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An Auctioneer's Collection is Sold:
R.O. Schmitt's Skeleton, Mystery, and Novelty Clocks

By Jeanne Schinto

Originally published in Maine Antique Digest, October 2005

When an auctioneer has a collection of his own to sell, what does he do? Dentists don't drill their own teeth. Surgeons don't remove their own gall stones. And everybody knows the saying about the man who is his own attorney. R.O. "Bob" Schmitt, who conducts twice yearly clock auctions in Manchester, New Hampshire, went to Christie's with his 67-lot collection of European skeleton, mystery, and novelty clocks. They were sold on June 17 as the prelude to a sale of pocket watches and wristwatches by multiple owners. Ben Wright, international director of the auction house's clock department, said of Schmitt's decision to sell them at Christie's: "Bob and I are friends. These are his personal clocks, and it made sense that he came to his friend to sell them. We reach a wider audience than Bob does in New Hampshire."Schmitt said much the same thing: "Christie's circle of customers is different than mine. Even though I have customers all over the United States, like Christie's does, its audience is at a different level. It tends to get the captains of industry. Neither the aspirations nor the expectations of my customers are quite as high as those of the Christie's customers. And I don't get a lot of overseas activity."Wright sometimes puts clocks into furniture sales. He thought Schmitt's clocks would do better as "a nice package to put into a watch sale," because Schmitt's were "more watch-y" than clocks with wooden cases. As a group they are ornate, sometimes extremely so, but their greater value and true desirability lie in their unusual mechanical or technical features.Some pieces combined the best of both science and decorative art, as did the top lot of the morning, a large Victorian gilt-brass scroll-frame skeleton clock made by Bennett of London that went to Mark Frank, a Chicago collector, at $66,000. (LOT #62) (All prices include the buyer's premium.)Occasionally, too, pieces did not rise much above their reserves. Conforming to the situation in virtually all categories of the antiques market today, rarity rules. Lesser pieces -- portico clocks and lyre clocks in this case -- do not.Although the collection was small, it represented decades of study, savvy trading, and travel all over the world by Schmitt, who began collecting as young man in 1969. "A lot of people don't realize that I am a collector," acknowledged Schmitt, who turned 60 in July. "They think I'm just an auctioneer. And they generally don't see clocks like these in my own auctions, except maybe the odd one here and there." Regular Schmitt clock-auction goers may indeed be surprised to read the anecdotes in the captions, where the auctioneer reveals himself to be every bit as clock-acquisitive as they are, sometimes spending years in pursuit of a single, coveted object.Like the Bennett skeleton clock bought by Mark Frank, many of the pieces that Schmitt collected were extremely rare. One could search the Internet from Sydney to Salzburg and find few if any of them available in the current marketplace. Those who attended the sale -- and Schmitt himself -- likened it to a mini version of Sotheby's sale of the Joseph M. Meraux Collection of Rare and Unusual Clocks, held in New York on June 28, 1993. (A revolving globe mystery globe in Schmitt's collection had a Meraux provenance.) Another point of comparison, in terms of style but not scale, was the collection of Francis X. Vitale, sold by Christie's in two parts, the first on October 30, 1996 in New York, the second in London on November 26, 1996.The clocks collected by Joe Meraux were sold as part of his estate; Vitale sold his because he was ordered to do so by the court that had found him guilty of embezzlement. (See the story in The New York Times, "In a Passion for Antique Clocks, Executive Embezzled $12 Million," October 1, 1997, pp. A1, A28.) Other collectors typically divest when they are thinking of downsizing for retirement. Since the energetic Schmitt doesn't seem a likely candidate for that, we asked him why he had decided to sell now. "I'm reorganizing and I wanted to build a new and bigger home to facilitate my auction business," he said. "And in today's real estate market, I needed another source of cash." That he got. The total was approximately $843,600, against a low estimate of $477,300 and a high one of $701,300. (Premiums aren't figured into the estimates.) Only four lots went unsold.We also asked Schmitt why he had collected Continental clocks instead of American ones. He said, "I tended to collect what I could find." When his clock pursuits began, his employer was Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. He made his first purchase, a German wall clock, at Schmidt's Antiques in Ypsilanti. "They got four containers a week of European antiques, including clocks," Schmitt recalled. "Everybody in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana who collected European stuff went to Schmidt's, because that's where the action was at that time and place."Schmitt was born in Pasadena, California, and raised in Death Valley. After Ford transferred him back home to the Los Angeles area, he joined Chapter 56 of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. "That's a research chapter," he said. "They held meetings in homes. You tended to see French novelties and English skeletons there, and I developed a taste for them."Ten years after Schmitt bought his first clock, he started selling clocks part-time; a year later, in 1980, he quit Ford and went full-time into the clock business. He and others in Southern California were being fed by a couple of big importers, Lyman Drake and Charles & Charles. "They brought forty-foot containers of furniture and clocks from England, the flea markets of Paris, and other parts of Europe. They brought them in a volume that would be amazing to us today. The dollar was strong and the market for these things wasn't in Europe. They created a market here."Jim Cipra of Long Beach is a long-time collector friend of Schmitt and a fellow member of Chapter 56. He is also American section president of the British-based Antiquarian Horological Society. At this sale in New York, Cipra added these comments to Schmitt's California recollections: "The group he fell in with was really knowledgeable. They were specialists who started collecting just after World War II. There were about a dozen in the group at the time. We ran around like crazy people buying clocks. Then we found out about auctions."That didn't really make the hunt for rarities any easier, though. Speaking of the revolving globe mystery timepiece in this sale, Cipra said: "Bob missed it in the Meraux sale and pursued it afterwards for some time and was finally able to acquire it. That's how you get rarities. If you miss something, you try and keep track of it and let people know you want it. One day, they may decide they have enjoyed it enough and let you have it. Or you're chatting with them on the phone and hit them one more time and they weaken and let you have it. That's the story of collecting."More than a few of the clocks in the Schmitt sale were once owned by Cipra. That group included an Austrian month-going two-time-zone long-case regulator (88" tall) with calendar and zodiac made by Gustav Powolny, dated 1875. ("I met Jim Cipra in 1972 and he had that standing in his house," Schmitt told us. "I thought it was a marvelous thing.") Cipra finally sold it to Schmitt in 2002. At this sale, Cipra bought it back, within estimate, at $12,000. (LOT #59)Cipra bought several others; he bid on 21 in all, almost a third of the lots in the sale. Why so active? "In general, the English and American clock markets are strong, and the skeleton and novelty markets are particularly lively," he said. "With the weakness of the dollar, buying internationally with dollars is difficult, and so, to me, this sale represented a buying opportunity."Another active bidder was an absentee, one who has not been identified by any of the clock guys we are acquainted with. That number, 1033, was successful on 14 lots. Larry Thompson, who sells clocks and barometers as Sundial Farm in Greenlawn, New York, and who bought three lots himself, thinks the absentee was a collector, not a dealer. "The average dealer would not pay thirty-six thousand for the Westminster Abbey," he said, referring to the skeleton clock whose case takes the form of the British cathedral. "That's a lot a lot of money... It's an odd mix of things that he bought."People speculated about whether Derek Roberts of England had bought any lots on the phone. Roberts is author of the definitive book, Mystery, Novelty & Fantasy Clocks (1999; updated 2003), as well as two books on skeleton clocks, among others. (Until 2003, he was also owner of Derek Robert Antiques in Tonbridge, Kent, but has since sold the business to Paul Archard.) Reached by email about the Schmitt sale, he confirmed his participation on a few lots but said he had not been successful on any. He also kindly provided these general comments about the sale at our request: "I have known Bob Schmitt for maybe thirty years and have always had a great respect for him. I have also had a strong interest in his area of collecting, mystery, novelty, fantasy, and skeleton clocks, which I find fascinating because of their ingenuity and the superb work which goes into many of them. Several of these clocks were made only in small numbers. Some in this sale, such as the skeletonised table regulator and the quarter-chiming skeleton clock by Bennett, may well be unique, made either to special order or for exhibition. Their quality of construction is of the very highest order and way ahead of the standard long-case and bracket clocks being made at that time. The prices that these items fetched [$38,400 and $66,000] indicate that the true worth of these pieces is now being appreciated."One more question needed to be asked of Bob Schmitt before we ended our reporting of the story of his deaccession. Would he start a new collection? He said that he would but would probably be more "conservative." And on the weekend after the sale, he bought a skeleton clock on eBay from a seller in Southampton, England.For more information, contact Christie's by phone (212) 636-2000 or through its web site (www.christies.com).CAPTIONS
#3673 on CD: The preview at Christie's was easy to find -- in the downstairs lobby. On view at the same time as the auction house's Continental furniture and decorative arts sale on June 15, there was a good chance that people on their way to that preview and sale had a look and became crossover bidders, just as Christie's had planned it. Auction house clock specialist Jamie Collingridge said: "We don't sell that many clocks in New York, but we felt this was a good sale for the New York market." That goes particularly for skeleton clocks, and there were 31 of them in Schmitt's collection.For those who need a definition of skeleton clocks, here is one: they are clocks with movements whose plates are pierced or cut away to reveal as much as their mechanisms as possible. The earliest were French, but the majority are English, large numbers having been produced after the Great Exhibition of 1851. Glass domes, to keep the movements dust-free, were a regular feature; breakage has, naturally, rendered original domes rare. Schinto photo#3683 on CD: Ben Wright and Bob Schmitt (on right), both looking extremely pleased directly after the sale. "I chose Christie's because as soon as there was a hint that I was selling the stuff, they took a plane and came to see me," said Schmitt. And while his collection was small and relatively modest, he has "lots of friends with far bigger and better collections than mine who have been watching very carefully what happens." Schinto photoLOT #9: This steam hammer clock was the most mechanically interesting of the five French industrial series clocks in the sale. Simulating the action of a hammer, the pendulum rises and falls with the escapement instead of swinging the usual way, side to side. The novelty clock, 18" high, circa 1880, with a movement by Japy Frères that strikes on a bell, made $4800 on an absentee bid. The others, including a lighthouse, windmill, boiler engine, and beam engine, fetched prices from $4560 to $7800. (LOTS #7-11)LOT #20: A prominent New Orleans-based collector bought this unusual revolving globe mystery timepiece at Sotheby's sale of the Joe Meraux collection in June 1993. (LOT #484) The New Orleans collector sold it to Schmitt ten years later for $25,000. Larry Thompson recalled that Meraux bought it at a London auction in the mid-eighties. "We were the underbidders," said the New York dealer, who did not bid this time. The estimate ($15,000/20,000) dissuaded him, he said. (The Meraux sale estimate was $3000/4000.) Instead, the competitors for the 37 ¾" tall French-made Victoriana, with globe by E. Schotte & Co. of Berlin, were phones and the same absentee bidder (1033) who bought numerous other clocks in the sale. That absentee was successful at $31,200.LOT #21: At Sotheby's in New York during Part Two of the Masterpieces from the Time Museum sale on June 19, 2002, this 22" tall brass skeleton clock in the form of Brighton Pavilion sold at $7170. (LOT #198) Attributed to Smiths of Clerkenwell in London, circa 1870, it has an eight-day twin-fusee movement with anchor escapement and strikes on a gong. Formerly under a glass dome, it sold to the voracious absentee bidder at just above the high estimate, $10,800.LOT #24: Schmitt bought this quarter-chiming skeleton clock in the form of Westminster Abbey in 2001 at Freeman's of Philadelphia. Searching on the Internet for skeletons, he came across two at the same auction from a single owner's collection. He bought each at $10,000, bidding as an absentee. He sold one shortly to a Californian. This one sold at $36,000 to the relentless absentee. Jim Cipra and two phones were also in contention for the item that was retailed by Riddle Ltd. of Belfast, Ireland, circa 1870. Attributed to Evans of Handsworth, one of the leading skeleton clockmakers of the 19th century, it has an eight-day triple-fusee movement with anchor escapement. Dimensions: 24 ¾" tall; 28 ¾" with its (cracked) glass dome.LOT #25: This brass quarter-chiming skeleton in the form of York Minster was once owned by John Denvir, a London dealer. "He had a stand in Portobello Road, open every Saturday," said Schmitt. "I met him there in the late 1970's." In the 1990's, Denvir developed a web site with his son. "He was a true dealer rather than a collector. If he found something, he would simply add five hundred pounds or some reasonable profit; whether it was rare or not had nothing to do with it. He created a lot of anxiety and anticipation with his standard markup, because you could get some good buys."Schmitt bought many skeletons from Denvir, although not this one, which, like the Westminster Abbey skeleton, has a triple-fusee movement with anchor escapement attributed to Evans of Handsworth, circa 1870. "Someone years ago sold this clock to a Colorado Springs collector, who died," said Schmitt, who bought it from an heir in 2001 or 2002. This time around, it sold at $26,400, more than twice the low estimate. The winner was a bidder on the phone. Two other phones, plus Jim Cipra, were underbidders. Dimensions: 24" tall; 29 ½" tall, with dome.LOT #35: The movement, dial, and gridiron pendulum of this portico clock all swing together. A graceful piece, 21 ¼" tall, that strikes on a bell, it was made by Le Roy of Paris, circa 1830. "Larry Thompson was buying this style of clock in 1993 at the Meraux sale," recalled Schmitt. "He was paying eighty-five hundred or nine thousand dollars. Now here it is 2005, and he bought one for the same price," with premium, $10,200 (est. $7000/10,000). "And that's one clock I lost money on," Schmitt said of Thompson's bargain. "I bought it for nine thousand myself, from a collector in Amsterdam."LOT #36: Clocks like this one were selling in multiples at the Meraux sale in 1993, but Schmitt said he didn't have the courage to bid on them at the time. A few months later, he bought this example for $10,000 from collector Walter Serr, who had a big European clock collection in Orange County. A French striking lyre clock, circa 1825, with gridiron pendulum, it is 23 ¼" tall: with its glass dome, 20 ¼". Two room bidders, including a Connecticut collector, vied against two phones, one of which took it at $15,600 (est. $7000/9000).LOT #42: Schmitt bought this rare English single-train skeleton regulator three years ago from Larry Thompson. The sale's best skeleton and the only one of its kind known today, probably made for an exhibition, it was formerly in the collection of S.P. Lehv of New York. Jim Cipra guaranteed it would be a star, and it was, ultimately going to an absentee at $38,400, after Cipra and a phone dropped out. Yet another one attributed to Evans of Handsworth, circa 1870, it has a gilt-brass arabesque frame with an eight-day single-fusee movement that utilizes Evans's pivoted detent escapement. In today's market ordinary single trains go for $1500. Ones with detent escapements like this sell for $6500 to $8500. The price of this one, more than twice the low estimate, appears to be an auction record. Height: 16½" tall; with its glass dome,17 ¾".Note: "Train" is a collective term for the wheels and pinions of a clock that provide a particular function -- i.e., time, strike, or quarter chime."Escapement" is another term that may need a definition. This one is from The International Dictionary of Clocks, edited by Alan Smith: "The mechanism which releases energy stored in the mainspring or driving weight of a clock are regular intervals of time, maintaining a balance or pendulum in oscillation." It gets more complicated from there; suffice it to say that there are 21 different kinds of escapements (anchor, dead-beat, detent, grasshopper...) defined in Smith's book.Finally, a gloss of "fusee." That's a spirally grooved pulley used to equalize the pull of a mainspring. A fusee chain is employed to do this. Think of ten-speed bicycle gears -- in miniature.LOT #44: This brass striking skeleton clock by James Condliff of Liverpool was retailed by Litherland Davies & Co. in that same city, circa 1860. Condliff, known for his skeletons and regulators, founded the business that carried his name in 1816; it was continued after his death by family members through 1914. This Condliff piece, distinguished by its delicate scroll frame, had a bit of damage at the top, but that didn't prevent it from achieving a very good price on the phone, $36,000 (est. $12,000/18,000). Clocks like these, with balance wheels and helical hairsprings, rather than a pendulum and anchor escapement like this one, have been fetching $85,000 to $120,000.LOT #45: A small (23 ¼" tall) mahogany wall regulator, with a calibrated beat sale on its back board, was signed "Riefler Munchen." That's the same Siegmund Riefler of Munich who made electro-mechanical vacuum regulators for observatories and railways. One of the few non-decorative pieces in the sale, it is a so-called laboratory clock, admired for its precision. It dates from 1916-1920. Schmitt bought it some time ago from Jim Cipra, who said, "Bob did well on that one," after it went at $15,600 to a phone (est. $6000/9000).LOT #47: This Austrian mahogany and satinwood laterndl-uhr (a German word, pronounced "la-TURN-da-lure," meaning "lantern clock"), circa 1810, once belonged to a commercial nursery owner in Idaho, who offered it to Schmitt in 1996 for $15,000. Schmitt flew out and drove back with it to New Hampshire. At 58" tall, the architectural case is nicely constructed with pleasing proportions; the movement with tapering plates has a dead-beat escapement. Jim Cipra said of the market in general for laterndl-uhrs: "After World War II, they scrapped a lot of them. Now Europeans are driving the market," which is in turn driven by currency ups and downs. This one, however, was bought by a Florida collector bidding by phone. "Three or four lots in every sale fall through the cracks," said Cipra. "People feel the bids will go too high and they sit it out. This guy won big." A Florida collector paid $19,200 (est. $15,000/20,000).LOT #50: Schmitt originally bought this musical and automaton novelty clock from an antiques shop in Eidenhoven, Holland, in 2002. His price: $8000. At this sale it made an astonishing $18,000, three times the high estimate. The buyer was, again, absentee bidder 1033, who apparently accepted as a challenge its need for major restoration. The piece was signed "Lechner Jozsef, Pest." The clock movement was made by Japy Frères. The half-dozen figures that ride the tracks in front of the castle are driven by an independent spring barrel. The musical movement, inside the plinth, has a 4" long pinned cylinder and steel comb. Height and width: 26" x 20 ½" without its (former) glass dome. Date: third quarter of the 19th century.LOT #52: One of the earliest clocks in the sale and one of the most unusually configured, this Louis XVI white marble and ormolu skeletonized clock with revolving horizontal hour and minute rings was signed Dubois of Paris, circa 1780. Schmitt bought it from Larry Thompson, who reportedly said post-sale: "I can see that I sell my clocks too cheaply." Lots of phones were on it, along with Mark Frank, who prevailed at $24,000, double the high estimate. The Chicago collector said he had bought it on behalf of his brother, a non-collector in New Jersey, who wanted a decorative piece for his wife. Height, excluding its later glass dome: 17 2/3" tall.LOT #57: Austrian skeleton clocks are extremely rare, and glass-plate ones, let alone with complications, are the scarcest of all. In 1997, Schmitt bought this 1820 example from Cipra, who had acquired it from a Southerner years ago. Now Cipra owns it again, having paid $22,800 (est. $15,000/20,000) against the phones. In brass, ormolu, and bronze, with a movement of a month's duration that strikes on a bell, it is 19½" high, 22½" with dome.LOT #58: One of the best clocks in the sale, and among the rarest, the Austrian mahogany month-going floor-standing regulator made by Peter Lazarus of Vienna in 1806, was owned by Schmitt twice. He first bought it in 1981 in Salzburg, then immediately sold it to a Californian. "At the time, it was more than I could afford to keep," said Schmitt, who in the late 1990's was able to buy it back from that collector at a substantial markup. At this sale, it made $60,000 on the phone, midpoint between the estimates. At 80 ½" tall, the architectural case with glazed sides is a beauty. But the movement's precision is what drove the price. It shows mean time, solar time, and has a full calendar. Similarities between it and regulators by George Graham (1673-1751) make it a kind of <I>hommage<D> to the genius of Graham, inventor of the cylinder escapement and the mercury pendulum, successor to Thomas Tompion, and mentor to John Harrison. Observers at the sale speculated that Lazarus, in order to have made this timepiece, must have had the opportunity to study the two regulators that Graham supplied to the Vienna Royal Court in the mid-18th century.LOT #61: Schmitt bought this one just a couple of years ago at a Sotheby's Continental furniture sale at approximately $24,000. This time, Larry Thompson and Ken Sposato bought it, at $26,400, for Sposato's shop in New York City, Time Gallery (est. $15,000/20,000). A large French ormolu and porphyry striking clock with a revolving ring dial, it was made by Raingo Frères of Paris, circa 1880. Decorated with griffins that form the handles of the urn, it stands 30 ½" tall.LOT #62: The top lot of the sale, a large (27 ¼" tall) gilt-brass quarter-chiming scroll-frame skeleton clock, went to Mark Frank at $66,000 (est. $25,000/40,000), who battled phones, absentees, and Jim Cipra. Made by Bennett of London, circa 1880, the movement is an eight-day triple-fusee with dead beat escapement, quarter chiming on eight bells, and hour striking on a gong, along with a regulator-quality steel-rod pendulum with glass mercury jar. The scroll work is stippled like a piece of jewelry; the chapters are blue enamel and the hands are the same sapphire hue. Schmitt bought the clock in Carmel, California, in 1981 for $12,000. The seller was London dealer Keith Banham, who was taking a "sabbatical" and paying his way with clock sales, said Schmitt.LOT #63: One could call this an early digital clock, considering that it shows only the actual time. A French piece, 18" tall, it was made after the model by Claude Gallé, circa 1820, in bronze ormolu and marmo verde antico. The female figure unveils two revolving rings, one each for hours and minutes. It strikes on a bell. Larry Thompson bought it within estimate, bidding against phones, at $16,800.#3677 on CD: The only American clock in the sale was a monumental floor-standing long-case clock in an elaborately carved walnut case. Note: there is a head of Diana between the antlers of the deer head, which is in turn flanked by lion's heads. Inside there is a massive movement with thick brass plates, a Graham-type dead-beat escapement, and three-jar pendulum held within an elaborate steel frame. Pictured here with Jim Cipra, who is 6'3", the clock stands 10'3".This is a man's clock," said Schmitt, who had a special place built in his former house in New Hampshire to accommodate it. "It stood in my front hallway, and even people who didn't know much about clocks would come in and say, 'Now that's a clock.'" Previewers called it "The Jones," with reverence. That is, George A. Jones & Co. of New York. It was signed by both Jones and by James Wood, who was taken on by Jones as a partner, after which Jones sold the business to Wood prior to its acquisition by Ansonia. Officially known as a Regulator No. 8, it was Ansonia's most expensive clock when new, selling for $950 in 1878; the next most expensive regulator the company made was $282.It's not the first clock of this kind that Schmitt has owned. In 1980, he bought its "brother" from a plumber in Phoenix. Unfortunately it was destroyed in a storage facility fire in Plaistow, New Hampshire, in 1987. This one used to be owned by a Massachusetts library. "Somebody opened the door to wind it and it fell over, damaging the case." (Word of caution to tall-case clock owners: All of them have the potential to be top-heavy and unstable, particularly when their weights have just been wound up. To prevent toppling, many owners secure their clocks to the wall with bolts attached through the back board.) "The restoration costs were too much for the library, and it went into a little auction in Connecticut, where it was bought by Roger Davis, who sold it to Bob Sequin, a dealer in Chatham, Massachusetts, who sold it to me in about 1990." At this sale, it made $54,000 on phone, just above the high estimate. Schinto photo (LOT #65)LOT #66: This is a French mystery clock with a conical pendulum, 36 ½" tall, made by Farcot & Laurent, circa 1880. It went at $19,200 on the phone. A conical pendulum has a circular motion rather than one that goes conventionally side to side; it requires no escapement, providing smooth, continuous movement. In the 18th century they were of practical use. Astronomers used clocks with conical pendulums to keep telescopes trained on particular stars. In the next century, they were used chiefly to make novelties like this one.LOT #67: An ormolu striking mantel clock with automaton magician did extremely well, bringing $31,200 from a phone who was bidding against absentees (est. $12,000/18,000). From the third quarter of the 19th century, with a movement by Japy Frères, it has an eight-day movement with strike on a bell. The magician, controlled by a movement that is independent of the time and strike, plays a cup and ball trick with 14 different painted wood objects. From the top of its wooden head, it measures 20 ¼".

 

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