Collecting Takes Time: Horology and Antiques

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,

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