Live Bidding Only at Clock Auction
By Jeanne Schinto
Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, January 2004
R.O. "Bob" Schmitt, the New Hampshire clock auctioneer, was talking about broken fingers. He was talking about other damaged extremities, too. "Something like an arm or a leg or a neck can break very easily," he said.
The fragile nature of one major consignment -- what may have been the largest single collection of Ansonia figural clocks in the country -- and their vulnerability during shipping is one reason why Schmitt decided to run his most recent auction in Manchester, on the weekend of October 18 and 19, in an unusual way. He allowed only live bidders. It was his way of avoiding that onerous shipping responsibility.
Schmitt said he went into the sale knowing it was an experiment not to be repeated. At his next one, on Mother's Day weekend, May 8 and 9, he'll return to the regular system, which accommodates absentees who want to place bids by phone, fax, mail, or internet before the live auction begins. But despite a dollar total that Schmitt believes was affected by the restriction, he considers the auction a personal success for himself and his wife, Tricia. "It was certainly less stressful. This time, we brought home only four or five clocks that people who flew in for the sale hadn't made proper arrangements to leave with," he said, "whereas normally we carry home 400 items to be shipped or picked up from us, and that process continues for six to eight weeks after the sale and sometimes much longer than that."
The strategy opened a business opportunity for agents. Working independently, they not only bid but arranged for removal and delivery of merchandise. "Some of them are holding it at their house, and the buyer will travel to fetch it from them, just as they would have from me," said Schmitt. "Others are having a trucker stop by their place and pick it up and deliver it to the owners. Still others are packing it up and shipping it themselves, the same way we would have done."
Schmitt recommended five agents on his Web site, but many others were in evidence at the auction, all of them with their several bidding cards fanned out like playing cards, ready for choosing at the right moment.
Besides the fragile nature of figurals, particularly these, which were made of white metal by the Ansonia Clock Company from the late 1890s through the early 1900s, Schmitt decided to run the auction exclusively live for another reason. More than half of the 710 lots were Ansonia clocks of all kinds. Known for the variety and quality of its clock cases, the company, whose last factory building still stands in Brooklyn, New York, was one of the giants of American clock-making. Nonetheless, said Schmitt, not everyone is as exclusively enthralled by Ansonia's products as was their collector, Michael D. Semegran (1944-2002) of San Antonio, Texas. "Most people [who are clock enthusiasts] are general collectors. They want to have one Ansonia swinger and a couple of Ansonia wall clocks, and then they want some Seth Thomas, some Gilbert, some Waterbury, some Terry stuff, and so on. They want a little bit of everything. The number of people who want solely Ansonia material is very limited."
Schmitt's decision to take only live bids led to a different layout for his catalog. Usually it is designed for absentees who will never handle the clocks until they own them. For that reason, the pictures are big, full color ones, and the descriptions are lengthy. As a result, many subscribers keep Schmitt's catalogs for years as a reference and price guide. This time, instead of color shots, there were only black-and-white thumbnails. The color ones were, as always, on the auctioneer's Web site, along with the descriptions. But even live bidders complained loudly that they missed the hard copy.
Under the circumstances, attendance was off, Schmitt said, by "a good twenty-five to thirty percent." In the convention hall of the Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn he counted only 285 registrants over two days, with another 242 people participating through agents.
One of those agents, Doc LeVarn of Claremont, New Hampshire, said he bid on 50 lots for five people and won 15 of them. The owner of S.A.M.S. (Specialized Antique Moving Service), LeVarn agreed with the assessment of many who attended the sale. Lack of absentees did not affect prices at the upper end. What you would expect to go for a lot, did. And the people who usually spend the so-called "crazy" money, on large, weight-driven wall clocks, for example, either showed up in person or had someone bid for them. In Schmitt's words: "The nice things, things that were really rare, things in especially nice condition, I think we could agree, still sold well, in some cases double my estimate." Other prices were down, however. "Some things just didn't have that extra interest," said Schmitt, who reported total sales of $639,822.40. (This figure and all others include the buyer's premium). Still, he emphasized, "you have to balance everything. Mrs. Semegran [the collector's widow] was happy with the results, and we were happy with the reduced amount of work."
Semegran's Ansonia Regal, one of the fanciest Ansonias in the sale and the company's most elegant crystal regulator, sold for $6720 (est. $3000/4000). It was perhaps the best example from the Semegran collection, and Schmitt featured it on the catalog front cover. (The model is also on the cover of Tran Duy Ly's price guide Ansonia Clocks & Watches ). It was bought by an anonymous collector from the Chicago area who attended the sale himself and was described by Schmitt as "a prominent investment advisor who believes in buying quality and originality." (Lot #346)
The auction's other top sellers were not from the Semegran collection. A three-weight Austrian Laterndluhr grand sonnerie, circa 1820, that made $17,360 (est. $14,000/18,000) was consigned by Herbert Bednarik. "He's been sending me things on consignment for about six years now," Schmitt said of Bednarik, who lives in Vienna and who sent Schmitt a dozen other Viennese clocks from their birthplace for this sale. The Laterndluhr, a predecessor to the Vienna regulator, was bought by an agent. (#380)
An oak-cased Seth Thomas office calendar clock No. 5, circa 1884, sold near the top of its estimate, for $14,560. (Lot #422) "For the last two years, wall regulators in general have been enjoying a good appreciation in value, and good, wall-hanging, double-dial calendar clocks are enjoying extra interest right now," said Schmitt, whose back-cover lot, a Gale drop calendar No. 3, with a very busy single dial, did well, too, selling just above its high estimate, for $12,320. (Lot #405) "The Gale has really enjoyed a resurgence in interest," Schmitt said, referring to one of the complicated clock movements invented by Daniel Jackson Gale (1830-1901) and produced by the E.N. Welch Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Connecticut. "If you go back just five years, the normal price was five thousand to six thousand dollars. Over the last two years, both Bill Jenack [William J. Jenack, Auctioneers and Appraisers, of Chester, New York] and myself have seen it rise up into the ten-thousand- to twenty-thousand-dollar neighborhood."
An E. Howard & Company regulator No. 10 (that's the one in the shape of a figure eight) was sold at just above the high estimate for $8288 to John Delaney of Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Massachusetts. (Lot #392). Inside the door of the clock, which had its original tablets, was a paper label showing it had been sold for the first time in Boston on February 1, 1874. "Many of these clocks were made after 1900," said the Schmitt catalog copy, "and this label is excellent documentation that it is a nineteenth-century model."
Seated in their usual spot in the front row, the Delaneys -- John, Barbara, and their older son -- bought several of the other regulators in the sale, including a Howard No. 70 in oak for $2128 (est. $1400/$1800) and a Seth Thomas No. 70 in mahogany for $4144, not much above its lower estimate, perhaps due to the condition of its painted dial, which had begun to flake. (Lots #382 & #397)
A dwarf tall-case clock, its height just four and a quarter feet, attracted a lot of attention at the preview. Made and signed on the dial by Joshua Wilder in Hingham, Massachusetts, circa 1815, it belonged to a consignor in that same town. "She doesn't want two hundred and forty three dealers lined up on her front lawn. I'm selling it for her, as quietly as possible," said her friend, a clock dealer and repairer, who had brought it to Schmitt's attention. Perhaps he went about it too quietly. The dwarf was one of two significant buy-ins.
"As you know [from attending the auction], we had interest in the Wilder up to $18,000," said Schmitt. Why didn't it get just a couple of more bids? he was asked. (The estimate was $20,000 to $30,000.) "Well, it's hard to say. I guess I just didn't have enough pre-1850 Americana in the sale to attract the buyer of interest for that kind of clock." He will not re-offer it in the spring. "The consignor wanted me to, but a specialized item like that, if offered again, I think, suffers. It needs to be offered by a different auction house to a different set of buyers. So she's going to put it someplace else." (Lot #404)
The other major buy-in was a floor-standing jeweler's regulator, a magnificent monster at nearly eight feet tall, with an 18-inch silvered brass astronomical dial -- i.e., its single big hand shows the minutes, while a smaller dial within the larger one indicates the hour. The catalog said the clock was made circa 1845 by Belden D. Bingham (1812-1878) in Nashua, New Hampshire, and the movement was stamped "BDB." But some auction attendees remained unconvinced that it was a Bingham -- one said he suspected English origins -- and the bidding went no higher than $9000 on an estimate of $10,000 to $20,000. (Lot #403)
Ansonia liked to copy French figurals, and Semegran liked to collect the original French models on which the Ansonia knock-offs were based. One of the French figurals, called L'Amour, circa 1890, was bought for $1680 (est. $1000/1500) by a collector, Richard Simmons of Branford, Connecticut, who said he ordinarily buys Americana. A Delaney customer since 1968 who was attending a Schmitt auction for the first time, Simmons came to Manchester as "a weekend thing," an outing, but also because the Delaneys had encouraged him to experience the scene for himself. He would not have been an absentee bidder, said Simmons, who was at a loss to explain why he had bought this unlikely addition to his collection -- a winged archer on a clock-embedded red marble base, the whole of it nearly three feet tall. (Lot #434). "There was something about it... It caught my eye..." He tried for others, but it was the only clock that Simmons took home with him.
Most seasoned figural buyers, by contrast, bought in multiples. Chuck Rambo, who drove a van 1200 miles from his home in Appleton, Wisconsin, bought at least 40 of the cheaper novelty models on Saturday night, when the lesser lots of all kinds were offered. Rambo (no resemblance to the action hero) said he was pleased by what he called "good, fair prices" as he packed those purchases himself in pages of M.A.D. on Sunday morning. They included three Ansonia mantel clocks: a circa 1883 alarm clock topped with a cupid ($504); a circa 1904 eight-day striker, also topped by a cupid ($140); and a circa 1894 mirror-clock, the Castle model, with its movement built into the castle's roof ($168). The Castle was missing its top piece, a rooster weathervane; otherwise, the price would probably have doubled, according to the Tran Duy Ly price guide. (Lots #170, #208, and #195)
A woman who stood in the back of the hall for most of both sessions bought nearly as many as Rambo. The headset she wore with her cell phone could lead an observer to assume she was acting as an agent. But Schmitt said no. She was neither agent nor dealer. "She's strictly a collector." There was never a time that seemed the right one to interrupt her intense participation in the auction. Even at the preview she was preoccupied with her inspection and the conversation with her advisor (financial or otherwise) on her cell phone. So M.A.D. was unable to get her name. Schmitt said, "I don't know that I'm allowed to give it, but she's from Las Vegas, and she likes Ansonia. She likes all figural clocks, but especially Ansonia, and she has been collecting for about ten years."
Bidding aggressively, often exceeding the high estimate, she bought many of the pricier Ansonias, including Eros for $1092 (est. $300/400); Harvester for $1456 (est. $700/900); Florida with cherubs for $4928 (est. $2750/3750); and the garnitures for the Louis XV for $1792 (est. $400/600). (Lots #87, #338, #361, & #209).
She also bought several of the sale's many swingers, including Ansonia's Gloria, circa 1905, for $3920 (est. $3000/3500). Swingers, or swing clocks, are figurals whose pendulum rocks mysteriously from the figure's outstretched arm -- or its trunk in the instance of an elephant swinger. (Lot #386) "She came to her first sale here, I believe, about five years ago, when I had a lot of small Ansonia novelties," said Schmitt, "and she flew to that sale and bought most of them, and God bless her for coming again this time."
For more information, call (603) 432-2237 or visit the Web site (www.roschmittfinearts.com).
Lot #71: An Ansonia Marbelite No. 8, circa 1885, 15.5" tall, sold for $560 (est. $400/600). Although Marbelite resembles black marble, it's actually molded hard rubber. Five other Marbelite clocks went for less. The top price paid for this one was probably the result of its nicely restored condition, including renewed gold highlights.
Lot #91: A Jerome & Company rosewood cottage clock, circa 1870, 15.5" tall, with gutta percha inserts in the door, sold for $448 (est. $200/300). Gutta percha is an early thermoplastic meant, in this instance, to resemble tooled leather. The material fascinated the late collector Semegran, whose checks were printed with the word Plastique, said clock dealer Steve Sadowski of Maspeth, New York, who received many of those checks over the years. "Steve sold Mike half this stuff," Sadowski's wife, Lu, said at the preview. "I recognize quite a few of them." Last summer, Sadowski accompanied Schmitt to Texas for the pack-up, which alone took eight days, even though they left behind some 200 lesser clocks for a local auctioneer to sell. Sadowski, who bought 35 clocks for himself at this action, also acted as an agent for buyers in Michigan, Wisconsin, and California. "They're all guys I know, so I can't even hit 'em up [for an agent's fee]," he said.
Lot #106: A French mystery clock, circa 1885, 24.5" tall, sold for $3024 (est. $2000/2500), despite some restorations and a reproduction pendulum. (Mystery clocks hide how the hands or pendulum, as in this instance, are being driven.) Later in the sale, another French mystery, circa 1890, 28" tall, was bought in at $3500 (est. $4500/5500). (Lot #352) The pendulum of the bought-in clock was original but repaired.
Lot #111: The Breton model by Ansonia, circa 1914, 11.75" tall, featured a man carrying a clock on his left shoulder. Several clock peddlers in the audience wanted to own it, driving the price to $1848 (est. $150/200).
Lot #148: Ansonia's Columbia, circa 1905, 25.5" tall, made $3248, almost double the high estimate, even though the shepherd boy was missing his crook and the mouth piece to his horn. This is the type of damage Schmitt feared if he had accepted absentee bids along with responsibility for shipping.
Lot #209: A pair of garnitures, circa 1904, 16" tall and designed to be displayed on either side of Ansonia's Louis XV, made $1792, more than quadruple their high estimate. In excellent original condition, they were sold to a collector from Las Vegas, who bid aggressively from the back of the hall. Garnitures -- or side pieces - were offered along with many Ansonia models. They were statuary, urns, vases, candlesticks, candelabra, or pitchers like these, and needless to say, often separated from their clock centerpiece.
Lot #211: One of the sale's numerous novelty clocks, made by Jennings Brothers, circa 1905, went home with a collector from Appleton, Wisconsin, for $246.40 (est. $200/300). The owl's head lifts to expose the inkwell (glass liner was missing). Condition can make a dramatic difference in prices for novelties, a couple of locomotive-motif novelty clocks by Ansonia amply demonstrated. One of them, in outstanding original condition, brought $1232 (est. $500/600); the other, with problems, made only $196 (est. $200/300).
Lot #321: A Chelsea No. 1 pendulum regulator, circa 1925, sold to an agent for $2128 (est. $1000/1500). A cherry-cased clock, nearly three feet tall, it was meant to hang in an office, school, or other public building. It came complete with its original damascene pendulum, and the catalog said it was in excellent condition overall, but Schmitt announced during the preview that potential bidders should note the extra set of mounting holes in the dial's rim. The holes raised questions about originality, but obviously not enough to hold the price down.
Lot #325: A big Seth Thomas gallery clock, circa 1900, with original dial, hands, and pendulum, sold for $3472 (est. $2000/2500). The dial diameter of this model is 18"; overall, the clock measures 26". The oak was restored -- some people thought over-restored -- to a bright, new-looking sheen.
Lot #326: This Ansonia Banjo No. 3, circa 1924, hung in collector Semegran's dining room in San Antonio. A hard-to-find model, 40.5" tall, it plays Westminster chimes on the quarter hours. The clear crystal glasses in the throat and lower door were in excellent condition, and bidders noticed. It sold for $4704 (est. $1750/2250).
Lot #328b: An Ansonia Royal Bonn in lavender, circa 1904, 14.5" tall, sold for $896 (est. $800/1200). Two other Ansonia Royal Bonns, with similar estimates, were bought in. Color is what determines value in this porcelain-clock realm. Bright reds, blues, and frosted pinks are the most desirable hues. The bought-in ones were forest green and apple green.
Lot #346: The Ansonia Regal, a very fancy crystal regulator, epitomized the main consignor's collection of unusual and higher-end Ansonia models. The clock retained its original fancy pendulum (they are difficult, if not impossible, to find when missing) and the case (18.5" tall) had its original thin gilding, which is so often gone or restored. A collector from the Midwest was willing to ignore the estimate and spend $6720 for it.
Lot #351a: A very early (circa 1790) precursor to the crystal regulator, this French mantel regulator by Bailly of Paris attracted a lot of attention at the preview. It came to the auction in excellent original condition from a house in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and sold for $4928 (est. $3000/5000) to a bidder from California.
Lot #368: Considering the range of values of Ithaca calendar clocks, this one from circa 1880 is near the top, and bidders, recognizing that stature, took it to $5824 (est. $3500/4500). The Belgrade model, 32" tall, in walnut, it was in outstanding original condition, including hands, movements and case hardware.
Lot #379: A Boston-area box lyre, circa 1825, in good condition with updates, made $4144 (est. $2500/3500). Schmitt wagered an educated guess that the carved finial and throat piece and the mahogany panel for the lower door of the case (39" tall) were added in the 1870s. The handmade movement was period.
Lot #380: The auction's top seller, at $17,360, was an early 19th-century Vienna regulator predecessor, a three-weight Austrian Laterndluhr grand sonnerie with mahogany veneer in good original condition. A couple of hours after this lot was sold, a three-weight grand sonnerie in a reproduction (circa 2000) Laterndluhr case, sold below estimate for $3360, despite the nice finish and fit of the new wood. (Lot #457)
Lot #383: This Howard No. 70 regulator, circa 1900, sold for $3136 (est. $1500/2000). Another made only $2128 (est. $1400/$1800). The better seller was in a walnut case, with a good signature on the 12" dial. The other one was in oak and its signature was present but weak.
Lot #384: The unsigned Willard-like banjo, 29" tall, was attributed to G. D. Hatch of North Attleboro, Massachusetts, based on certain identifying characteristics: the gold [italics]stenciled[italics] tablets; the pendulum, which was designed for removable during shipping; and the delicate lines of the case. George Hatch's work years in North Attleboro, during which he capitalized on the growing popularity of the Willard model, were 1840-1870, according to American Banjo Clocks by Steven P. Petrucelli and Kenneth A. Sposato (1995). Clock dealer Doug Wright of South Glastonbury, Connecticut, bought this one for $1904 (est. $750/$1000).
Lot #403: A huge (95.5" tall) jeweler's regulator was attributed to Belden D. Bingham of Nashua, New Hampshire, circa 1845, and many auction-goers took the preview opportunity to inspect what they said was an historically important piece by a relatively uncelebrated horological genius. Others, however, had doubts about that attribution. The clock had condition problems, too. Its mercury pendulum retained its original thumb-print jar, but there were veneer repairs to the case, missing finials, and the top curvature on the hood had been lowered about an inch to clear a ceiling (albeit long ago). Also, a chunk was missing from that lowered hood. It was bought in at $9000.
Lot #404: A rare dwarf eight-day striking tall-case clock by Joshua Wilder of Hingham, Massachusetts, circa 1815, was bought in for $18,000. Its height is 51".
Lot #405: A Gale drop calendar No. 3, circa 1880, in excellent original condition, sold for $12,320 (est. $9000/12,000). The rosewood case, 30" tall, retained its original finish, and the dial had all six of its original hands, a number unique to this Gale model.
Lot #406: The oak-cased Waterbury regulator No. 60, circa 1900, came out of an office in Acton, Massachusetts, where it hung for 30 years. There was lots to recommend it, including the original premium Waterbury movement. But the bottom piece of the case was missing. If complete it would have been 79.5" tall and could have brought $10,000, according to Schmitt; as found, it was only 72.5" and made $5880 (est. $3500/4500). The buyer must know a skilled cabinet maker who will be able to recreate the missing piece from old catalog illustrations.
Lot #416: The sale featured more than a dozen swingers -- an unusually high number. The best one, Ansonia's Arcadia, circa 1906, went up late in the second session and was bought by an agent for $7280 (est. $2500/3500).
Lot #418: A French Boulle-style wall clock, 46" tall, sold by Bigelow & Kennard of Boston according to its porcelain plaque, was chased to $4816 (est. $2950/3450). Boulle-style cases are made of red tortoise shell and brass inlay, and the movements are high grade. This clock, circa 1892, was in overall good condition, although the original pendulum had been replaced with a modern German one.
Lot #422: Inspecting the mammoth (50" tall) Seth Thomas office calendar clock was as disorienting as it might be to look at a billboard up close, since the model was designed to hang high up on a wall in a public space. In excellent original condition, except for a flaking dial, it brought $14,560 (est. $10,000/15,000).
Lot #436: A restored Seth Thomas regulator No. 1, 34" tall, sold for $1960 (est. $1400/1800). Its presentation glass tablet read PRESENTED TO A. L. NICKERSON, BY FRIENDS, 1885.
Lot #437: This English striking tower clock movement, 16" by 20", a product of the Vulliamy workshop in London, was dated 1837 on its pilot dial. According to a brass plaque, it was repaired by H. C. Butterfield of Croydon in the 20th century. Still in need of major restoration, it came with assorted parts, one motion assembly, one hand, pulleys, and two old cannon balls as weights. An agent bought it for a customer in search of a project for $3136 (est. $1000/2000).