Turn Back the Clocks

A generation or two after America split from Britain, Americans got nostalgic. “English  country house” décor became the rage, and, for wealthy Americans, that meant a “longcase” clock. They were also called “tallcases” until a popular 1870s song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” gave them their current colloquial name.

On Nov. 18, two 19th-century grandfather clocks will go on sale at Doyle New York as part of its American furniture and decorative arts auction. The first one (lot 157), which is inlaid mahogany, has contrasting veneers, a spinning dial featuring phases of the moon and carved scrolls at its crown. According to David A. Gallager, senior vice president and director of American furniture and 20th-century art at Doyle, it’s an example of “high-style design” and was probably made in New Jersey or Delaware. The pre-sale estimate is $8,000 to $10,000. The auction’s lot 221 clock is simpler, with “nice mahogany veneers and a repainted face,” said Mr. Gallager. Suggested bids for it start at $2,000. One big difference: the cheaper one is taller, and thus a harder fit in New York homes, then and now. Some buyers sought “mid-Atlantic proportions–less than 8 feet tall,” Mr. Gallager said.

Weighted-pendulum clocks were invented in the 16th century, though warring histories credit their breakthroughs to either the Dutch or the British. (Both sides agree the pendulum design was originally Galileo’s.) Pricier versions had more carving on the top, called the crown or bonnet. On the most elaborate ones, a dial showed the phases of the moon, a useful feature in an agrarian society that depended on moonlight to guide coach rides and time evening harvests. Chimes and chime sequences, by and large, came later, in the 20th century.

As with an artwork, the price increases for a grandfather, or tallcase, clock, depending on who made it and who owned it. The most expensive of these clocks ever sold at auction is in the collection of the Winterthur Museum in Winterthur, Del. (the former E.I. du Pont Family estate). In 2004, the museum paid $1.68 million at Sotheby’s for an elaborate circa-1740 clock by Philadelphia craftsman Peter Stretch.