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Tall Case Clock: Tiffany quarter-chiming tubular bell tall clock, case attributed to R. J. Horner, movement manufactured by Waltham Clock Company with Walter Durfee tubular bellsClocks are a complicated thing to price at auction because there are really two parts to a clock and two different groups to whom they appeal: the cases, which appeal to furniture folks for different aesthetic reasons: paint, style, decoration; and the movements, which appeal to clock collectors in a different way, often for more “antiquarian” reasons.

Tall-case clocks historically came with one of two movements (movement is the term for the actual clockworks): an eight-day movement or a 30-hour movement, so called because of the interval of time at which they required winding, meaning an eight-day clock needed winding roughly every week while a 30-hour movement would need wound just about daily. These movements would largely replace the wooden works which had been used for decades, as their economy helped make clocks more widely affordable. (Wooden works were durable in many senses, but were prone to the effects of humidity which could make them less accurate.)

Eight-day clocks typically have two movements – one for the pendulum and one for the striking mechanism, making for two keyholes on opposite sides of the dial. 30-hour clocks, on the other hand, normally just had one movement and thus one keyhole (although they were occasionally manufactured with a false keyhole to give the appearance of wealth).  Eight-day clocks are now all manufactured as cable-driven, with cables holding the weights and they are either wound with a key-like crank or, in the case of chain-driven movements, by pulling on the end of the weight chains to draw the weights up.

This is also as good a place as any to note that “grandfather clock” is what some people refer to as a collector term, meaning a name that has been given by modern users or collectors rather than the “period” name, which would be how it would have been referred to by the original owner, maker or in documents at the time when it was made. The Oxford English Dictionary pins this on an 1876 song, “My Grandfather’s Clock.” Prior to this, the clocks had been known as long-case or tall-case clocks. (It’s also worth noting the 1876 date of Henry Clay Work’s composition. As the centennial anniversary of American independence, the year prompted a number of expositions and celebrations, many of them manufacturing a view of colonial history that was more nostalgic than fact-based.) Grandfather clocks are also occasionally referred to as long clocks, hall clocks, upright clocks or floor clocks.

A Swedish polychromed tall case clock, mid 19th century, the circular face enameled and marked "A.A.L. Mora", the center section lyriform and raised on a shaped and paneled base to bracket feet.

The Mora clock originated in the town of Mora, a small village in Sweden that is just on the southern edge of the Scandinavian Mountains. The clocks are a style of tall-case clock with an eight-day movement and often with a bombe midsection. (The cases share a great deal stylistically with French clocks of the period.) They were produced for roughly a century, from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, as part of a cottage industry in the town of Mora, where families worked together to manufacture and assemble them with each household assuming responsibility for a particular part. The families actually just made the clock movements this way, with buyers commissioning cases from locals on an individual basis, which explains the consistency among movements yet the diversity among cases. It is estimated that the citizens of Mora and the surrounding area made more than 50,000 movements, as many as 1,000 per year during the heyday of manufacturing, but the glut of inexpensive clocks from manufacturing centers in Germany as well as in America killed production of clocks in Mora before the close of the 19th century.

Krang Anders Andersson (1727 to 1799) is considered the first clockmaker in the region with a 1792 dated clock movement bearing his initials and many Mora clocks are marked with those initials – A.A.S. Mora.

Charles Gretton English bracket clock

Charles Gretton English bracket clock

Time is an amazing and strange thing, and there are endless philosophical discussions on how time, the ability to measure it, and the ways we track it have affected both the development of civilization and the pattern of our daily lives.  Horology, the name given to the study of measuring time, encompasses everything from sundials and water clocks to mantel clocks and digital watches.

One of the things that makes building a horological collection so fascinating to those who do it (and so alien to those who don’t) is the consideration of both the external and the internal.  With many antiques, the issues are largely about the exterior and, in some cases, construction of a single object, but with clocks and watches, there are really not just two separate facets, but truly two separate objects to consider: the case or exterior and the works.  This makes clocks a blending of art and science, because while art dictates the aesthetics and value of the case, much more esoteric construction and mechanics determine the value of the movement.  You can’t, without a fair amount of study and knowledge, look at a movement and assess a value.  As a result, quite frequently at auction, we’ll see a terrific case with a mediocre – or worse – movement bring a respectable price.  (This is a great paint-decorated case, but movements like the one here appear in large numbers and are normally considered very average.)  Less frequently, we’ll see a dull or damaged case with a great movement bring a respectable price, or even a great price, as is the case with the bracket clock pictured above that had a rare, desirable movement in a case considered to be an ill match.  What we all watch for are the combinations of great case and great movement – you may not know what you’re looking at when you see the clock, but you’ll certainly know when you see the final price!

Earlier this month, Skinner, Inc., an auction firm in Massachusetts held an incredible sale, primarily filled with material from the collection and the library of one collector.  It was the sale of a true collection, filled not just with objects (an incredible array of watchmaking bench tools like hand tools and wheel-cutting machines, necessary to create the tiny cogs used), but also with classic works from the accompanying library on the history of time, clockmaking and mechanics.  The reference books are one of my favorite things that we often see among such collections – fascinating to scholars because they reveal, often with clear illustrations of the objects, the range of items available.  Sometimes we even see period catalogues that list the actual cost of items.  All these things are often difficult to dig up through the traditional tools – census records, deeds, and wills – that are available to material culture scholars.  Building such an incredible collection takes time, but with horology, you certainly have plenty of that!

-Hollie Davis, Editor,