Preserve, Conserve or Restore, a clockmakers dilemma

How far do you go repairing, restoring or conserving a vintage or antique clock without changing it in a significant way?

My daughter. a civil engineer raised the philosophical argument that questions whether an object like a clock that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object. This paradoxical thought exercise is called the Ship of Theseus. Plutarch, a Greek philosopher, asked whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship.

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.  Plutarch, Theseus[2]

Think about it! If something is fundamentally changed is it the same object?

One of our proud provincial symbols in Nova Scotia is a sailing ship called the Bluenose II, our provincial ambassador. The original Bluenose was a fishing and racing schooner that ran aground and sank 90 years ago. To honour the original Bluenose, the Bluenose II was built in the 1960s and sailed for over 50 years until it was determined that she was not seaworthy.

Bluenose II, Peggy’s Cove (photo, NS government, used for educational purposes)

In 2018 the hull of the Bluenose II was rebuilt with new materials. Some items such as rigging, masts, sails, ironwork, deck structures, safety equipment, and electronics were reused. Part of the timeline for future repair involves replacing the masts, sails, rigging, and deck structures. Will the ship retain its identity? To purists, no! To Nova Scotians, yes!

Let’s go beyond the nautical example and apply our example to the lantern clock.

The lantern clock is a clock with a lantern-shaped brass case made for about a century after 1630 or so. Most had one hand, all were weight-driven with a bell on top and sat on a wall bracket. They were the first type of clock widely used in English private homes in the 17th century. Eventually, the lantern clock became obsolete when tall case clocks came into fashion.

Converted lantern clock
Converted lantern clock

Lantern clocks are highly collectible today and those that are in “original” condition are the most desirable. But, almost all of them have been altered, even those considered “genuine”. Check out this quote from a seller of lantern clocks, D. and J. Benson, who are specialists in early English clocks.

We are strong believers that if a clock was converted to a different escapement many years ago, this should be retained, being part of the history of the clock, rather than reconverting clocks back to former guises. Only under compelling circumstances would a clock be returned to a former state. Only absolutely necessary restoration work is carried out in order that the original clock survives for future generations. We conserve rather than replace. D& J Benson

“Compelling circumstances”. Important provenance, perhaps?

Early conversions were from verge to anchor escapement. Later ones had the original movements removed and a fusee movement (single or double) installed. When converted, original movements including alarm mechanisms were taken out, a single-hand was replaced with two hands (or the minute hand added), broken finals and door handles might have replaced, chapter rings re-silvered, doors lost due to their nature of lifting out easily. Therefore, what is the nature of the clock after it has been changed, and how original is it? Does it retain its identity? To purists, no! To the casual collector, yes!

Let’s see how this philosophical argument plays out:

  • If too much is done to restore a clock is it fundamentally the same and is it considered original even though new parts were made from the same materials using the same methods when the clock was first made?
  • Do changes or alterations to the clock that bring it back to its original look and function including the making of new parts make it more “original”?
  • If one replaces one part at a time on a clock so that at some point all parts are replaced, at what point does a clock no longer become the same clock?
  • If you take all of those parts and make a “new” clock which of the two clocks is original? What is the nature of the clock’s identity since no two objects can occupy the same identity?

This is the dilemma of identity. One more example!

In 2016 I acquired my first weight-driven Vienna Regulator clock. As I worked on the clock I began to realize that many parts were replaced over the years such as the brass bezel, hands, glass panels, weights, and even the movement. Although the changes were part of the history of the clock I began to accept the notion that it is what it is and to a casual observer, it looks authentic.

Gustav Becker Vienna Regulator

Minimal Invasive Intervention

The term minimal invasive intervention means how far do you go to repair, restore or conserve a clock without changing it in a significant way? Some say that any work performed on an antique clock would diminish its value. Going too far to repair a clock and it begins to lose its attraction and value as a collectable object.

Is a “true collector” more interested in a movement that has never been worked on or one that has been repaired or restored? While it is always desirable to have a running clock most concede that to make a movement actually work, intervention must be accepted (bushing and pivot reconstruction, for example). The question remains; if I want the clock to function, what is the least I can do without changing it in a significant way?

Repair, Restoration, Conservation

Repair; to rectify the faults of a clock in a way that might alter it from its original form (gear replacement, pivot work, bushing work, replacement of some parts)

Restoration; the reconstruction of the movement and clock case to original condition.

Conservation; the protection of a clock using any methods that prove effective in keeping that article in as close to its original condition as possible for as long as possible.

Any amount of intervention is frowned upon by some collectors while some amount of intervention is not only necessary but desired by others and while collectors are always searching for a completely untouched clock, an antique clock in pristine condition that has never been meddled with is a rare find.

Questions, questions, questions…

  • Is undoing the “damage” caused by a previous poor repair an overly invasive procedure?
  • If the repair was done shortly after the clock was made and it was a proper repair, was clearly documented as markings inside the clock case, should it be left untouched? (example, a wheel that has a rough tooth repair but functions well). Is the poor repair part of the clock’s historical provenance and should it be left as-is?
  • Would bringing the movement back to its original state be considered a restoration or a repair?
  • Will a repair enhance or decrease the value of the clock?
  • Is a repair or restoration a form of conservation?

My position regarding changes to a clock

My goal is a functional clock that presents well. A non-working clock must become a working clock because that is the nature of its existence. If a clock has important provenance and extensive repairs to the movement and/or case alter it in a negative way and I will leave it alone. But I will always clean a clock case (unless otherwise directed) because as one clockmaker I know put it, “isn’t patina just another word for dirt!”.

When working on a customer’s clock I recommend presenting several options regarding the repair of the movement and addressing case issues. This past year I worked on a customer clock and asked what they wanted to be done. It had a beautifully designed case but a non-functioning movement. Make the clock run they said and replace the broken hands but don’t touch the case even though in my view the case could have used a good cleaning and a fresh coat of shellac. I did what was requested. Is the customer right? Yes!

I will leave you with two examples.

Ingraham Grecian
Ingraham Grecian
Ingraham Grecian
Ingraham Grecian

The bob wire that came with a clock appears to be a section of coat hanger wire. Replace it with a proper adjustable bob wire?

On a movement with pinned plates one of the pins is a finishing nail. Replace it with a brass taper pin?

Hell, yes on both counts!

In some circles, this trivial examples like these will provoke a heated argument. Is there a correct answer? Put twelve clockmakers in a room and you will have a thirteen opinions.

One thought on “Preserve, Conserve or Restore, a clockmakers dilemma

  1. Yes, its not a black and white answer, its gray area.
    Allow me to extrapolate the line to the ultimate sin. Replacing a mechanical movement with a quartz. Most of us would agree its collectability value would drop next to nothing. No matter how beautiful the case. At one high end vintage car exhibition, points where deducted when judges saw the oil pan had been painted. Originally, it left factory bare metal . Is it still “Grampa’s axe” with handle, then later, if the head replaced? Another Ship of Theseus.
    Bottom line this. Return clock to working condition using period correct parts, and if at all possible from original maker. Use a taper pin not a finishing nail. Its called respect. Respect for both the restorers skills and for the clock. If the new handle is hickory wood, not fibreglas, its still Grandpa’s axe.


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