Buying an antique clock – how to

This post explores buying tips for novice antique clock buyers. Those looking for an antique clock in general rather than a specific type or model of an antique mechanical clock will find the following tips very useful.

Vintage versus antique

According to the United States Government publications, the term “antique” is reserved for valuables that are over a century old. Webster’s dictionary defines an antique as a work of art, piece of furniture, or decorative object made at an earlier period and according to various customs laws at least 100 years ago. Wikipedia defines the word antique as applying to objects at least 100 years old.

Restored Seth Thomas antique column and cornice “Empire” style time and strike weight driven shelf clock circa 1865

According to eBay, vintage is a defined period from 1920 to 1969. The use of the word vintage in online auctions and elsewhere is becoming more and more like the word “rare”. Some may define “vintage” as anything that was purchased less than 24 hours ago, is dirty and worn, or looks like it might be old if you know nothing about its history. Sellers often do not know anything about what they are selling and often describe the item as “vintage”.

Arthur Pequegnat Canadian Time wall clock circa 1930

The word “collectible” is also used, just like the word vintage has been misused. Just about anything sold these days is marketed as a collectible if not vintage. Most serious buyers would agree that when it comes to clocks younger than 100 years old but older than 30 they are considered vintage and collectible is anything within 30 years.

Antique clock buying tips

Buying a clock without actually touching and inspecting it is always a gamble and making a judgment based on online images, most of which are of poor quality, complicates the decision-making even further. The sad stories of people who thought they bought an antique clock with a mechanical movement only to find a  quartz one when the clock arrived at their door are not fiction. This and other examples are the many challenges facing the antique clock shopper in today’s online world.

I am not a firm believer in purchasing an antique clock online based on images unless one is very familiar with and respects the reputation of the seller. Although you may find that special clock online my advice is to see the clock in the flesh prior to making your final decision.

Simon Willard banjo clock circa 1810

Questions you might ask yourself prior to the purchase

  • Will I get my money’s worth? Will I be “ripped off”?
  • Will it work when I get it home?
  • What do I have to do to fix it if something is wrong and what could I pay to fix it?
  • What did the seller not disclose? What are the little surprises that await me when I get home?
“Life is a box of chocolates….you never know what you are going to get”, Forest Gump

3 Simple rules for antique clock buying

Here are 3 simple rules on how to buy that special antique clock you’ve always wanted.

1. Locate the antique clock

  • The style and type of antique clock is a personal preference. I prefer wall clocks over mantel clocks, parlour over gingerbreads, and Ogees over cottage clocks.
  • If it is a local online inquiry meet with the seller to finalize the sale. If the clock is found in an antique shop or antique mall you will not be dealing with the seller (there are exceptions) but an agent who may know absolutely nothing about the clock.
  • Avoid Chinese or Korean clocks often advertised as “31-day” clocks. Although they are normally reliable runners, clock-makers will tell you that they are not worth fixing. None are antiques.

2. Ask a lot of questions

  • Does the clock run?
    • A running clock has more value than a non-running example. Ask the seller to demonstrate a running clock.
  • Who is the maker (manufacturer)?
    • Manufacturers make both inexpensive and quality clocks (there are exceptions). Seth Thomas, a respectable American clock-maker manufactured inexpensive clocks that have little value and higher-end models that are very desirable by collectors. The name alone does not always equate to value.
  • Has the clock been altered in any way?
    • Newer case pieces, decorations, new glass, refinished case, a replacement movement, a replacement pendulum, etc. will reduce the value and sometimes significantly.
  • If it does not run, are all the parts intact?
    • If it has all the parts, can it be repaired either by you, the buyer, or a competent repair person? I know of a time and strike clock that was missing the strike side gears.
  • How old is it?
    • Again, vintage or antique. A clock made in 1919 is now an antique.
    • Does the clock have provenance, an interesting and verifiable history?
  • How long has the seller had it?
    • A cherished family heirloom has more value than an item recently acquired for a quick profit.
  • Would you accept a lower price?
    • Point out specifically why the price should be reduced, missing pieces, non-running, poor condition.

3. Deal directly with the seller

  • By dealing with the seller in person you will always have the opportunity to walk away if you are not satisfied.
Junghans Crispi time and strike wall clock
Junghans Crispi time and strike wall clock Ca. 1899

Not every antique clock is rare or valuable and some clocks are more desirable than others. That 150-year-old 30-hour Ogee is not as valuable as you might think but a much younger vintage French figural style clock may be worth a lot more.

If you are looking for a very specific type or model of antique clock you will find that it takes time and research to find it but there will be a satisfying reward once found.

One thought on “Buying an antique clock – how to

Comments are closed.