Auction Report: Simon Willard Tall Case Clock, Houdin ‘Mystery’ Clock Pace Sale

This early 19th-century tall case clock signed by the renowned clock maker Simon Willard sold for $32,900 at a multi-estate auction held April 23 by Gordon S. Converse & Co. The clock was the auction’s top lot.

MALVERN, Pa. – A gorgeous, early 19th-century Simon Willard tall case clock, regal at 93 ½ inches tall and signed “Warranted by S. Willard” on the dial, sold for $32,900 at a multi-estate auction held April 23 by Gordon S. Converse & Co. The clock was the auction’s top lot.

More than 280 quality, fresh-to-the-market items in an array of categories—vintage clocks, Asian objects and furniture, period American furniture, estate silver, fine artwork, decorative accessories and more—crossed the block. Of those, about 240 sold.

“The crowd was average,” said Gordon Converse, “but online bidding, through, was very strong.”

Converse said there were between 300 and 400 registered online bidders, a fact that turned what could have been an ordinary sale into a very successful one.

“We were very pleased with the results,” Converse added. “Things are definitely looking better than they did this time last year, both in terms of our business in general and the vibrant antiques industry in particular.”

The Simon Willard clock was expected to do well, and it did not disappoint. The dial was attributed to the workshops of Curtis and Nolen in Boston and was attached to an eight-day bell strike clockworks. The hood was surmounted by three brass ball finials. The clock was housed in a Federal solid and veneer mahogany case, with flared French feet, giving it a majestic stance.

Willard clocks overall are highly desired by collectors. It was Benjamin Willard who first began making clocks in his small, rural Massachusetts workshop, in 1766. His younger brothers—Simon, Ephraim and Aaron—learned the trade and began a three-generation clock making legacy that endures today. Simon is best known for inventing and patenting the so-called banjo timepiece in 1802.

A 16½-inch “mystery clock,” made circa 1835 and attributed to Robert Houdin (French, 1806-1871), boasting a gilt bronze and glass case and the original carved giltwood stand, brought $11,750. The clock is so-named because the hand appears to move around the glass dial without any form of assistance, making it a mystery. But to Houdin, a magician, by the way, it was no mystery at all.

In reality, a rod was run up through the pillar and was connected to a further one going along the right hand of the top of the case. A worm screw was attached to this and was connected to a second invisible glass dial set behind the main one. The hand was attached to this through the front dial, thereby turning as the rear glass turned. It was basically a clever optical illusion.

But illusion was Houdin’s game. He was so revered a magician that Harry Houdini took his name for himself. Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin (the Houdin part was his wife’s maiden name) was the most famous illusionist of his time, having given performances for Queen Victoria and Napoleon. While he was a great inventor and a pioneer in applying electricity to horology, mystery clocks were his trademark invention. Some had an enamel dial, others a glass dial.

This “Mystery clock” in a gilt bronze and glass case, made circa 1835 by Robert Houdin, sold for $11,750.

Following are additional highlights from the auction (all prices quoted include a 17.5-percent buyer’s premium):

• An early 19th-century Philadelphia mahogany tall case clock with a heroic painted dial, signed by Abraham Cassell of Germantown (Philadelphia, Pa.), went to a determined bidder for $5,875. The clock had a solid and veneered mahogany Federal case, a painted dial with a Federal eagle, and an eight-day running bell strike clockworks.

• Another fine mahogany tall case clock made in Philadelphia—this one signed by David Weatherly (American, at work 1805-1850) —chimed on time for $3,525, in what seemed like a bargain price. The 97-inch-tall clock featured an eight-day running bell strike clockworks with an enamel moon disk dial attributed to Patton and Jones. “It was basically all original and in good condition,” Converse said.

• An 1832 engraving with hand-coloring after Paul Revere, titled “The Bloody Massacre,” climbed to $3,290. The image—originally executed by Paul Revere in 1770 and considered his most important and desirable work—depicted the massacre perpetrated on King Street in Boston on March 5, 1770, on the eve of the American Revolution, by a Party of the 29th Regiment.

• Rounding out the day’s top lots, a fine Chinese enamel vase, about 15 inches in height, garnered $1,469.

Gordon S. Converse & Co. is always accepting quality consignments for future sales. To consign an item, estate or collection, you may call the firm directly, at. Mr. Converse replies promptly to all e-mailed inquiries.

For more information about this auction, call 610.722.9004, e-mail to or visit the Gordon S. Converse & Co. web site or the Converse Clocks web site.


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