5 Minute Guide to buying a Grandfather Clock
By Peter Hayes
Why we’ve written this guide
‘Grandfather’ clocks (known more correctly as ‘Longcase clocks’ and to our American friends as ’Tallcase clocks’) have always been popular and seem to have a special place in many peoples’ hearts. It is probably due to their relaxed ‘beat’ (one beat per second) and that some rooms and hallways seem incomplete without one.
The British have been making longcases for more than 350 years, but the majority you’ll come across today date from the mid 18th C to the mid 19th C (1750 to 1850).
Many customers who reach the point in life where they have the
home and the funds to finally acquire a longcase are nervous and confused at
the huge choice available, often with widely varying prices. We wanted to explain as simply as possible
why prices vary so much and how customers can ensure they make an informed
purchase and avoid making expensive mistakes.
Whilst we’ll try to impart as much knowledge as possible, it is a very large and complex field, so do ensure you are dealing with someone of knowledge and repute.
So why do values vary so much?
- Originality of the major components
Most of the clocks we are considering here are between 150 and 250 years old. In those long lifetimes, some of the clocks’ original components (case, movement & dial) may have been replaced (swapped) with components from other clocks. These clocks are referred to as ‘marriages’; meaning they are a marriage of parts from different clocks. Whilst a ‘married clock’ can still look great and give lots of pleasure, you should note that they have significantly less value than those that have retained their original components - so it is essential you know what you are looking at.
Some of these marriages came about along time ago for very legitimate reasons but do be aware there is a healthy trade in these components on sites such as E-bay where components are bought separately with the goal of passing off the resulting clocks as ‘original’. Many components initially became separated during house burglaries so it is an unsavoury part of the trade.
Being able to spot a ‘marriage’ takes considerable knowledge and experience, so ensure the person you are buying from has these skills and is trustworthy.
Original weights and pendulum are important too, but much less so than the dial, movement and case.
Clocks by some particular clockmakers achieve prices many times higher than very similar clocks by lesser-known clockmakers. This effect can carry over to the sons and apprentices of the most famous makers. There is not time here to discuss the “who’s and why’s”, save to understand that the phenomena exists.
Generally speaking, the older the clock is, the more valuable it is likely to be. Of course there are exceptions but in the earlier years, fewer clocks were made and even fewer have survived, adding to their rarity.
clocks that run for a month or more between winding, and ‘automaton’ clocks
where the dial has moving figures, are rare and command premium prices (but be
careful, most automaton features have been added later to deceive).
I did consider listing this factor above ‘originality’ but decided that a married but rare and very old clock by a famous maker isn’t really any of those things at all.
The condition of the case, movement & dial is important for two reasons. Firstly, if the components have been maintained in excellent condition all of their life, then that adds a premium to the value. Secondly, and most likely, if the components require(d) restoration after such a long life, the costs associated with such work can very quickly escalate (and the required skills are not easy to find). So if you are comparing clocks in very different condition, don’t underestimate the cost and difficulty of the restoration work.
Some clocks are simply better looking than others and some are just too tall to fit in most houses, so both factors impact value. Attractiveness is obviously subjective, but there is enough agreement between prospective customers to drive-up the value of pretty, generally slimmer clocks and drive down the value of extremely tall, heavy and wide clocks. Many of these factors are of course dictated by the region and date of production, so you if you are looking for a clock contemporary to your 1840’s house in Greater Manchester, it is no use looking for a small, slim clock, as all such clocks are large and heavy in appearance.
This factor has been listed last, as I believe it to have the least impact on value, although there are circumstances and times when the market says otherwise. Virtually all longcase clocks were designed to be wound either daily (called “30-hours”) or weekly (known as “8-days”). Clocks of 8-day duration became more common in time but there are plenty of exceptions to disprove any rule, although it is safe to say that 8-day clocks carry a premium over similar 30-hour versions. However, if you are looking for an early, small, ‘cottage’ type clock, almost all are ‘30-hours’.
My belief is that if you are looking for convenience, you will probably buy a modern, radio controlled solar powered clock, and that the daily 15 second ‘chore’ to wind your 30-hour clock won’t be a handicap to those likely to be considering an antique clock. You’ll consider the ‘chore’ to actually be a time to appreciate and check all is well with your new houseguest.
Of all the different types of clocks, buying a longcase presents the most pitfalls you have to hope to avoid. Spotting a marriage for example requires knowledge of how the design of cases & dials evolved over a long period. The cost of restoring a movement can range from just £300 to more than £2000 if there is significant wear and some minor parts are missing.
Most experienced dealers have the required knowledge only because they have already made the very same mistakes you are trying to avoid. The good dealers pay the best prices to acquire the best clocks and then do the expensive restoration work properly. This is really one area where John Ruskin famous quote still applies today:
“It is unwise to pay too much, but it is worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money - that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the things it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot... it cannot be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder it is well to add something for the risk you run; and if you do that you will have enough to pay for the something better. There is hardly anything in the world that some men cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only, are this man’s lawful prey”.
Taking the plunge
Paying a lot doesn’t guarantee you won’t make a mistake but much of Ruskin’s quote does apply. You can improve your chances by insisting on a very detailed receipt that fully describes the clock to your satisfaction (Age, originality, condition, warranty etc).
Finally, if you only take one thing away from reading this
leaflet, please remember that you are buying something that should 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 that 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!