French clocks of the 17th-19th centuries — an expert guide

French clocks of the 17th-19th centuries — an expert guide

Christie’s Senior International Clocks Specialist Will Strafford offers points to consider when buying French clocks, from age and condition, to the reputation of the maker

‘Christie's offer a dizzying variety of French clocks across our sales,’ explains Will Strafford, Christie’s Senior International Clocks Specialist. ‘So here are some key things to consider when searching for the right one.’

Date — from Louis XIV to Louis XVI

There are so many different types of clock to consider, in so many different styles, that it is important to consider different periods when buying a new timepiece. ‘French clocks from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, known as the Louis XIV (1643-1715) and Régence periods (1715-1723) respectively, tend to be grand in style and made on a theatrical scale,’ he says. ‘For instance, the long case clock, or régulateur, below, was made by the French designer André-Charles Boulle (1642-1732), a cabinetmaker to Louis XIV, and is typical of the baroque taste at the time.’

Clocks from the following Louis XV period (1715-1774) are characterised by a looser, and even more sculptural design, such as the below wall-mounted ‘cartel clock’, with its figures lost in clouds and shells.

An early Louis XV ormolu cartel clock, after a design by Juste-Aurele Meissonnier, circa 1735-40, with associated movement, the dial signed Robin, Paris. 53 in (134.5 cm) high, 22 in (56 cm) wide. Sold for $100,000 on 20 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

An early Louis XV ormolu cartel clock, after a design by Juste-Aurele Meissonnier, circa 1735-40, with associated movement, the dial signed Robin, Paris. 53 in (134.5 cm) high, 22 in (56 cm) wide. Sold for $100,000 on 20 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

If you’re after a clock with a complex and precise movement, and housed in a more refined case inspired by symmetrical Greek and Roman architectural styles, maybe the Louis XVI (1774-1792) period is right for you. ‘Sculptural ornament was still a big part of the visual appeal of clocks of this period,’ continues the specialist. ‘Many of them incorporate figures in ormolu — finely-ground, high-carat gold applied to bronze.’

A Louis XVI ormolu, enamel, bronze, Sicilian jasper and marble mantel clock, attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire. 23  in (58.5  cm) high; 25½ in (65 cm) wide. Sold for £160,650 on 13-14 June 2002 at Christie’s in London

A Louis XVI ormolu, enamel, bronze, Sicilian jasper and marble mantel clock, attributed to Pierre-Philippe Thomire. 23 in (58.5 cm) high; 25½ in (65 cm) wide. Sold for £160,650 on 13-14 June 2002 at Christie’s in London

During the following Empire Period, roughly 1800-1815, and in the time of the restoration of the monarchy during the 1820s, there was a greater emphasis on the narrative quality of figurative sculpture on clocks. In fact, the figures on the clock below represent a scene from the story of Hector in the Trojan wars.

An empire ormolu striking mantel clock, Early 19th century, the case by Antoine-Andre Ravrio. 23 in (58.5 cm) high, 19½ in (49.5 cm) wide, 6 in (15 cm) deep. Sold for $30,000 on 21 October 2014 at Christie’s in New York

An empire ormolu striking mantel clock, Early 19th century, the case by Antoine-Andre Ravrio. 23 in (58.5 cm) high, 19½ in (49.5 cm) wide, 6 in (15 cm) deep. Sold for $30,000 on 21 October 2014 at Christie’s in New York

A good tip, says Strafford, for those who want French baroque clocks that don’t break the bank, is to look at late 19th-century versions. ‘They have all the opulence of their 18th-century predecessors, but can cost a lot less.’

Form

Another important criteria to consider is the shape and size of your clock. ‘If it is going to be hung on a wall, go for a cartouche shaped ‘cartel’ clock, like the Louis XV example above,’ says Strafford.

‘If you’re looking for something monumental to stand on the floor, think about a régulateur  longcase clock like the above, or if you want something small to sit on a shelf pick a mantle clock like the below.’

A Louis XVI ormolu-mounted white marble mantel clock, the case after a design by Francois Vion, circa 1785. 15 in (38.1 cm) high, 14¼ in (36.2 cm) wide, 6 in (15.2 cm) deep. Estimate $15,000-25,000. Offered in Fifth Avenue Grandeur Important French Furniture from the Collection of Lewis and Ali Sanders on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A Louis XVI ormolu-mounted white marble mantel clock, the case after a design by Francois Vion, circa 1785. 15 in (38.1 cm) high, 14¼ in (36.2 cm) wide, 6 in (15.2 cm) deep. Estimate: $15,000-25,000. Offered in Fifth Avenue Grandeur: Important French Furniture from the Collection of Lewis and Ali Sanders on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

On the smaller end of the scale are carriage clocks. The first of these travelling clocks was designed by Abraham-Louis Breguet for the Emperor Napoleon in 1812. ‘They tend to be made in gilt-brass and glass, and are well designed,’ says Strafford. ‘Traditionally they are considered excellent gifts.’

The 19th-century French carriage clock shown above has an eight-day movement (designed to be wound only once a week), as well as a full calendar, moon phase dial, barometer and thermometer.

Dial and movement

French clocks generally come with three names attached — one who made the case, another who made the movement, and a third who made the dial. Christie’s specialists are always on hand to explain which signal the best quality.

‘French clocks from the first half of the 18th century tend to have fairly simple movements, so are often collected for the name attached to the ornamental appeal of their cases instead of their complex mechanics,’ explains Strafford.

After the 1750s, there were a number of technological advances made within the movements of French clocks. ‘If horological wizardry is your thing, concentrate on the following Louis XV and Louis XVI periods,’ says the specialist. ‘Paris is usually associated with the best quality movements.’

In 1752 Ferdinand Berthoud, then aged just 25, presented a longcase régulateur  to the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, which successfully adjusted for the difference between solar and mean time (which can be up to 16 minutes a year). This complication is known as equation time. The movement in the clock below is one of the first Berthoud built with this feature, and it was sold at Christie’s in 2001 for £322,750. It is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

A Louis XV ormolu-mounted tulipwood and marquetry month-going regulateur de parquet with full calendar and equation of time, by Ferdinand Berthoud.
the case by Balthazar Lieutaud. 86½ in (219 cm) high; 24¾ in (63 cm) wide; 12 in (30 cm) deep. Sold for £322,750 on 5 July 2001 at Christie’s in London

A Louis XV ormolu-mounted tulipwood and marquetry month-going regulateur de parquet with full calendar and equation of time, by Ferdinand Berthoud. the case by Balthazar Lieutaud. 86½ in (219 cm) high; 24¾ in (63 cm) wide; 12 in (30 cm) deep. Sold for £322,750 on 5 July 2001 at Christie’s in London

During the Louis XVI period, Robert Robin perfected the preciseness of equation time clock movements. Robin, who was the favourite clockmaker of the French king and his wife Marie Antoinette, made the equation movement for the gold table clock shown below, which sold at Christie’s for $200,000 in 2008.

A Louis XVI ormolu table regulator with equation of time and remontoire, the clockmaker Robert Robin, horloger du roi, Paris, the enameller Joseph Coteau, the dial dated 1781. 16⅛ in (41 cm) high, 8⅝ in (21.9 cm) wide, 6¾ in (7.2 cm) deep. Sold for $200,000 on 20 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

A Louis XVI ormolu table regulator with equation of time and remontoire, the clockmaker Robert Robin, horloger du roi, Paris, the enameller Joseph Coteau, the dial dated 1781. 16⅛ in (41 cm) high, 8⅝ in (21.9 cm) wide, 6¾ in (7.2 cm) deep. Sold for $200,000 on 20 April 2018 at Christie’s in New York

‘The dial on the Robin clock is signed by the finest French enameller of the day, Joseph Coteau, and shows the signs of the zodiac painted in exquisite detail,’ explains Strafford. ‘Details such as this will usually make a clock more desirable.’

Sign up today

Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week

Subscribe

The later Empire (1800-late 1820s) and Restoration (1814-1830) periods saw fine and elaborate enamelled dials became more popular, as well as further astonishing technical innovations. ‘The multi-dialed clock shown below is by the maker Hubert Sarton,’ says Strafford. ‘It not only shows the phases of the moon but also the time in cities across the world. Even among today's hyper-sophisticated timepieces, not many can rival that.’ 

A Belgian ormolu and black marble complicated astronomical world-time skeleton clock, by Hubert Sarton, Liège, circa 1820. 23⅛  in (59  cm) high, 12⅛  in (31  cm) wide, 5¼  in (13.5  cm) deep. Estimate $50,000-80,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A Belgian ormolu and black marble complicated astronomical world-time skeleton clock, by Hubert Sarton, Liège, circa 1820. 23⅛ in (59 cm) high, 12⅛ in (31 cm) wide, 5¼ in (13.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $50,000-80,000. Offered in The Exceptional Sale on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Condition

Check the surface of the body and dial for cracks, tarnishing, rubbing and restoration. ‘Ask yourself questions such as ‘Are the feet original? Has the veneer been replaced?’ advises the specialist.

‘Damage around winding holes, especially on enamel dials, is a common spot for repair work,’ Strafford explains. ‘The movement should also look clean and tidy, although because of the physical pressure it withstands every second of the day, parts have often have been replaced over time. Vacant holes and maker’s marks with different dates inside the clock might also suggest the case and movement don’t belong together.’

Chrisite's will often have particularly complex movements vetted by specialist clock restorers to assure any bidders that the parts of the movement are accurately described, although for understandable reasons, their working condition can't be guaranteed, adds Strafford. 

Provenance

One of the most alluring aspects of collecting in almost any category is the potential to acquire pieces with significant history – even if it is just a tantalising possibility.

A monumental Louis XVI ormolu and white marble mantel clock, 1775. 26  in (66  cm) high, 26½  in (67.3  cm) wide, 8¼  in (21  cm) deep. Estimate $60,000-100,000. This Offered in Fifth Avenue Grandeur Important French Furniture from the Collection of Lewis and Ali Sanders on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A monumental Louis XVI ormolu and white marble mantel clock, 1775. 26 in (66 cm) high, 26½ in (67.3 cm) wide, 8¼ in (21 cm) deep. Estimate $60,000-100,000. This Offered in Fifth Avenue Grandeur: Important French Furniture from the Collection of Lewis and Ali Sanders on 29 October 2019 at Christie’s in New York

‘The sculptural Louis XVI clock above, being auctioned at Christie’s on 29th October 2019, is the only known version of this model made by the renowned clockmaker Jean-André Lepaute,’ Stafford says. ‘It matches one described in the inventory of Marie Antoinette’s clock collection. However, Marie-Antoinette’s clock is listed as having different measurements. Could it be that the preparer of the inventory got the size wrong, and this clock belonged to the ill-fated queen?’