5 Minute Guide to Buying a School Clock
By Peter Hayes.
Why we’ve written this guide
‘School clocks’ have recently become very popular and it is easy to see why. They represent an iconic design that has changed very little in almost 200 years. They look great in any type of interior; City or Country; Contemporary or Period. However, it is easy to be confused when you are looking to buy one. Even in the same antique shop you can see clocks which look very similar but vary in price from less than £200 to more than £3,500!
We wanted to explain as simply as possible why prices vary so much and how customers can ensure they make a good purchase and avoid making expensive mistakes.
Before we get started, let’s get the terminology correct. All the round-dial wall clocks that were commonly found in public places such as schools, factories, banks and railway stations are correctly called English Dial Clocks (EDCs).
So why do values vary so much?
Reason 1 - Rarity
EDCs have been made for such a long time to the same basic design. They were first made around 1810 in small quantities by skilled craftsmen. By 1960 when production ended, they were mass produced in large factories. Because fewer early clocks were made and even fewer have survived, the earlier the clock, the more valuable it is.
Reason 2 - What’s behind the dial?
Some customers rightly don’t care about what they can’t see, but a basic understanding is important. Between £300 and £400 you can expect to buy a clock which was made as cheaply as possible from stamped-out ‘skeletonised’ components made later than 1920 in England or America.
Between £400 and £1,000 you can expect an English or German made movement with solid machined brass plates. These are likely to date from between 1890 and 1950.Once you are beyond £1000, you should expect a much larger and heavier fusee movement. The fusee is an additional cone shaped component added to keep the clock equally accurate whether it is fully wound or almost unwound. They are also impossible to over-wind.
Reason 3 - Originality
If your newly acquired antique clock has had all of its major components recently replaced then it isn’t really an antique! Equally though, no one wants to buy a dirty clock or one with broken components. Understanding which components are original is difficult so ensure you buy from a dealer who (a) knows how to spot replacements and (b) is honest enough to tell you.
Reason 4 - Condition
Bringing these clocks back to life is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. It is not easy for a novice to know if any claimed work has actually been done. Overhauling a movement will cost between £175-£275. Also, don’t assume that it will be easy or cheap to restore those chips on the dial that someone has kindly disguised with Tip-Ex. Good dial painters might have a 6 month lead-time and charge £150+ to restore a dial.
Reason 5 - ‘Looking Good’
The final value driver is more subjective as it concerns aesthetics. Some clocks are simply better looking than others. Convex dials and glasses, a thin mahogany surround with a cast bezel and a well ‘signed’ dial are the holy grail. In this category we also consider size. Most EDCs have 12" dials and suit the majority of homes. 10" and 8" dials are much rarer so are more expensive. Clocks with 14" dials used to be difficult to sell but are now highly sought after for loft type apartments and for those wanting their clock to make a real impact.
Summary. We’ve described these 5 factors individually, but they have a cumulative (multiplying) effect on value; for example an attractive, early (c1830), 10” clock with a craftsman made fusee movement in good original condition is worth a small fortune!
If your budget is limited, remember an ‘honest’ and original clock with a modest movement will always give much more pleasure (and will be a better investment) than a ‘wrong’ one with a fancy movement or name.
Now that you know what makes one clock more valuable than another, here are a few more tricks to look-out for to avoid making an expensive mistake.
Reproductions. When any antique increases in value, it is not long before reproductions appear on the market. EDCs are no exception. There are currently many EDCs on sale that were made ‘yesterday’ in either China or India. Like fake Rolex watches, many of the copies are very convincing to the untrained eye. Be careful also of ‘Smiths’ clocks, as many foreign clocks are ‘improved’ by having ‘Smiths’ replacement dials fitted.
Railway Clocks. Many EDCs were bought by the pre-nationalised railway companies and
genuine ones are very sought after and very expensive. Most (95%+) examples we see masquerading as railway clocks have faked ‘signatures’, plaques and numbering. There are specialist books available to help you avoid this particular trap.
Clocks by famous or local makers. The best dial restorers won’t change or add information in order to make the clock easier to sell, but there are others who will. If we have a dial restored, we give a photograph of the un-restored dial to the customer. In other circumstances we give our customers an honest (and written) assessment as to how genuine we feel the ‘signature’ is.
Making any of these mistakes can leave a disappointed owner with a large loss. Do try and meet the dealer and assess how knowledgeable and honest they seem. Always ask for a written receipt which fully describes the clock to your satisfaction (Age, originality, country of origin, condition, warranty etc).
Taking the plunge!
Our prices in the shop include a long warranty, local delivery, fixing and setting-up. We prefer to sell this way as most customers value the service and reassurance. If you want to buy a clock at a ‘trade’ price then do ask for a special deal - although the clock is then ‘sold as seen’ without the warranty or other services.
For customers who live too far away, we can supply written instructions and offer a telephone ‘help’ service. Once your clock is properly set-up, it will require winding just once a week.
Owning an antique clock can be very involving. A fellow dealer once described the experience ‘as having someone nice coming to live with you’.
As well as buying something that will really enhance your home, you are also taking temporary custody of a piece of history.
Values have risen sharply in the last few years, meaning that the best examples are no longer cheap. However, if you only take one thing away from reading this leaflet, please remember that you are buying something that will give good service and immense pleasure for the rest of your life, and in good time, be passed to your descendants. Therefore invest in the best one you can afford and buy it from someone you like and trust.
Our lives today are full of mass produced objects which provide great service without any involvement or even thought from us. Antique clocks do not fall into this category and they are all the better for providing that much needed contrast!
Warning: The author can trace his decision to leave a lucrative career in industry to sell antiques all the way back to the purchase of his first English Dial Clock!