Thursday 26 April 2018

Why French time is cheap

French gilt clock coming up for sale at Adam's
French gilt clock coming up for sale at Adam's

"YOU'RE in the soup," said Daisy from Downton Abbey. "I wouldn't be in her bad books for a gold clock." Daisy is a kitchen maid in the ITV period drama and her meaning is pretty clear - not even a fancy time piece could persuade her to swap places with another out-of-favour servant.

The phrase came up again in the Liverpool News' 2014 list of "Scouse Nan sayings". A Liverpudlian grandmother, apparently, "wouldn't do it for a big clock." I've also met people who "wouldn't do it for a French clock". The phrase refers to the tradition of a retirement gift. Large firms used to present their employees with a big clock (frequently both French and gilded) in recognition of a lifetime's service. It was an expensive prestigious object, something that most people couldn't afford to buy for themselves.

How times have changed! In November 2014, a French gold mantel clock went up for auction at Adam's Sunday Interiors auction with a guide price of €400 to €600. Nobody wanted it. A few months later we saw it again, this time at the Adam's Attic auction with a guide price of €200 to €300. Once again, there were no takers. The clock was made in the 19th century, 40cm wide, with a small dial on an elaborate podium and a gilded lady sitting on a chair beside it. Possibly the design is a bit too ornate for contemporary taste.

Gilt clocks were made in great quantity in 19th-century France and not all of these are good quality. This is something to bear in mind when perusing car boot sales - just because it's old and gold does not make it collectible. Even if you're not an expert, it's not that difficult to see the difference between a €200 clock and a €2,000 one. The differences in craftsmanship and design are obvious. Damaged mounts reduce the value of a clock, as do scratches and chips.

For most collectors, having a clock that tells the time and chimes the hours is part of its charm. A clock that doesn't work is unlikely to be worth much at all. This is one of the risks when buying a clock at auction. Clocks are sophisticated machines and the auctioneer is unlikely to know much about their inners.

In terms of style, you'll often see the word "ormolu" used to describe a gilt clock. This refers to a historic gilding technique that used mercury to apply gold to a bronze object. It was a dangerous process - mercury being what it is - and a gilder's life was short. Ormolu clocks have been dubbed "death clocks", possibly by dealers who think that a bit of sensationalism might up the price.

Ormolu clocks can also be pretty deadly value and they come in all shapes and sizes. Last November, a 19th-century French lyre-shape mantel clock sold for €220 at the Adams Sunday Interiors auction. A lyre clock is shaped like the musical instrument of the same name, with the dial mimicking the belly of the instrument while the gridiron pendulum forms its "strings". Other clocks were made to resemble neo-Classical buildings, with a portico supported on columns and the dial slung between them.

"The French clock makers were a very flamboyant lot with a complete knack of understanding that there has to be one for everyone in the audience," says Kevin Chellar of Timepiece Antique Clocks ( Based on Dublin's Patrick Street, he is a trained horologist with the skills to mend and restore clocks. Up until the 19th century, he explains, clocks were large and only the very wealthy could afford them. The mechanisation of the industry was pioneered by a French watchmaker called Frederic Japy at the end of the 18th century. By 1830, the French had dominated the world export market for smaller and relatively affordable clocks. Mantel clocks, by the way, are of size that would fit above the fireplace.

Ireland did also have a thriving clock-making scene, but that's another story. Nineteenth-century mantle clocks were almost all imported from France and would have been available in Dublin through expensive jewellers.

At the upper end of the spectrum, a "good" early 19th-century French ormolu mantel clock sold for £2,690 (€3,648) at Bonham's Fine Clocks auction last June. It was a fun piece with golden figures of a classical lady and a winged boy having a chat on the top of the dial. There's also a French gilt clock coming up in Adam's Sunday Interiors auction in Dublin next month (guide price €1,000 to €1,500). It's in an over-the-top Rococo style with gold acanthus leaves.

You will pay more to buy a clock from a dealer than at auction. "When we sell a clock we've already done all the repairs and we'll stand over our work," says Chellar, who has a range of 19th-century French mantel clocks, all in full working order, for between €1,950 and €3,750 each. There's no reason that a well-maintained clock can't run for centuries, but it needs to be oiled and serviced regularly. You can find more information about care and repair of clocks on

In the salerooms

Adam's first Sunday Interior auction of the year will take place on March 8 at 11am at their Dublin auction rooms with 450 lots ranging from furniture, paintings and prints, to rugs, silver, jewellery, porcelain, and wine. Individual lots are estimated between €50 and €16,000.

Highlights include Lot 78, an Irish George III four-branch centrepiece epergne (that's a centrepiece dating from the days when table were measured in acres). It was made in Dublin in 1770 by Charles Mullen and is estimated to sell between €12,000 and €16,000.

Expect to see some nice furniture, including a pair of William IV mahogany-framed side chairs(€2,000 to €3,000).

There is also a George III walnut secrétaire chest-on-chest (a chest of drawers that opens out into a desk) estimated between €5,000 and €7,000, and a set of 10 grained rosewood dining chairs by JP Lynch of Limerick (€4,000 to €6,000).

A large "fashion lady doll" (€300 to €500) by Cuno & Otto Dressel, a German factory in operation between 1789 and 1942, is one of the less scary. Viewing is on Thursday 5 and Friday March 6 from 9.30am to 5.00pm, and on Saturday March 7 from 11am to 5pm.


A portrait of Anne Caulfield, Countess of Charlemont and her son James by Sir Thomas Lawrence, sold at Sotheby's of New York on January 29 for $62,500 (€55,216). The painting, which dates from around 1805, originally included the figure of Francis William, 2nd Earl of Charlemont, former member of the Irish Parliament.

The original painting showed the husband gazing tenderly down at his young family and was exhibited in Dublin's Royal Hibernian Academy in 1834. Sometime after this, the young countess and her child were cut from the portrait.

By the 1960s, they had moved to New York, where they changed hands several times. The fragment of the portrait that shows her husband is still in the National Gallery of Ireland.


If you plan on calling someone out, first name your friends, then put in a bid for a pair of percussion cap duelling pistols and accessories, on sale at Sheppard's auction of Paradigms and the Unexpected, Durrow, on Tuesday 3 to Thursday March 5.

The guide price for the firearms is €15,000 to €25,000. The unexpected also includes a pair of aesthetic revival walnut and brass mounted stools (€2,500 to €3,500).

The stools are the work of Jas Shoolbred & Co, who made furniture in London's Tottenham Court Road between the 1860s and the 1920s. There is also a curly legged oyster wood centre table of strong character dating from the 18th-century (€2,200 to €2,800) and an early 18th-century violin attributed to the Venetian Goffriller School (€4,000 to €6,000). Paintings include a 17th-century oil on canvas portrait of Elizabeth, Countess of Meath, which is accompanied by an engraving by Paul Mignard (1639-1691) showing a reverse image of the painting (guide price €3,000 to €5,000).

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