Guide to collecting clocks

Learn about the broad range of collectible clocks and find out the collector's concerns with both newer and antique clocks.

Focus. That's the first thing a beginning clock collector has to do. The collecting category is broad, covering several hundred years of production, many countries of origin, and a wide range of styles. The collector's investment of time, money, and effort will vary considerably depending on the type of clock being collected.

If collecting contemporary quartz movement clocks that run on AA batteries, the investment is relatively small. There are many clocks to choose from and they are easy to find. Their cost is low compared to antique clocks. Clocks will likely be chosen based on their design and condition with little regard for how they actually keep time. Maintenance for these clocks means dusting your collection and occasionally buying new batteries.

If collecting antique clocks 100-150 years old, all is different. This type of collecting requires a lot more money, willingness to research, and patience. A passion for timekeeping is helpful, since that will drive you to do the necessary learning and keep you going when months or years go by as you look for a new addition to your collection. You need a lot of knowledge about styles, makers, restorations and reproductions to make good acquisitions. If you want to run your antique clocks, you need knowledge and mechanical skills to work on them or you need to find a qualified person to do repairs and regular maintenance like cleaning and oiling the movements. Even if an antique clock is running when you buy it, eventually it will start running fast or slow, or stop running completely.

Before settling on a category, the collector also needs to give thought to how the clocks will be displayed or stored. Clock collecting isn't like collecting paperweights where you can keep a sizeable collection in a small china closet. Clocks need space. If you collect shelf clocks, you need shelves. If you collect wall clocks, you need wall space. For tall clocks (grandfather and grandmother clocks) you need floor space. Electric clocks require power outlets if you're going to run them.

There are many collectible twentieth century clocks. Examples include: ceramic German kitchen clocks from the 1920s, Kit Kat clocks with blinking eyes and swinging tails or sleek Art Deco clocks from the 1930s, starburst clocks from the 1950s. Alarm clocks, from early twentieth century "tin can" styles to late-century novelty clocks, appeal to many and don't take up as much space as other kinds of clocks.

When you're purchasing a twentieth century clock, the primary concerns are condition and authenticity. Hold out for top condition since most things made in the twentieth century were produced in large quantities. Many popular clock designs have been reproduced, so be aware that you need to do some homework so you can distinguish and original from a reproduction.

If you're going to collect clocks made before 1900, you also have to be concerned about detecting originals from reproductions. But with older mechanical clocks, it's rare to find a clock in completely original condition. As a collector you have to set your own standards. If you hold out for completely original, you'll have a small, expensive collection. Restored clocks are very collectible, but you should try to determine what has been restored or replaced before you buy. Reputable dealers and auctions houses describe all known and suspected restorations; they don't try to hide them. It is always acceptable to ask questions about a clock's provenance and any restoration.

Clocks were made to be used and most of them were. A mechanical object of any kind that is used ultimately requires maintenance because wear and dirt cause it to stop working properly. A clock that is 150 years old has likely been worked on several times by persons of varying degrees of competence. It probably has changed hands several times. It may be missing something completely, like the right key for winding or a weight or a pendulum bob. The movement may have gears or springs that are slightly different than the original due the lack of availability of replacement parts. It may have parts made by hand.

Besides the possibility of the movement not being completely original, an antique clock may have replaced hands, a replaced or retouched dial, or a replaced or repainted door glass. The case may have been refinished and its hardware may have been replaced. The case may have been re-glued. The original label might be missing or unreadable. Door locking mechanisms are frequently missing or replaced, hinting at a lost key at some point in the clock's past.

Educate yourself about the kind of clocks you decide to collect. There are many books and internet sites dedicated to clocks and clock collecting. Still, there's nothing like seeing the real thing. Go to antique shops and auctions where you can see and touch many clocks. Visit museums where you can hone your eye to recognize quality and authenticity, as well as learn clock history. The National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania has a particularly fine international collection with over 12,000 objects. It has a School of Horology where you can learn how to work on clocks. The American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, also has a good collection. Many fine art museums across the country have clocks in their decorative arts galleries.

Clock collecting satisfies on many levels. Clocks are both useful and decorative, along with being mechanically and historically interesting. The sound of a ticking clock soothes long after the purchase is made and you can have the quiet pleasure of knowing that you are the custodian of something that will be valued by another generation.

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