How to identify and buy the best grandfather clock at auction


So you want to by a good grandfather clock but you dont really know what you are doing…

People keep on asking me to get Grandfather clocks for them. This makes perfect sense with my Antiques centre and Auction connections but if I did it for everyone Id do nothing else and I love my hands on work with repairs and restorations.

I dont sell clocks on the whole. The reason Im writing this is because its in the spirit of self help this blog promotes and I get asked a lot. Specifically I get asked “what sort of clock is the best and can you help me get a good one – I dont really know a lot about them but I would really like one”.

A surprisingly long question for all those people to ask. It really is though.

Here is the definitive time proof answer I believe.

Answer: Buy an early 18th Century Brass Face Clock!

I would get one like the one in the picture above. Its a classic brass face from 1730 and looks good in just about any case. Its currently in its original case but you wouldnt know the original from another similar one – Ill cover that side of thing later. Firstly lest talk about how to buy the clever way and the way trade do generally when sourcing clocks at auction for stock.

Whats the best place to buy a good grandfather clock?

Don’t bother with bigger auction houses over more than about 3 offices. They are too big with too many educated auctioneers who actually know something. You will get a better deal where people KNOW LESS about what they are selling. This may sound a bit cut-throat but thats what this article is about – Im on your side and you have to be a pirate to get a galleon. So HA HAAAARRRR MATEY and a bottle of Evian (I dont drink).

Most smaller auction houses are totally useless at identifying a good clock and frankly just guess – you will see clocks identified as “18th Century Brass Faced by blah blah Nottingham” as opposed to any discreet mention of a specific decade or comment on style or case construction. The less details in the description the better chance you have of getting a clock cheaper than the market would normally pay (at a larger auction house).

Consider this. Small auctions are tricky things to run and the rule tends to be caution in describing items authenticity due to the crippling administration costs of returns and refunds. This is good news for you if you go armed with the right info and check list which I will try and provide you with in this article.

So, the more basic the catalog description, the more likely it is the auction house doesn’t care and hopes the market does their homework for them. If you want to go a upmarket and rely on the auctioneers knowledge more for reasons of….getting a working clock!, then Sworders in Bishops Stortford and Hertford (Essex, United Kingdom) seem to get the right sort of clocks in and I use them for valuation and sale for stuff on Behalf of the Antiques centre in Braintree where I am based some of the week. Ive seen some half decent brass faces go there for under £2000 but as you will find out in this article – its about buying the right one.

Its a good idea to go to Sworders website and have a look online . If you like a clock there I can go and check it over for you as its half an hour from me. I would urge you to find you own good local auction house and go there however as its really important to see the clock. Some of them can be far more dominating “in person” and you need to meet your clock before inviting it into your house. It really will become part of your home and like a lodger, you will want to vet them first!. Chimes can be loud or quiet or muffled for fast or piercing or bell based or bar based or or or etc.. These thing will effect how much you enjoy owning your clock. Bear in mind most dont come with a night shut-off switch so your going to be living with the chime 24/7.

What is the market for grandfather clocks like and how much should I pay?

The clock in the picture at the start of this article is a really nice clock. It sits in the perfect house. I know the couple as good customers. Theres an immaculate vintage Rolls Royce Silver Something in the garage, Koi carp pond under a glass floor in the living room with small whales in it. Its full of interesting curio engineering objects to boot (heaven for me) . Every bit of the large house is a really nice and interesting place to be. Nice people too. 

So my point is these nice people have a nice clock. BUT Its not the most expensive clock, its just the best type without going mad on the money side of things and its more than “enough”. Good taste.

The thing is you can get a similar nice clock for much less than you may think. 

Theres only so many clocks left and reproduction hasn’t hit the industry sector yet; you don’t see fake clocks although be aware you are unlikely to be getting an original combination of clock head and case. Almost all are what are referred to as marriages which I find a particularly inappropriate term. Ex wives. These clocks and heads actually go together very well on more than two out of three times which makes “marriage” an inaccurate term in my view.

Grandfather clocks are in and out of fashion but always comes back. They have done for 300 years so the trend is unlikely to end. What you are seeing now is a dip in values due to a trend towards moderinism and minimalism in domestic interior design – we see this reflected in what sells at the Antiques centre generally.

Smaller houses are also playing a part in the temporary decline in popularity of these clocks. The wise will note that they are not knocking down the larger houses to build the smaller ones so there is still a home waiting for these clocks and they will return with greater prestige than they ever have. Also the Japs love anything english at the moment and Im sure there are already people out there shipping them over in containers and making a fortune.

It is only fashion and iphones keeping them out in the cold and on the auction circuit in the UK. So, at the moment, the clocks dont store well and are generally sold on inheritance by people who ought to be rounded up and sho…. sorry I almost did a Clarkson there.

The one thing you need to understand about this market adjustment is that Grandfather clocks are ICONIC so it doesn’t matter that current fashions do not allow space for them in the house. After all if your under 40 and don’t have 100 square meters of uninterrupted beige carpet in the living room the world will actually end. Its fact. Theres no room for a grandfather clock with Beige-aggendon upon us apparently.

The point is everyone knows what a grandfather clock is, and always will and thats that. There will always be a market.

If you like them then buy one now even if you store it for your next property move.

This clock face pictured in this article is at the higher end of things. Now I say “at the higher end of things” in the context of the mid market which is the area I get asked most about. It is also the long case clock / grandfather clock type people most frequently ask us to restore which is worthy of note because it sort of suggests these are the ones everyone finds the most attractive – its not cheap to get done but people are prepared to spend a bit more on this fabulously attractive examples.

To be perfectly frank its obvious why these clocks are so popular with their owners. Its because these clocks from the begining of the 18th century have a complex beauty in the face that is an accident of design evolution. Its two face designs build into one.

To explain, one set of face markings (the inner chapter ring marks and fleur-de-lys) is to allow the clock to be read by only the hour hand, and the the other set of markings (minute markers and seconds markers and chapter ring)is for our normal two handed reading method.

The two designs are blended to create a complex classic design that is simply an accident of social cirucumstance – clock reading literacy. These marking dissapear around 1730 so its the best date to buy when considering age vs cost because the clocks get more expensive the older they are due to rarity. The sweet spot is 1730 or thereabouts in my view.

As the art of production had been practised for lifetime by 1730 and the industry was firmly established delivering product by this time so there are more clocks left today. This is why I would buy one of these. There are enough left in the market because there were quite a few made and at the same time they happen to be the best looking – prices are still actually reasonable compared to a good clock from only30 or 4 years earlier when the industry could still be considered in its infancy. Having said this they are still not that common so you will have to hunt around to get one for the right price, but its possible and Im assuming your prepared to invest a bit of time in the chase if your reading this.

Factor in £1k for what could be extensive bespoke repairs if your buying remotely or cant get a guarantee of functionality. It could even be £2k so just get that all important guarantee that its working or your money back.

That guarantee is necessary because you have to bear in mind every single movement component is hand made. Literally. Even the bridge screws match their holes. Replacing broken components means a lot of work and if the broken components are missing Id honestly just as well you didn’t phone me about the repair – do the other thing, but a working clock!. Id prefer to help you do that then work out escapement tooth gradients surrounded by the remains of a Frankenstein clock.

As an owner I have a London Brass face from 1730 and a Country 1780 12″ square face both of which I adore. I put both together as marriages for under £2000 but its going to cost you probably around £3-5k for a good 1730 era clock.

Im pretty sure I could go to market now, July ’18, and get something absolutely beautiful and authentic for about £4000 on a brass face for a clock made in a major town in the 18 century. I wouldnt expect the case to be original to the clock inside but I will come to that. £2500 would get you an enamel face you would never sell and very possibly in its original case. These clock curios will only increase in value in the same way classic cars do and property does. In my opinion.

If you really want to go to town, specifically London, you should expect a London made brass face WITHOUT its original case for a few thousand more, expect to pay 18k+  for a known maker clock in its original good quality case (this article is July 2018).

Features and Variations in a 1700-1730 Grandfather Clock and how to identify one…

The clock picture at the start of this article is a Kingston Avery we had in last month for service and minor component replacement. Its from about 1730. If you can get one earlier for the same price then do that but 1730 is the start point to work backwards from – maybe even 1740 if the same face design is present.

Kingston Avery made tower clocks as well as grandfathers and were clearly a skilled bunch as you can see from the beautiful quality of the face engraving. Its a good distance from London and its influence but the dial maintains its rigid four spandrel chapter ring layout. Theres engraving on the outer of the face which is a little clumsy but more than forgiveable.

The inner circle is nicely engraved with a soft touch and varying stroke depth on the serifs of the letter which you can imagine was quite a skill. There were no second chances doing that job and so thats why I say that the quality is forgiveable.

Engraving was a really technically hard artisan discipline and the clocks were sold with the mistakes visible. Like diamonds we do not expect flawless quality in everything.

Its also very personal once you own the clock and you regard the errors as a fingerprint rather than a blemish. The correction is often entertaining and tells its own story. When you find some of the errors on the face and realise the gut churning that followed the slip of the engravers tool,you cannot help smiling if not sniggering to yourself. Its worth going to the auction viewings just for that.

For some reason its always the straight lines that overshoot as opposed to any mistakes in the filigree work. Some of them are epic and only a stroke away from “start again” really. A common one is where the engraver just started off in the wrong direction on the cut. Half way down you see him realise its not going to meet up with the V point of the 5 (Roman numeral five [V]), and a new line is started mid-bar!.

Having said this, these engraving errors should not be mistaken for exaggeration of a character stroke which is not that un-common on clocks produced away from the city. A typical example of this might be a long thin bar on an arabic 5 or 4.

The clock pictured has also got the moon dial automata which is a bonus. Dont expect this at the price point you are trying to hit – you will find a price hike in the clocks with moving components on the face other than the hands. Instead you might find a slivered engraved disc with an eagle or similar. This is usually surrounded by two sea serpent spandrels whith cherub corner spandrels. If either of those are different check the back of the clock plate for old spandrel fixing holes that show a change has been made. Clocks were often cannibalised by repairers and makers as spandrels styles changed in line with fashion every few years. Its not a disaster if the spandrels match but you want originals really. I wouldnt buy a clock with replacement spandrel holes. Its just not original enough for me but you dont have to care. It doesn’t matter in any other context than resale value.

Grandfather clock face layout and design evolved over a period of 200 years which give or take was 1660 to 1860. Clocks from about 1730 show this evolution at its most interesting point, and for me, are the best buys as you can get a good price and history a’plenty.

Clocks from between 1700 and 1730 show all the old features of earlier manufacturing face decoration from which things simplified as two handed marking was accepted as the norm.

Having said that from this point onwards, apart from the inner chapter ring marking, nothing was really added in terms of design apart from automata in its various forms (moon dial, rocking ship, etc.). From hereon face design really sort of simplified and reduced. Even silvering started to lose its dominance as the accepted chapter ring finish and good quality entirely brass coloured clock faces were common Towards the 19th century.

So, the main feature to look for on any clock you are likely to find at a local auction are the one handed face markings along side our traditional two handed format. The enigma of reading two hands at once was to0 much for the the average Baldrick between 1700 and 1730 or so. After that they got it and the markings dissapear from clocks made thereon. This strongly indicates a clock made in the period you are looking for i.e. early 18th century.

The key decorative features are the graduations on the inner of the chapter ring and the fleur-de-lys although you must have both to be confident your looking at something pre-1730. The fluer-de-lys is one feature that persists even today on modern clock dials and I do wonder sometimes if the people who put them there really know why they are doing it (they are half quarter hour markers).

The inner chapter ring markings I am referring to are the ones that look like the mirror of the minute markers on the outer chapter ring, but if you count them you will find there are 4 and not 5 “minutes”. This is because they are not minute markers, they are quarter hour markers meaning that you can just look at the hour hand to read the time without needing to even understand what the minute hand is for. Literacy levels were low in 1700 and up until then clocks only had one hand to keep it simple.

There is one other thing. If the maker at the bottom is Fecit Londini or some thing similar, this is not the maker. Its Latin for “created in London” and only appears on rare old clocks. If you find a clock with this written on it and its going cheap I have some instructions for you….

1. Get “Braintree Clock Repairs” written on the receipt.

2. Phone me we can arrange to meet me in a remote location on a dark night with no witnesses. Dont tell anyone where you are going.

Everything will be fine and you will be heard of again. Oh and bring the receipt and the clock with you. For evaluation. I will bring a shovel…… for evaluation purposes.

Assuming you haven’t found a Tompion and are just about to phone me you will probably need to consider the case of the clock now you have roughtly dated the face. The first thing to establish is if the case original to the clock.

To check out the case and see if it is original to the clock take off the head by pulling it forward. Ask a porter at the auction house to do this – they will be more than happy to do so. It slides forward like a drawer and has no rear if you just want to have a quick peek with out asking. Having said this I’ve taken many a grandfather clock head in the head as they tend to be a bit wobbly. Also be aware that the door swings open on the front so if you don’t want to be wearing the clock glass frame like a medieval torture instrument then maybe get some help from the auction porters!.

At any rate, there should be no modification to the original movement mounting plank and support. This is really important so pay attention to the next few paragraphs as this is where you might score or lose on your purchase.

The clock was put together by a cabinet maker, not a bodger, so if there is any bad joinery or bits that just look like theyve been cut to fit badly its almost certainly a “close but not quite ideal” transplant from another clock case. Thats fine and not a problem but dont pay for a match when your buying a marriage!. Very true. Im not bitter. Twice.

So look closely, it should look perfect and be joined to the rest of the case consistent with original production. Supports from the main body should run from this section though the main structural body of the clock and LOOK like they are well thought out and originally installed. The joinery methods should be consistent. Look carefully at the base plank on which the movement sits. Is it the same age and colour as the supports? Is the width right? Does the face line up parallel with the body of the clock?.

If these things are not right then the case is more than likely new to the clock.

Think about it…if you had to make a plank to sit on two strutts and it was the finishing job of something that cost the same as a car… would you mess it up and leave it looky scrappy?. No. You would get it exactly right.

Thats what you are looking for. Think like the person who built it. He trained in a guild by candlelight and got stabbed with quill pens in the back of the head by his boss if he got it wrong. Is what you are looking at, the product of that level of motivation?. Its not complicated to work out in most cases.

Swaping old heads into younger cases has been common practice for years and case design is generally so conservative that stylistically its actually hard to find a head that wont match a case from an aesthetic perspective providing its the right size. They frequently ARE the right size because the sizing of the heads was controlled by the guilds.  The whole movement and face assemblies therefor lent and lend themselves to subsequent transplanting. It really is like all the bottle tops mixed up on the bottles out there in marketplace.

What I am saying is that if you do get an original match you will certainly be paying a large premium for it so be certain that you are getting what you pay for.

In all honesty the best idea, and what I have done, is to buy what you like the look of and pay for a marriage not a match. Its better value and your less likely to buy badly.

My Geaorgian brass face is in a Victorian case that was chosen to fit its alcove location. I like the case and I like the clock and I consider them two different good things.

I want a Tompion in walnut but so what.

The point is I suppose that everyone makes a great fuss about “marriages” of clock and case and really, is so common now that its the norm.

Clocks older than 1730

The number one indicator for an early clock is face size. They started at 8″ or so in 1659 and then went up and inch a decade until 12″ became the standard London dial face size forever pretty much in 1700. So thats and inch a decade starting at 8″ in 1660 and evening out to the standard 12″ in 1700.

13” and 14″ clocks tend to be enamel white faces and later on – say 1780 to 1860. The enamelling process came in around the middle of the last half of the 18th century so if your is a white face then is later than 1770. In my experience 1 out of 3 or 4 clocks is a brass face with 1 in 20 being 1730 or earlier.

Whats the top of the Market in Grandfather clocks?

Well, all the kudos clocks are early (1680-1720…..) brass face from a clock snobbery point of view – the high end Tompions and suchlike can be worth millions. The white faces never get into that league although a £20k clock is not out of the question by any means – its just never a stellar value.

I do all blog work on the fly for the most part so I try and be as accurate as I can but its all from memory so.. take it at face value on that basis.

Good luck and well done on getting to the end of this epic article. I really stuck a lot of time and thought into this and had to write it over two evenings as I got more and more into it and thought of all the really important basics I could give you.

So get out there and have some fun looking at clocks and going to auctions. You will see some interesting things, learn some history (or at keast put what you know into context), and in all probability you will end up going to auctions instead of antiques centres from that point onwards.

A client (Martine – Hi Martine!) recently got a “not working” white face at auction from about 1780. She bought it on a gamble and then called me in to fix it. We got the thing running and after a bit of a face restoration and some mechanical work and a service the end bill came in at £1200 for the whole thing. Its a fantastically good price when you consider it but it was a huge risk on her part. The point is if the thing had been any more worn than it was, it could well have been much more for repairs and made the whole thing and economic farce. Dont trust your luck – BUY A WORKING CLOCK!.

This article has taken me absolutely ages so I hope you really get something out of it. Its all done from memory so there might be the odd mistake but its all good advice you are unlikely to get anywhere else – I have no agenda – I just want to help you.

Also a quick thank you to Brian Loomes whos books first provided me with a lot of the seminal information in this article over the years – he’s a grandfather clock god.

Lastly I would like to thank John. John comes into the antiques centre and proceeds to lambast me me every spelling mistake and all the general erata on the articles I publish.  I await your verdict John…bring biscuits by the way, Ive run out.