Some collectors wind up with clocks


December 27, 1992|By Lita Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writer

Most of us give no more than a moment's notice to clocks, except at midnight on New Year's Eve, when one year ticks by and another begins.

Horologists, on the other hand, save time for a hobby: They collect, study, repair and sometimes sell clocks. Members of this little-known tribe of antiquarians spend virtually every minute obsessing over humankind's slow progress to split-second accuracy and get all wound up over the arcane achievements of centuries of master clockmakers. While most folks are popping champagne corks on December 31, horologists, no doubt, are quietly biding their time, hoping the rest of us will come to the sobering realization that clocks are works of art.

Horologist Francis X. "Frank" Vitale Jr., an executive with Engelhard Corp. in Iselin, N.J., has been collecting clocks passionately with his wife, Linda, for over 20 years. His first purchase was a $90 American mantel clock, which cost him another $25 to repair, only to discover it was worth just $60 in working order. "At that point I decided if I was going to collect clocks I'd better do my homework," Mr. Vitale recalls.

About six years ago the Vitales realized that they had over 300 clocks and decided it was time to refine their collection and specialize. They became private dealers and began selling their American clocks and trading others to focus on English and French examples until they narrowed their holdings to about 80


Famous hands

This May they took the next step, opening Vitale & Vitale, a gallery-museum in the resort town of Spring Lake, N.J., in a glitzy new neoclassical building the local gentry insists resembles a fancy funeral parlor. "We've traveled the world and can honestly say there exists no counterpart to our gallery," Frank Vitale says. Their goal is to make Thomas Tompion (1639-1713), the father of English clockmaking, and Abraham-Louis Breuget (1747-1823), the most ingenious of the French clock- and watchmakers, "as well-known as Michelangelo and Rembrandt."

Although prices for the finest clocks with elaborate brass dials in magnificent, tall carved wooden cases or jewel-encrusted and richly enameled table models lag well behind the prices paid for the greatest paintings, they've been creeping up. An English silver-mounted ebony bracket clock made by Tompion in 1708 )) for England's Queen Anne sold for $1,012,440 at Christie's London auction house about a year ago. The Vitales have a small gilt bronze Breuget carriage clock owned by the Queen of Spain in 1831; it's valued at $235,000.

Like paintings, clocks generally are signed by their artists: the clockmakers who were simultaneously physicists, astronomers and mathematicians; the case-makers; enamelers or painters who decorated the dial; goldsmiths who added engraving; and "bronziers" who made gilt mounts.

Despite the digital and quartz revolutions, little has changed when it comes to caring for vintage clocks. Not only do professional clock winders still journey from door to door in some communities, but clock repairers report a booming business.

"Buying a clock is like buying a vintage car; you may be attracted by its style, but it requires some maintenance," warns Jonathan Snellenburg, the expert in charge of clocks, watches and scientific instruments at Christie's in New York, the only auctioneer with a full-time clock specialist who knows why and how clocks work.

Long history

Several hundred years of clock history passed before clocks were very reliable; until the late 17th century, they didn't keep good time. The long case was a big improvement, invented to accommodate pendulums. The 1660s to about 1710 was

the golden age of long-case clocks, and by the 19th century they were so old-fashioned they were dubbed "grandfather's clock," a name that stuck.

"These clocks are driven by weights which needed to be hung off the floor so the clock would run for a week, and a long case was needed so their 3-foot-long pendulums could swing once a second providing accuracy," Mr. Snellenburg explains.

Clocks large and small became important and coveted objects in the 18th century. England's King George III collected them. So did France's Queen Marie Antoinette, who left nearly 40 fancy clocks by master craftsman Robert Robin in her apartments when it was time for her to face the guillotine.

In 18th-century American homes, "clocks were the most expensive piece of furniture, but rarely today are they the top lots at Americana auctions," observes John Dulaney, a dealer in West Townsend, Mass., who stocks over 300 clocks. He has about 100 American tall-case clocks, including half a dozen by the legendary Simon Willard of Roxbury, Mass., priced $50,000 and up. Like many dealers, Mr. Dulaney frequently sells for $100 to $400 clocks mass-produced during the late 19th century by Connecticut factories such as Seth Thomas, Waterbury and Ansonia.

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