‘Christie’s offers a dizzying variety of French clocks,’ says Will Strafford, Christie’s Senior International Clocks specialist. ‘And these 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.
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.
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, and many of them incorporate figures in ormolu — finely-ground, high-carat gold applied to bronze.
The clock shown above is not only an excellent representation of clockmaking in this period, it’s also a technological marvel that reflects the pursuit of science in the Age of Enlightenment.
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. The figures on the clock below represent a scene from the story of Hector in the Trojan wars.
A good tip for those who want a French baroque clock that won’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,’ says Strafford.
Another important criterion 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, such as the Louis XV example above.
If you’re looking for something monumental to stand on the floor, think about a régulateur longcase clock such as the one above. Or if you want something small to sit on a shelf, pick a mantel clock such as the jewel-like Louis XVI example below.
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-bronze or brass and glass, and often have intricate movements with multiple functions,’ says Strafford. ‘This makes them excellent gifts for the technologically inclined.’
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 can sometimes come with as many as three names attached — the maker of the case, the maker of the dial, and the maker of the enamelling for the dial. Christie’s specialists are always on hand to explain which names 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 later 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.
During the Louis XVI period, Robert Robin perfected the precision 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 2018.
‘Its enamel dial is signed by the finest French enameller of the day, Joseph Coteau, and is decorated with the signs of the zodiac painted in exquisite detail,’ notes Strafford. ‘Details such as this will usually make a clock more desirable.’
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-dialled 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.’
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 potential 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 will 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.’
Christie's will often have particularly complex movements vetted by specialist clock restorers to reassure any bidders that the parts of the movement are accurately described, although for understandable reasons, their working condition can't be guaranteed, adds Strafford.
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One of the most alluring aspects of collecting in almost any category is the potential to acquire pieces with significant history.
The clock shown above was supplied to Louis Bonaparte and his wife Hortense, and is an excellent example of the importance of provenance. Not only is it a combination of work by top horologists of the period, it also showcases the very best in biscuit porcelain.