A Scholar and a Gentleman: David Sperling shares his Expertise

Dr. David Sperling first became interested in Americana and clocks in 1966 while serving in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Tacoma, Washington. During his years in practice he was primarily a collector. While building his collection he became well acquainted with other collectors, dealers, auctions and auctioneers, and learned much about these aspects of the business. . In the early 1990s he became a partner in Father and Son Antiques which was founded several years earlier by his son, Ed (www.homestead.com/fatherandsonantiques). Their business specializes in buying, selling, appraising and vetting fine American timepieces.

After retiring in 1997, David became a regular horological feature writer for the Maine Antique Digest and the Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. He was hired by the New Jersey council for the Humanities to lecture throughout the State on Colonial and Federal clockmaking.

In addition to writing, lecturing and running his business, David began appraising clocks, watches and scientific instruments for the Canadian website, whatsitworthtoyou.com in 2006. In 2011 he joined valuemystuff.com in London as the firm’s first American appraiser. In 2013 he began working with Lofty. As an Expert, David conducts evaluations of clocks, watches and scientific instruments. David continues to do private appraisal work for individuals, estates and insurance firms, as well as similar work for boutique appraisal firms in the eastern United States.

What are some notable discoveries that have been made recently in your area of expertise?

Most of the discoveries in the world of clocks and clockmakers have surfaced since the early 1970s. It was then that in-depth, scholarly studies were carried out by horological researchers in America and England. Within the past decade researchers in the US have published superb textbooks on the Willard Patent Timepiece, “the banjo clock”, wooden movement tallcase clocks, and clockmakers of major significance, such as Peter Stretch (1670-1746) and David Rittenhouse (1732-1796). Horological discoveries are made quite often today and are regularly published in the Bulletin of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors.

David has made several exciting discoveries of his own.

He helped shed light on a newly uncovered autobiography of clockmaker John Nichol (1784-1861) of Belvidere, NJ. Little was known about the life and origins of this clockmaker before his autobiography was rescued from the trash by a Connecticut municipal worker. David published an important article summarizing Nichol’s travel from Ireland to America as well as his experiences as a watch and clockmaker. David has donated copies to the library at Winterthur Museum and the library of the National Watch & Clock Association.

David was the first to uncover and publish a document presenting the apprenticeship of Daniel Porter (1775-1809), clockmaker of Williamstown, MA to master clockmaker Samuel Burnap (1750-1838) of East Windsor, CT. While working with the town historian of Providence, RI, David discovered the true identity of David Brown, whose name appears on the dials of Rhode Island clocks from the early nineteenth century.

Samuel Abbott was a well-known clockmaker working in Boston in the 1820s. David unearthed an unusual banjo clock made by Abbott after he moved to Montpelier, VT in the early 1830s.

David’s pioneering research of the lives and works of New Jersey clockmakers is also worth noting. He published the history of four clockmakers famous for having worked in Flemington, NJ at the turn of the nineteenth century. He discovered that clockmaker Thomas Williams, previously thought to be of English birth, was actually born in Elizabethtown, NJ. Thomas moved to Flemington with his family and opened a clock shop in the 1790s. Williams trained the renowned Joakim Hill of Flemington in clockmaking.

He has published in-depth studies on well-known cabinetmakers, John Scudder (1773-1848) of Westfield, NJ and Matthew Egerton Sr. and Jr. of New Brunswick, NJ. and uncovered the identity of John Adams a little known cabinetmaker of Chatham, NJ who was likely apprenticed to Scudder and made cases for tallcase clocks circa 1800. Most recently, David identified a type of tallcase clock style that appears to have been unique to the cabinetmakers of Hunterdon County in the second half of the eighteenth century.

What are your top tips for an aspiring collector in your area of expertise?

The best advice I can give to any new collector is to first decide what they like and wish to collect, and then advise them to try to purchase the very best examples that fall within their budget. Always opt for buying fewer, high quality pieces!

My advice for collectors at all levels is that it pays to have a knowledgeable adviser along to help you decide on any expensive purchase. A trusted and good adviser can help the young collector to build a more worthwhile collection, one that will be better suited to holding its value over time. Consulting an advisor often proves extremely worthwhile.

As was told to me many years ago by a famous dealer: “rare and ugly will always be rare and ugly”. Rarity alone, insures neither a high value nor appreciation over time.

I would advise all new watch and clock collectors to join the National Association (NAWCC). This provides easy access to meetings with other collectors as well as a quick horological education through their quarterly Bulletin and the accessibility of a vast library with a liberal loan program.

What should a collector ask to identify an item and avoid common pitfalls?

In today’s marketplace, the originality of a clock or watch is of prime importance, i.e., the originality of the finish on the wood surface, the completeness of the painted glass or painted dial (how much has been retouched and was it done professionally?), being certain that dials have not been replaced or repainted, and that signatures have not been added at a later date. One must be sure that movements have not been replaced and the seller should be able to explain all the unused holes inside a clock case.

I was once told by a dealer that “today we forgive feet and fret” on a tallcase clock. I do not forgive feet and fret and never have. Each absent part is a deduction in value, today more than ever! The absence of feet on longcase clocks seems to be more acceptable in the UK than it is here in the US. My feeling is that professionally done replacements are more widely accepted in Europe.

Therefore, always ask what has been restored and what is missing from the timepiece as it was originally created. Try to find a reliable and trustworthy dealer. The best way to do that is by asking more advanced collectors who have compiled a record of experience in the marketplace.

What questions should a collector ask to determine the fair sale price of an item?

The collector must first understand the meaning of fair market value and retail replacement value. Certain websites, like Lofty will sell or auction items at a fair market price. Essentially, that is the price that you can expect to receive if you sell your antique to your next door neighbor with neither of you being under any pressure to buy or sell. That is quite different from the retail replacement value which is the retail price you would pay at a brick and mortar store. If you shop on the web for timepieces be aware of whether the website is using fair market prices or retail replacement prices. One of the largest and most well known of these websites does in fact use retail pricing. Buying at retail online puts the buyer at a disadvantage because it is more difficult for you to communicate with the dealer or have the opportunity to examine the item in person.

While watching appraisal TV shows, be aware of whether the ‘expert’ is providing a retail price to the owner. That value might be two to three times the price that the object would sell for on the open market. Remember, the owner is not in the retail business!

There are many online antique auctions that place high reserves on their property (especially watches and jewelry). When you purchase an item from such an auction you will likely find that you have paid full retail price and more. Look for auction houses with high percentages of passed lots (unsold lots) and avoid them.

Reading these comments tells you one of the major reasons I joined Lofty! The seller receives a free, impartial appraisal at fair market value before having to decide if he or she wishes to sell.

What is selling best in today’s market (which particular makers/styles)?

While the market for clocks and watches has weakened in the last decade, there are makers that always hold their value. These include the clockmaking Willard family; Simon Sr., Aaron Sr. and their two brothers, as well as their sons Aaron Jr. and Simon Jr. Their many New England apprentices are also high on the list of desired makers. In the UK, Tompion, Graham, Quare and the like are valuable and highly desirable. Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Breguet and a few others hold their value well. Beware of numerous replicas or counterfeit watches being offered for sale in every conceivable venue today!

Here are some good bets!

– signed banjo clocks with original reverse painted glasses are always sought after as are New England mirror clocks and shelf clocks
– large weight driven American wall regulators, e.g. Howards, are highly sought after for their beauty
– signed American tallcase clocks with extras such as fine carvings, or superb inlay and veneering continue to bring high prices
– any ‘Tiffany’ timepiece (clock or watch)
– English bracket clocks from the eighteenth century and signed French mantel clocks made before 1830 continue to be highly prized
– French “Industrial” clocks from the Victorian era remain a great collectible
– Good Chelsea wall clocks are sought after and fought for in the US!
– unusual Art Deco (circa 1920-1940) timepieces do very well on the auction market. In the American market Hamilton is the brand of watch to look for!

What other questions do people ask you most frequently in your area of expertise?

The most commonly asked question is, ‘Can you tell me about my clock and give me an idea of what it is worth’? I am always surprised by the number of people who have a ‘family’ clock and know little or nothing about it.

Another oft asked question is, ‘Why is the four on a Roman numeral dial written as IIII rather than IV? They used the four lines rather than the true Roman numeral IV to aesthetically balance the VIII on the left side of the dial.

‘Why clocks/watches, David?’

I really think that it was the mathematical precision of these various instruments of time telling that was the attraction for me. Everything about timepieces has to add up. There was always a logical explanation to any clock and watch problem even if I was unable to understand it. That presented a mystery and a challenge for me. As a physician I looked upon myself as a scientist and a detective. It was no different in becoming an horologist. There would be an answer for every problem or question. All one need do is find it.

Finally, one can use rather standard criteria to evaluate most antiques. It does not matter whether you are looking at a clock, a painting, a sculpture or a piece of furniture. Those items that embody fineness of form, line, proportion and surface will be the most likely to retain both their beauty and their value.