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Condition was Everything at R.O. Schmitt's Latest Clock Auction

By Jeanne Schinto

Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, February 2005

R.O. "Bob" Schmitt's latest auction took place at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester, New Hampshire, just days before the national election, and Schmitt, a Kerry supporter, had placed an elephant figural clock on his catalog cover without considering its political implications. He had chosen that clock, made in France, circa 1830, not to send a message, but because of its superior condition. "Anyway, there was no donkey clock," said Schmitt.

Condition was everything in Manchester this time. Chris H. Bailey, curator of the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, who helps Schmitt write the catalog, noted at the preview that while there probably wouldn't be a clock that would bring much more than $30,000, there were still "an awful lot of clocks in superior condition -- you just don't find them like that anymore."

Bailey's prediction about prices proved to be correct. The top lot went at $29,600 on the hammer -- $33,153 with buyer's premium. (All prices hereafter include it.) A swinger in the form of a man in a hot-air balloon, it was a French piece in an extraordinary state of preservation, just like the elephant figural. Part of a series on industrial-progress themes marketed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the balloon swinger is considered to be one of the rarest of that group to find in any condition. It was bought by a Chicago man who identified himself as a collector. He also bought the elephant for $8400. (LOTS #430 & #427)

At the other end of the condition spectrum, however, many other clocks lay. Most of these were the lifetime accumulation of a deceased collector who lived in Oceanside, Long Island, New York. These days, good fresh stuff is scarcer and scarcer in every antique category, of course. But the good-clock supply is affected by another problem. Clocks can be fiddled with to a greater degree than, say, early glass. Down in their basements, not a few guys got out the gold paint -- or worse. They were tinkerers. That's why they liked clocks in the first place. Which was fine for their hobby's sake, but not for their clocks'.

The clocks that have issues Schmitt calls "beginner" clocks. Traditionally he offers them on Saturday night, saving the better items for Sunday. But Rich Schuelke of Poplar Grove, Illinois, who bought more than 50 of them, is no tyro. Schuelke, a dealer who has been coming to Schmitt's sales for a couple of decades, said he sells 2000 to 3000 clocks a year to buyers as far away as Vietnam. He travels to clock auctions around the country for inventory. At Tom Harris Auctions's sale in Marshalltown, Iowa, three weeks before Schimitt's, he bought 140 lots of clocks, he said, adding, "I buy any clock that is going at what you might call 'a good value,' and then I turn them quickly." His price range at Schmitt's this time: $72.80 to $728. He paid the former for an Ansonia beehive shelf clock with a dial that had lost all of its paint; and the latter for an Austrian three-weight grand sonnerie wall-hanging clock with wormholes in its walnut case. (LOTS #172 & #184)

The second day of the sale was Halloween. Schmitt chose the trick-or-treat weekend because bridal couples traditionally shun it and the hotel had it wide open. But the date conflicted with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors' annual symposium, held this year in Portland, Oregon. So some of his regulars didn't participate in person. Still, the hall was fairly full right up until the end, with bidders having traveled to the sale from as far away as San Diego. (Schmitt takes no phone or live Internet bids.)

John Irish of Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, a collector for 35 years, has been buying from Schmitt since 1997 -- as an absentee. He specializes in Ansonia clocks, with a minor in swingers. He also likes automatons. A few days after the sale he said by phone that his collection numbered about 400. "And probably three hundred and fifty of them have been shipped to me, with damage to only two."

Leave it to Irish to buy one of the most fragile clocks in this sale, an Ansonia porcelain hanging clock in exceptionally good condition, fresh from a collection on the East Coast. Irish said he isn't worried about its trip to the islands, especially since the packer is Schmitt.

Irish's price for that one was $16,912. (LOT #394) "It's not a steal," he said, "but I'm happy with it." He went on to assert that collectors in Hawaii and similarly remote outposts where antique clocks are hard to come by, tend to be even more passionate about clocks than collectors elsewhere. If you doubt his statement, consider that he has all of his swingers, ranging in height from six inches to five feet, all going, all the time.

Besides the big consignment from Long Island, there was a smaller one from Manhattan. Into the mix, too, went the contents of a Vermont clock shop. There were literally dozens of other consignments of two or three clocks apiece from collectors who were just as likely to buy two or three at the auction. Howard Cohen of Guilford, Connecticut, didn't do particularly well on his consigned cuckoo, he said, but got a nice tall-clock at a good price. "Just say it was one of the great bargains of the day," said Cohen, who paid $1456 for an Elliott with a rocking-ship dial. When the clock first ticked in Britain, circa 1890, it had an eight-day three-weight movement with a choice of two quarter-hour chimes. Now the tune and hour-count gear trains were missing; only the time train was left. Someone had silenced it. "One bonus is that this clock will not keep guests awake," Schmitt wrote in his catalog. (LOT #458a)

In all, Schmitt offered 668 lots; all but 18 were sold. His gross was $818,720, not as much as he had expected (based on his estimates), but respectable enough.

Schmidt's spring sale is scheduled for May 7-8, 2005 in the same location. "This just-ended sale was about sixty-five percent American material," said Schmitt. "The next sale is going to be about sixty-five percent European, with some really unusual and odd items that collectors don't see everyday. People will really want to study the Roberts book." That's Mystery, Novelty, & Fantasy Clocks (1999) by Derek Roberts, a well-respected horologes based in Tonbridge, Great Britain.

Where are these newly consigned clocks coming from? Schmitt was asked. "I'm sworn to secrecy," he replied. "This fellow said, 'I don't care if they know after the sale, but not before.'"

For more information, call (603) 432-2237 or visit the Web site (

LOT #102: The eight-day German cuckoo with a porcelain dial was missing its pendulum and side doors. But it's an early one, circa 1869, in a 27" tall architectural case, and appealed to several collectors of unusual Black Forest items. Of the six cuckoos on offer at this sale, it brought by far the most: $2352 (est. $1000/1500).

LOT #240: The 8" tall Jefferson Electric "Golden Hour" is another type of "mystery" clock, circa 1950. What makes the clock's hands go around? That's the puzzle here. In fact, the hands don't move; instead, the glass does, taking the hands with it. One of those timepieces that appeal to the younger crowd for its retro theme and to designers for its looks, an example has been on the front page of the <I>New York Times<D> "Home" section. But most clock people don't value them (at least not yet). Still, this one went to an absentee bidder at about the going retail price: $112 (est. $50/75).

LOT #333: There are many 20" tall steeple clocks in the world, and most of them are available for under $300. This circa 1850 example in excellent original condition is special for several reasons. Its movement is a triple fusee; its dial was signed by J.C. Brown of Bristol, Connecticut; its case has a ripple front; and it has a good label inside. An agent in the room paid $5040 on behalf of his client (est. $2000/3000).

LOT #338: John Irish bought this automaton for his collection. An Austrian model, circa 1870, just 6" tall, it features three panting terriers. Price: $2464 (est. $2200/2800). Why did Irish go for it? "I have several of the other [dog] ones," he said. "I have a standing dog whose tongue goes in and out and it's synchronized with its wagging tail. I have a man peering into a house watching a couple kiss, and while the man's head shakes back and forth, the tongue of a dog is synchronized to go with the guy's head. And then I have a lady holding two dogs, and their tongues pant, too. When you have somebody over to the house, they maybe won't get excited about the clocks, but when you show them the animated things..." Irish didn't feel the need to finish his sentence.

LOTS #351 & #351a: If you ever needed further proof that condition affects price, here a good comparison of two Seth Thomas Regulator No. 2's. One is a circa 1900 example with original finish, label with losses, and dial with flaking. The other, precisely dated 1888, has original finish with nice, rich patina, a complete label, and a dial in superior condition. From a home in Ludlow, Massachusetts, the latter brought $3360; the former, $1904.

LOT #353: The consignor bought this 42" tall oak wall regulator when Boston's Park Street Barber Shop closed in 1969, when the clock was about 75 years old. The movement had no maker's mark (although there were indications that it's a Howard or Eastman), and the case was stripped and varnished in the 1970s. But several people didn't care; they liked the look and the story. At $3200 on the hammer, John A. Delaney of Delaney Antique Clocks in West Townsend, Massachusetts, thought he had won it, but so did someone else in a seat directly behind him. Schmitt's alternate auctioneer, Robert S. "Bobby" Webber, was calling the bids at the time. In a wheelchair now, unable to achieve a good vantage point because he isn't on the podium, Webber depends on his son, Harvey, to help him spot bidders. Nonetheless, it's a challenge for him. Webber's solution to the disputed win was to reopen the bidding. Final price: $4284 (est. $2000/3000), with Delaney the irritated underbidder.

LOTS #359 & 419c: Two circa 1890 examples of Ansonia's 24 ½" tall eight-day "Huntress" ball-swinger provided another opportunity to observe how condition affects price. One of them with great patina, silvering on the numerals, and original hardware made $4032; the other, also all original, but with wear, brought $3080.

LOT #362: The miniature (20 ½" tall) empire shelf clock by E.O. Goodwin in mahogany has original dial, complete label, and nice reverse-painted glasses. The glass below the dial shows the Crystal Palace, and the clock dates from the time of the Great Exhibition's run: circa 1852. Price: $2016 (est. $1000/1250).

LOT #373d: The 18 ½" tall Statue of Liberty, made of bronzed spelter by the German company Junghans, circa 1905, is not an easy swinger to find. Schmitt said he has sold only one other in 25 years. That one brought about $3000 in October 2001; this one, from a home in the Bronx, New York, made $3584.

LOT #375: This is the earlier version of a Seth Thomas Regulator No. 2, with a single-weight movement in a 34" tall rosewood case. We know the date is circa 1865 or earlier, because the superior back-and-gold paper label inside says Plymouth Hollow. Eighteen sixty-five was the year the labels were changed to read Thomaston, although it wasn't until 1875 that the name of the Connecticut town where Seth Thomas (1785-1859) built his factory was officially changed to the eponymous one in his honor. With original tablet, dial, and gilt stick pendulum. Price: $3808 (est. $2000/2500).

LOTS #382 & #384 & #385: Pictured here, three of the sale's dozen clocks by E. Howard & Company. The Regulator No. 9 (also known as a "Figure Eight"), with a circa 1875 eight-day weight-driven movement in a 38" tall walnut case, had its original finish, good signature, and even better tablets in black and maroon. Repairs were evident, and one was documented with a blue Howard repair label, dated 1900. A bidder in the room paid $10,360 (est. $6000/7000). Next, the Regulator No. 41, a circa 1874 eight-day weight-driven movement in a 48" tall refinished walnut case, made a very strong $18,480 on the same estimate. Bidders liked its original dial, pendulum, and tablet. Finally, the Regulator No. 11 -- or "Keyhole" Howard -- fetched $11,480 from collector Doug York of Franklin, Tennessee. One of the several original labels inside it was an E. Howard inventory label, dated 1871. The others were Howard repair labels, dated 1889, 1893, and 1908. A nice history.

LOT #394: Previewers needed special permission to handle the Ansonia Clock Company's Porcelain Hanging No. 3 that came fresh to the auction in exceptionally good condition from a collection on the East Coast. The clock has an eight-day time-and-strike balance movement. The background of its porcelain case is butter yellow; the painted flowers are pink. Height: 19". Schmitt will ship it to Hawaii. Price: $16,912 (est. $15,000/18,000).

LOT #400: The No. 1 Regulator, a circa 1880 double-dial perpetual calendar, made by the Ithaca Calendar Clock Company, is six feet tall and meant to hang on a wall. This one has a replaced lower backboard; otherwise, original. A room bidder paid $26,880(est. $20,000/$30,000).

LOT #401: Someone took a black fountain pen to the original paper dial of this otherwise wonderful Gale Drop Calendar No. 2, made by Welch, Spring & Company, circa 1877. He (or, less likely, she) went freehand over the track and calendar numbers. "This was done some time ago and many collectors will find it part of the personality of the clock," Schmitt writes in his catalog. "Purists might object." We must be the latter, finding it part of the personality of the offending dabbler. The 30" tall eight-day striker with original finish reached its low estimate, fetching $8400.

LOT #403a: An appropriate clock to offer at a sale held on Halloween weekend, the automaton novelty, with acrobatic skeleton in red boots, was made by the New Haven Clock Company, circa 1905. Considered rare, it reached $3640 (est. $2000/2500). Height: 19 ½".

LOT #426a: Schmitt offered several varieties of the French swinging-doll clock. The best example, with an eight-day skeleton movement and glass dome, brought the most, $1456 (est. $800/$1200). Unlike nearly all other pendulum clocks, these clocks swing front to back, rather than side to side. Height: 8"; with dome and base, 11". Date: circa 1890.

Note: A swinging-doll clock is <I>not<D> a swinger and not a mystery clock, either. A swinger's pendulum actually contains the (hidden) movement. That's <I>its<D> mystery. Confused? Derek Roberts's book, cited above, is the antidote.

LOTS #427 & #430:: The cover lot, a circa 1860 French figural by LeRoy of Paris, went to a collector from Chicago who attended the sale. Made of bronze and ormolu, it was in exceptionally good original condition, even down to the knotted string in Cupid's bow. Height: 22 ¾". Price: $8400 (est. $4000/6000). The same collector also bought the top lot, a swinging balloon clock, made in France, circa 1890. Height: 23". Price: $33,153 (est. $25,000/30,000).

LOT #547: Seth Thomas's "Hotel Minder" is an early form of wake-up-call system, circa 1890. The 37" tall oak case has two numbered grids. The top grid shows 84 room numbers with a stamped brass token for each. On the lower grid are the hours of the day divided into 15-minute segments. When a guest made a wake-up request, the clerk put the room tag on the time. When the wake-up time arrived, a bell rang to alert the clerk, who gave the token to a bellhop. He, in turn, ran upstairs and knocked on the guest's door. Seth Thomas probably made quite a few of these. But how many of them were destroyed in hotel fires? We have seen only two others since 1980, the year we bought ours, for $275. This one made $1456 (est. $450/650).

Tall clock lineup (LOTS #450, #455, & #448): Here's the tall-clock lineup from the sale, more than a dozen grandfathers and floor regulators, running the virtual gamut, from an early English clock with a square brass dial signed B. Barlow, to a model made in 2002 by Foster S. Campos of Pembroke, Massachusetts.

The top-dollar getter in this category, a Walter Durfee, brought $25,200. The circa 1895 nine-tube quarter-chimer had barley twists on its hood, trunk, and base. Height of the case: 94". Name on the dial: Tiffany & Co., New York.

The English clock, whose maker is listed with 1773-1780 work dates in G.H. Baillie's 1929 classic, Watchmakers and Clockmakers of the World, fetched $2576.

The Campos, with a circa 1830 movement in its Roxbury-style case, failed to meet its $6000 reserve. Schinto photo

Bob Schmitt & Michael Nobles: Auctioneer Bob Schmitt (on left) with Michael Nobles, one of the younger collectors, from Montpelier, Vermont, who already has been buying at Schmitt's sales for nine years. Schinto photo

Tom Manning: Tom Manning, Schmitt's man-in-charge of small and/or fragile items, said that, like the guy in the ad on television, some hopeful previewers were conflicted. "Car or clock? Car or clock?" he paraphrased. But at Schmitt's sale this time, only a few clocks approached the price point for automobiles. Schinto photo

Chris H. Bailey: Chris Bailey, museum curator, has a substantial collection of his own. It includes 33 tall clocks. Bailey said he bought his first "serious" one in 1973, his latest about four or five years ago. Schinto photo

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