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Peerless Time Machines

by Mary Brenneman (12/03/08).

Editor’s Note: Clocks are an important antiques and collectibles category. Mark Peer, a WorthPoint Worthologist, specializes in this great technological invention that can also be beautiful works of art.

The clock isn’t just a timepiece or a collectible, said Mark Peer, it is “the most important machine of the last millennium” and the measure of people’s lives and experience.

“When you look at an antique clock, it comes with history and stories,” said Peer, a WorthPoint specialist on collectible and antique clocks. “Unlike some collectibles, clocks were a part of daily life. People looked at the mantel clock every day.” When a birth or a death took place, someone marked the time. “There is this aura about clocks,” Peer said.

French crystal regulator with champlevé trim made by Japy Freres of Paris, France, circa 1900

It is also a measure of mankind’s invention. The clock—the word comes from clocca, the Latin for bell—dates from the 14th century. Around 1510, a German locksmith, Peter Henlein, developed the spring-powered clock and dubbed his small, handheld timepieces “Nuremberg Eggs.” They were the ancestors of the wristwatch.

About 150 years later, Dutch scientist Christian Huygens made the first pendulum clock. In the early 19th century, American clockmakers began making clocks with interchangeable parts—one of the first steps of the Industrial Revolution.

America clockmaker Eli Terry developed the wooden mechanism, which put the clock within the reach of nearly every household. And so it has gone right through quartz crystal and electronic clocks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology provides an informative history of clocks starting with ancient calendars.

D.J .Gale drop calendar made by Welch, Spring & Co. of Forestville, Conn., circa 1875

The clock, however, is more than a technological function, according to Peer. It is also artistic form, and that is what makes it a fascinating collectibles field. “Clocks have been built out of just about every material—glass, silver, bronze, gold, china and a variety of woods,” he said. “Anything you can think of, they’ve made a clock out of it.”

Grotesque spelter figural clock made by Japy Freres of Paris, France, circa 1885

An inveterate collector, Peer obtained his first antique clock in 1977 and soon fixed on clocks full time. In 1986, he began selling clocks and antiques in Sarasota, Fla., under the name “Mark of Time.” Since then, he has set-up a clock exhibit at the South Florida Museum and has become a life member of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. To learn more, visit Peer’s Web site.

With its long history of form and function, the clock market can be a tricky one, Peer advised. Consider a gold clock. “The value of a gold clock goes up and down with the value of gold.” Meanwhile, the prices of common Victorian mass-market mantel and wall clocks, which fetched $200 to $250 in the 1970s, “haven’t changed much.”

Miniature banjo clock made by Waltham Watch Co., Waltham Mass., circa 1925

Among the hottest parts of the market are the unique “experimental clocks” and the pieces by high-profile craftsmen like Simon Willard.

Clockmaker Silas Burnham Terry, who produced clocks from about 1830 to 1860, “got bored with day-to-day clockmaking,” Peer said. And so Terry would experiment with designs. These experimental versions, produced in low numbers, can fetch as much as two to three times more—$1,000 to $5,000—as a standard Terry clock, even if there is just a variation in the clock’s mechanism, Peer said.

In Boston, Simon Willard was the most famous member of a clockmaking family, which included his brothers, Aaron, Benjamin and Ephraim. The clocks Willard made between 1802 and 1835 adorned the White House and the Supreme Court, and they are now highly valued.

There is just one problem. “There are a lot more Willard clocks out there than Willard made,” Peer said. The temptation to put the Willard name on a timepiece of the period or to add fancy wood inlays to boost the value are great. But big dollars are at stake when it comes to a Willard clock. A dealer was able to buy one at auction for $30,000, refurbished it and then turned around and resold it for $100,000, Peer said.

Ansonia Clock Co. novelty bouncing doll clock made in New York, circa 1900

Now, if you don’t have $100,000 to spend on a clock, WorthPoint’s Peer has some advice: “Some of the best bargains on the market are unsigned clocks and high-quality clocks from lesser-known makers of the same period.”

“These are really good clocks and good value,” Peer said. “There are still handmade clocks out there are good prices.” For example, Pennsylvania clockmakers were making fewer mass-produced pieces.

The key is to know what you are getting. “When I look at a clock, I look at the oxidation on the unfinished wood, the smell, the type of wood and manufacturing techniques,” Peer said. He also looks for modifications, structural damage and repairs. “If you’re a novice, you really need some help” is Peer’s advice.

WorthPoint—Get the Most from Your Antiques & Collectibles

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