spellings of the maker's names and things like that." And whose work is represented in the writing style? That is all Schmitt. He adds: "I type every word. I'm the typist."
There were three major consignors to the sale. One was the estate of Ned Howard. Howard lived in Poughkeepsie, New York, and loved clocks with wooden cases. Indeed, the sale was heavy with big shelf clocks, four of them triple deckers. Most of the tall clocks in the sale had come from Howard, too.
Clocks are almost exclusively a guy thing; but there were two women's collections in this sale. Cynthia Kratter of Long Island was the wife of a collector who died; instead of selling the clocks, as most clock wives do, she bought more. She died in a scuba-diving accident; otherwise, she might still be collecting mainly French mantel clocks, with English skeleton clocks as a sideline.
The other woman, Peggy Robertson of Tulsa, was one of the earliest women actively involved in the National Association of Watch & Clock Collectors. Her clocks were mostly the early American brass-works clocks, the odd Connecticut shelf clocks, the beehives, pillar and scrolls. She had an oriental rug repair shop in St. Louis for many years. At one time she owned 400 clocks, but pared down to the better ones when she moved to Tulsa. "The Lone Ranger of female clock collecting," said Schmitt to characterize her. "She was quite a gal and still is."
For more information, call (603) 893-5915 or visit the Web site (www.roschmittfinearts.com).
LOT #183: A French eight-day carved wood mantel clock, 9" tall, circa 1890, sold to Chris Marin of Rockville Centre, New York, whose business card says "Buyer of Antique Clocks." He paid $392 (est. $150/250).
LOT #259: The Chelsea Clock Company Special Order timepiece with a 12" diameter went at $12,432 to an absentee bidder (est. $3000/4000). The rarity of Chelseas goes up exponentially with their diameter size. Very few 12" Chelseas of any kind were made. But the dial, with its raised bronze numbers and fancy hands, makes this model even rarer. And it was in excellent original condition. Like Patek Philippe and Rolex, Chelsea keeps serial-number ledgers that document who buys what and when. Only by accident or archeology do you learn these provenance details about most other clocks. Thanks to those records, we know that this clock represents one of three units assembled to order, circa 1920, for the Bethlehem Ship Building Company of Quincy, Massachusetts.
There were 14 other Chelsea clocks in the sale. Four lesser ones were sold on the sale's first night, which is the best time to buy "beginner" clocks. They included a miniature eight-day time-only, with a 2 ¾" dial, that went within estimate at $280. (LOT #94) A Chelsea Depression model, 6" tall with 3" dial, went underestimate at $145.60 on that same opening night of the sale. (LOT #97) Chelsea introduced this second line in the 1930s; they are not as fancy as its first line and were sold under the name Boston Clock Company, which should not be confused with 1970s products made by the German company of the same name.
LOT #261: The rectilinear 30-hour wooden-works Connecticut banjo clock, circa 1835, attracted a lot of attention at the preview. Attributed to Henry Terry, it went to John Delaney at $9520 (est. $2500/3500). There is a clock like it in the American Clock & Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut. In excellent original condition, it had very beautiful glasses: the foliage in the scene was chartreuse; the house had a bright yellow door. And the geometrical design, 34 ¾" tall, was appealing in an ugly-duckling sort of way. But the movement is its true oddity -- a bizarre variant of the traditional banjo, the point of which was its weekly wind even though its case was relatively small. The Connecticut maker, in inventing this daily-wind model, went backward in time, not forward.
LOT #275: This Mouse Clock Model II by Dungan & Klump of Philadelphia, 43" tall, sold for a stunning $3920 to an agent buying for a client. The eight-day striking movement is mounted in the bottom of the 43" case; the mouse moves upward toward twelve via a chain. Reproductions of these novelties, about half the size, were made in the 1970s and Schmitt has sold them. Schmitt said that this circa 1912 example was the best one he'd seen.
LOT #276: A 30-hour time-and-strike shelf clock, 21 ¾" tall, with a wagon-spring movement by John Birge of Bristol, Connecticut, sold to a left bid for $3192 (est. $2000/2850). A variant of the steeple clock, it has four candle finials instead of the usual two. Steeples were an innovation that used the technology of the coil spring. This one, circa 1848, is powered by leaf springs, which were used as shock absorbers on many horse-drawn wagons of the period, then later in automobiles. To think of using these springs as a power source was clever. But then the big base needed to be added to the steeple form to accommodate it.
LOT #291: The Elmer O. Stennes girandole, circa 1975, went at $6160 to someone in the salesroom (est. $2750/3750). Made the year that Stennes died, it was regilded in 2001 at the shop of former Stennes employee Foster Campos of Pembroke, Massachusetts. Another Stennes (not pictured), a circa 1964 grandmother, 60 ¾" tall, went way under estimate at $1904. (LOT #425) The Stennes story is well known in certain circles; here's a recap. For many years Stennes made high-quality reproduction cases on the South Shore of Boston. After he murdered his wife with a gunshot to her head in 1968, he served a brief sentence, making clocks all the while in a Massachusetts prison workshop. Not long after his release, he was shot to death while asleep in bed with his new wife (she was shot, too -- seven times -- but survived); that homicide remains unsolved.
LOTS #310 & #309: Two pillar-and-scroll shelf clocks by Eli Terry show what rarity can do to value. The 1816 example, with an outside escapement visible below the twelve, brought $12,320 (est. $8000/10,000); the other, circa 1820, with the escape wheel and pallets hidden behind the face, made just $1960 (est. $3000/4000).
LOT #312: Another Eli Terry, a box clock, circa 1818 and 20 ¼" tall, with outside escapement and alarm, sold to R. Bruce McAuliffe for $9800 (est. $4000/6000). McAuliffe, who claims Eli Terry to be one of his "heroes," said: "The case is very simple, almost Shaker-looking -- very American."
LOT #313: An eight-day time-and-strike shelf clock, 20" tall, sold to someone in the salesroom for $4032 (est. $2000/3000). Two characteristics of the case made the clock more desirable than other models by the same maker (J.C. Brown) during the same period (circa 1845): the onion top and the ripple-front molding. There were nine other ripple-front clocks in the sale.
LOT #324: Ansonia Clock Company's Niobe, circa 1904, went at $2744 to Tom Grimshaw of Connecticut (est. $3000/4000). The oak-cased, open-well wall regulator with a twisted-rope design, reminiscent of German and Dutch-style clocks, was one of Ansonia's attempts to create a European look.
LOT #332: A French ceiling-mounted pendule, a kind of giant pendulum, went within estimate at $6160 to an absentee bidder. The case, nearly five feet tall, is brass; the 11-inch double dials are porcelain. Made circa 1870, it was meant to hang in a jewelry store window mesmerizing customers inside and passersby on the sidewalk. Similar to swingers and other mystery clocks, it doesn't easily give up its mechanical secret, which is that its spring-driven pinwheel movement is housed between the dials. Although rare, there was a similar pendule in this sale, which made $4480 in the salesroom. (LOT #333)
LOT #347: One of the most difficult Seth Thomas models to find, this circa 1885 hanging Regulator No. 5, 50" tall, sold for $16,800. It was driven from Chicago area by the consignor to the sale and it's going back there. It was bought by Bob Geier of Woodridge, Illinois.
LOT #360: The standing regulator Regulator B, 102" tall with a 14" dial, was made circa 1872 by the United States Clock Company of New York. The case, 102" tall, was heavy walnut, refinished, with one new finial. The engraved brass dial needed to be resilvered. It sold to a California dairy farmer for $17,360 (est. $8000/10,000). A bidder from New York was his representative.
LOT #362: This same 35" Aaron Willard shelf clock, circa 1815, sold at Schmitt's auction in April 2003 for $29,120. "The owner is upgrading to eighteenth-century items," said the catalog to explain its too-sudden reappearance on the market. With a new weight (missing altogether last time), it sold for $22,400.
LOT #372: Six bidders in the salesroom helped Schmitt achieve a record auction price for the 29" Howard No. 5 banjo, $4928 (est. $2500/3000).
LOT #376: A Howard Regulator No. 70-16, 41" tall, was another record setter, going to an absentee bidder at $11,760 (est. $7000/9000). The tablet of this walnut-cased model was three-toned -- black, red, and maroon -- with gold outlining. Meant for public spaces, clocks like this one used to hang in every T station in Boston.
LOT #377a: Bob Schmitt and Chris Bailey laid these ten-foot tower clock hands in the snow to take this photo. Under several coats of gray paint there was still some old gilding. The hands went home to Portland, Maine, with George L. Collord III for $246.40 (est. $100/200).
LOT #396: A three-fusee musical bracket clock, made in London by Stephen Rimbault circa 1750, went to an agent at $20,160. The case was a classic Georgian bell top, 23" x 13 ½". The heavy, well-made movement with crown and verge escapement played six tunes on 17 bells.
LOT #403: A J.C. Brown shelf acorn clock with French feet and a fusee movement went to collector Doug York of Franklin, Tennessee, at $13,664 (est. $4000/6000). Acorn clocks are rare, because they are both difficult to make and easy to damage. This very clock is pictured in Brooks Palmer's [I]A Treasury of American Clocks[D] (1967), one of the earliest books for clock collectors. It was one of the clocks consigned by the estate of Ned Howard.
LOT #408: Crossover collectors of cartoon characters drive up the prices of horological novelties like this Popeye alarm clock that went to an absentee at $1680 (est. $1200/1600). Still, only a few, mostly the ones with animation, have this kind of value. At 4 ¾" tall, with wear to the paint and a low-quality movement, it featured Popeye's tattooed arms for clock hands.
LOT #415: The sale's top lot, a miniature (31" x 11 ¼" x 5 ½")wall-hanging astronomical regulator, was made in London circa 1875. Schmitt said that although these clocks sometimes come on the market in the U.K., it was a rarity at an American auction. An eight-day timepiece, it had the typical precision dial layout, with center minute hand, hours at six o'clock, and seconds at twelve. It was sold to an elated Norbert Fencl for $26,320 (est. $18,000/22,000). Wassell & Halford were the makers.
LOT #429: John Tanner bought the big (75 ½" tall) British astronomical regulator for $23,520 (est. $15,000/18,000). He considered it a bargain. "When I was in England last September, the prices they were asking for comparable things would just take the breath out of your lungs," he said. "They were talking thirty or thirty-five thousand pounds. The only place left where you can afford to buy quality English clocks is here." It's not certain whether H.T. (Thomas) Hewitt was the maker or the retailer. The clock's last owner lived on Cape Cod.
LOT #438: A William Bond & Son quarter-chiming tall clock, 96" tall, went at $13,440 to an absentee bidder. It was made in Boston circa 1895, and had lived most of its life in a Beacon Hill townhouse. The clock played Whittington chimes on bells and Westminster on gongs. There was a shell pattern over the door and in the arch of the hood of the dark maple waisted case. Bond, one of the few American chronometer makers, established his company in Boston in 1793.
LOT #446: An English two-train ivory-and-bone skeleton clock, 15 ½" tall with dome and base, went to someone in the salesroom at $4816 (est. $2500/3500). "Our estimate leaves plenty of room for restoration costs," said the Schmitt catalog.
LOT #448: Cynthia Kratter's eight-bell quarter-chime three-fusee skeleton clock, in the form of Westminster Abbey, made $23,520 (est. $15,000/18,000). It was designed by W.F. Evans of Birmingham, England, circa 1875. The dome and two-jar mercury pendulum were original. Oddly, it played the Whittington tune, not Westminster. Height: 23 ½"; overall, 28".
LOT #449: The eight-day time-and-strike mahogany mirror clock, made by Abiel Chandler of Concord, New Hampshire, circa 1832, had an unusual, rough, sand-like finish to the gilding and autumn colors around the original painted iron dial. Doug York was the underbidder. It went at $5936 to John Delaney (est. $3000/5000).
LOT #452b: The Jerome & Company's Hubbell & Boardman Patent Improved Calendar made $7056 (est. $4500/5500). The calendar mechanism is spring-driven and wound only once per year. Schmitt said it was the first one he had offered in his auctioning career, which began in 1979.
There were 36 other calendar clocks in the sale, including the catalog cover lots, both of which were circa 1880 black dials made by the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company. One made $6035.68 (est. $4000/5000); the other, $6160 (est. $3500/4500). (LOTS #456 & #457)
LOT #466: The Waltham Regulator No. 16, circa 1908, came with a letter claiming it had hung in Boston's South Station, but it had no railroad identification label. In an oak case 67 ½" tall, with a three-jar mercury pendulum, it was in excellent original condition and sold at $6720 (est. $3000/4000) to a collector in the salesroom.
LOT #473: A French Morbier tall clock, 84" tall, sold to Stephen Martin of Charlotte, North Carolina, for $1456 (est. $1000/1250). It had a two-weight repeat movement, which re-chimes the hour at two minutes past. It is an exclusive feature of Morbiers. Other repeaters have to be prompted. Martin also bought another Morbier tall clock, 97" tall, for $1120. (est. $1400/1800). (LOT #472) "Up until this last year we weren't in the clock business," said Martin. "I retired from the air-compressor business at the end of 2002, and we decided to turn a hobby into a business." He and his wife, Jeanne, own Myers Park Clock Company, named for one of the older sections of Charlotte.