Is that Clock an Antique? What You Need to Know about Antique Mechanical Clocks (#017)

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Antique ClockBuyer be-aware.

I was “antiquing” in New Jersey this weekend searching for old treasures in antique shops.  With my radar fine tuned to spot-out clocks and watches, I had a great time exploring and discovering.

Every time during these antiquing treks, I will inevitably find items that are described as “antiques.” But, by my standard today I would not identify much of what I found as “antiques.”

When I was new to collecting this issue was confusing, and at times frustrating to find out that the clock I bought was not an “antique” when I was told it was.  At the time, “antique” was one of my primary search criteria for buying.  Today it is not.

As a collector, investor – or if you’re a little of both – understanding this term, “antique,” and its usage will definitely help to save you time, money, confusion and possibly bad experiences.

The first thing you need to know is that there are a diversity of points-of-view about what an antique is and is not. Each view is different. And, each view may be correct, for their respective purposes. Therefore, whether your clock is an antique depends on who you ask.

Why do you need to understand this term?  Because it’s loaded with significance, point-of-reference, and is the most often used (and misused) term to distinguish merchandise found in antique stores, markets, with dealers, and on eBay, Craig’s List, and other on-line auction sites.

Know also that there are a few unscrupulous points-of-view driven more by making a sale than ensuring you understand what you’re buying.  Indeed, buyer beware. But, even better: buyer be-aware.

For this reason, you should understand the diversity of views and form your own opinion, because your point-of-view is the most important – if – you’re equipped or experienced to understand why.  The journey to gain experience and form your understanding is part of the fun!

Remember, you don’t have to agree or disagree with terms sellers use to describe their merchandise.  Enjoy your experience based on your own opinion and conclusions. Strive to be an informed buyer. If not, buy from reputable or thoughtful sellers who know their merchandise.

It is true: knowledge is power, and being a knowledgable collector or investor earns you firm ground to better enjoy the experience. Understanding terms is important.

Although this article is focused on usage of the term “antique,” there are other commonly found terms you should also be knowledgable about, such as: rare, vintage, semi-antique, collectible, one-of-a-kind, antique-like, restored, preserved, of-the-period, and replica.  Always ask the seller questions to clarify their merchandise.

The right amount of knowledge will always boost your satisfaction in any endeavor by helping you:

1. Make sense of the world.  Labels and descriptions, used to describe any collectible, are vitally important to help you make sense of what you’re looking at.

2. Navigate the open sea of objects and information.  The collectible world is extremely saturated with things to look at.  For example, a search on EBay today using “clock” as the condition will give you over 334,000 results. Using “antique clock” will get you over 12,000 results. Knowing what terms and criteria to use to narrow down your searches will save you time.

3. Make informed decisions.  The best purchase is an informed purchase.  But, it’s unlikely you’ll have good enough knowledge of all varieties and aspects of the item(s) your looking for.  Therefore, labels, descriptions and markings become your clues to help support your decision process.  Even bad or inaccurate descriptions can serve useful by honing your experience and the questions you need to ask. What you’re trying to minimize is the risk of buying something that is far from your expectations.

4. Spot wrong, misleading or dishonest descriptions and transactions.  Most sellers, and buyers, of collectibles are honest and do their best to accurately describe what they’re selling.  When they don’t know, they will or should tell you they don’t know.  But there are those that purposely misrepresent or mislead to make a sale.  These are the unscrupulous exception. This also applies to unscrupulous buyers misleading unknowing sellers to make a buy.

These four points provide reasons to learn as much as you can.  The best way to learn is by getting out treasure hunting – in antique shops, garage sales, markets, auctions and online sales.

A great book that helped me understand the psychology and “art” of the honed experience is Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinkingby Malcom Galdwell.  He uses a great example where the J. Paul Getty Museum purchased a statute believed to be from the sixth century BC.  They brought in scientists to run tests to confirm it’s age, which they did.  However, it was a fake pointed out by a historian, an expert on sculptures, and the museum director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Each one only had to take one glance at the statue to know it was a fake.  Why were they certain? They had intimate knowledge and experience with the authentic. 

Therefore, start honing your understand and experience by learning important terms used in the collecting world.  I believe the first one to start with, and arguably the most important, is “antique.”

This is what you need to know:

1. Understand what “antique” does not mean.  It does not mean the item is:

– worth more,
– of better quality or construction,
– collectable, or
– worth your attention

It’s an “Antique” therefore, it’s “old” and it must be “worth” something!  That’s what I though when I first began collecting.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Your primary reason to purchase an item should never be just because an item is an antique.

2.  Understand that there is no universally accepted standard to define what is an antique.  There are no universally agreed upon definitions, criteria or governance.  However, there are some discrete or traditional perspectives that are worth considering:

Definitions.  Webster Online: Items existing since or belonging to earlier times. Google: A collectible object such as a piece of furniture or work of art that has a high value because of its considerable age. Wikipedia: an old collectable item.

– Antiquities.  These are items from the ancient past.  There is no agreement as to the period, but many refer to antiquities as items that precede the middle ages – from BC to about the 14th century.  In horology, it is extremely doubtful you’ll ever run across a true item of antiquity.  An example may be water clockssundials, candle clocks, or hourglasses. The oldest existing example of a mechanical clock is the Salisbury Cathedral Clock in England (ca 1386).

– Old World View. Antiques are items from about the 15th through 18th centuries.  In Europe and Asia, it is common to come across items in antique markets that are several hundred years old.

– Modern Idealistic View.  Antiques are items that are at least 100 years (100-400).  Many purists will further extend the criteria date for “true” antiques to pre-1830s, before the mass production revolution set in.  Most accept the criteria date to be elastic moving forward each year capturing items that are at least 100 years old.

– Commercial View.  Antiques are items that are old enough to be marginally acceptable to sell in a commerical antique venue.  This is an extremely soft standard, which will lead you to find contemporary and vintage (30-75 yrs) items described as antiques.  This is the point-of-view that I do not agree with, and collectors need to be cautious of.Vintage Clock

– U.S. Customs Law (100 yrs). In 1930, the U.S. Customs office helped this controversy by establishing a standard for antiques toward collecting import duties (Tariff Act of 1930).  Antiques were considered objects made before 1830.  In 1966, the standard was further updated to set the new standard as objects older than 100 years.  In 1993, the standard was again updated to add that the object must be 50% of its original character, considering restorations and modifications.

Again, know that the word “Antique” is perhaps the most widely misused or misunderstood term in all of the collecting world.  It’s not uncommon to enter an Antique store and not find any “true” antiques.  It’s also normal to query ebay for antique clocks to find a long list of “antique” clocks that were created after you were born.

Remember, everyone aligns differently with these views. Your motivations and expectations should determine how you use these views.  Read post #006 (8 Essentials you need to know about collecting clocks) on motivations for collecting clocks.

What is important is that your informed point-of-view should lead you to better enjoy the amazing fun clock collecting can be by helping you with the four previous points!

What do you think? What is your point-of-view?  Let us know by leaving a comment.

Get informed, Be informed and happy Clockventure!

Don’t forget to help support by Subscribing to our email list to receive free updates when new material is posted.  Thanks immensely!

G. Palos

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2 Responses to Is that Clock an Antique? What You Need to Know about Antique Mechanical Clocks (#017)

  1. sherry carter September 13, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    I have an old hunter style cookoo clock that im tryin to figure out how old it is here are what ive found written on it
    Schwarz wald made fsu
    Edelweiss frohliche wanderer
    Swiss musical movement

    Can you help me please

    • G.Palos September 13, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

      Hello Sherry, Schwarzwald is German for Black Forest, which is what this means “Made in the Black Forest” of Germany. The “Edelweiss frohliche wanderer” is the name of the melody, which is a German Folk Song. Mapsa is the Manufacturer, which I believe are current to vintage (+25-50 yrs old). It could be older, but I’m not familiar with the history of this maker.
      Suggestion is to post a picture and the above details on the Black Forest Cuckoo Clocks Facebook Page at I’m sure you’ll be able to find great info from the member of this group. Hope this helps.