Collector's Corner: In Good Time

Digital clocks are well and good, but the passage of time is somehow more tangible when it’s read from two hands and a face.

You hardly need to look far to see a digital time display these days, ubiquitous and accurate to the millisecond. But the passage of time is somehow more tangible, more satisfyingly spent, when it’s read from two hands and a face.

“The soul of a family is in a clock,” says Stephen Fletcher, vice president and director of American furniture and decorative arts for Skinner, an auction house in Boston. “They hold a special place in peoples’ homes.”

Few know that better than antique-clock collectors, who treasure early New England tickers for more than just their remarkably accurate time-keeping. “Antique clocks have style, character and charm,” says James Roberts, owner of Clockfolk in Reading. “You see it in the make of the case, the paintings and the hand-painted dials.”

Among the most sought-after pieces are Willard clocks, considered the crème de la crème of antique American clocks. They were first handmade in Grafton by Benjamin Willard and his three younger brothers in 1766. Willard clocks were high-priced even then: A tall clock sold for $60 at a time when some people earned as little as a dollar a week.

When the clockmaking brothers outgrew the tiny village of Grafton—a town their grandfather helped settle—they moved to Boston. “There, they could sell clocks to the wealthy merchants of Boston, and have easy access to the ports where brass and mahogany were shipped into Boston Harbor,” says John Stephens, director and curator of the Willard House and Clock Museum in Grafton. The museum now showcases more than 80 Willard clocks in the original Grafton workshop, alongside family portraits and heirlooms from the past three centuries.

Over the years, several generations of Willards joined in the clockmaking tradition. Simon Willard made three clocks for the U.S. Capitol. He also built a special timepiece for the University of Virginia with the help of Thomas Jefferson.

The historical significance of these clocks is evident today, as most Willard clocks sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. Twenty years ago, Simon Willard’s “Boston Tea Party Clock,” a tall clock rumored to have been in the room where the Boston protest was planned, sold at auction for an astonishing $440,000.

Gear Heads
Though they set a rich precedent, the Willards weren’t the only clockmakers native to New England. Starting in the late 1700s, Concord was a clock mecca. Daniel Monroe, an apprentice to Simon Willard, set up shop in the small town where his brother Nathaniel managed a brass foundry. It wasn’t long before other clockmakers were attracted to the area.

“People think these clocks were made by someone like Gepetto, working alone at a bench, fashioning every piece,” says David Wood,curator of the Concord Museum. But even in pre-assembly-line days, 40 to 50 craftspeople throughout the United States and England had a hand in every clock that was made.

“In Concord, you could walk across the street to order your movements, go next door to talk to the cabinetmaker,” says Wood. “There was this amazing entrepreneurial bustle in the area.” As a result, local clockmakers fashioned clocks in very similar styles throughout the Federal period, from the Revolutionary War through the early to mid-1800s. “They were pretty much made the same way they had been made in provincial England in the 1690s,” says Wood.

The handmade timepiece business flourished into the 1800s, when Connecticut clockmakers introduced mantel clocks with interchangeable parts that sold for $3. “The kind of clocks [the Willards] made became obsolete around that time, when they were undercut in price by the Connecticut manufacturers,” says Wood. Zabdiel Willard, Simon’s grandson, eventually closed up the Willard operation and moved to California.

Because of their relative scarcity, American clocks from the Federal period are more expensive than similar clocks from Europe. As with all antiques, price depends on condition, demand, and rarity. It’s not unusual for an antique American clock to go to auction starting at $20,000.

“People want to buy a piece of American history,” says Lee Smith, owner of Classic Clocks Etc. in Wayland. Tall clocks originating in the late 1700s range in price from $15,000 to $50,000 today.

“Banjo clocks,” which were made in Boston, Attleboro, and other New England towns in the mid-1800s, may now sell for as much as $1,500 each. These highly decorated wall clocks are named for their shape, and age, scarcity, and condition drive up their price.

Younger antique clocks generally have lower prices. “Turn-of-the-century clocks are, as a rule, very well made, though some people don’t think of them as truly antiques because they’re not 100 percent handmade,” says Smith. “They have some machine-made parts.”

If you’re looking to buy a single unique piece rather than begin a collection, he says, narrow your price range. Generally, the younger the clock, the lower the price.

For those beginning a collection, Smith carries a selection of what he calls “entry-level clocks,” including turn-of-the-century parlor clocks and mantel clocks for around $250. Names like Seth Thomas, Gilbert, New Haven, and Ansonia are all companies that started in Connecticut in the early 1800s, driving the handmade-clock makers out of business. Though these Connecticut clocks were mass-produced, they can have individual touches, from marbleized cases to hand-painted dials.

Shop Time
If you find an antique clock in the attic, remember that what you can’t see is as important as what you can see. A nonworking clock with original parts is likely more valuable than a working clock restored with modern parts.

“The brass and steel movements were made to withstand many years of use,” says Roberts. Most older parts can be restored rather than replaced with new parts.

If you’re shopping for an antique clock, “you need to look at all of the different components,” says Roberts, including woodwork, dials, internal gears and mechanisms, glass, painted surfaces, and signatures. “There are some pretty good reproductions out there,” he says. For instance, there are tall case clocks where the movement style doesn’t match the case, or the feet have been cut off. A reputable dealer will steer clear of such modifications.

According to Smith, all antique clocks tend to maintain their base value. “I tell people to buy an antique clock the way you would buy art,” he says. “Buy what you like. Don’t buy because you think it may appreciate.” Buy it because you want something as charming as the time period from which it comes. “These are handmade pieces of history,” he says, not your average blinking digital display.