Friday, 31 March 2006

Chinese Tang figures - antiquities with a collectable afterlife

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Collectors of ancient Chinese artefacts owe everything to the death rituals of society during the period. Like the Egyptians, the Chinese held strong beliefs about the afterlife. The wealthy and privileged members of Tang society, a Golden Age which lasted from 618-907 AD, took with them into their tombs all the luxuries money could buy.

Preparations for burial, which began well in advance of death, included the purchase of hundreds of pottery ming qi, or "articles of the spirit," such as figures of servants, musicians, attendants, domestic and foreign animals, guardian spirits and vessels from everyday life. Surviving tomb furnishings are important historic social and cultural documents of domestic life during the Tang period and the treasures have been unearthed in huge quantities since 19th century archaeologists began uncovering the past.

Twenty years ago prancing Tang pottery horses sold for tens of thousands of pounds. They were rare, remarkable collectors’ items that always attracted attention. Then came the looters and the smugglers. Until recently, when Tang horses came up for sale, prices started in the mid hundreds. So why did values fall so dramatically in this fascinating area of the antiques market?

UK dealer Lynne Elliott of Millennia Antiquities, whose business is based in Lancashire, put me straight. “Ten years ago tomb figures were flooding out of China via Hong Kong and prices fell to a point where they reached levels in line with market demand,” she said. “The widespread availability made Tang and other pottery figures affordable and increasingly popular with ordinary collectors, but since the Chinese government clamp-down on illegal exports, prices are rising again.”

The Tang Empire stretched from the Caspian Sea to the Pacific, from Manchuria and Korea in the north into Vietnam in the south. Tang China was cosmopolitan and tolerant, welcoming new ideas and other religions. Literature, painting and the ceramic arts flourished.

Chang’an, China’s capital, was one of the busiest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world. Situated at the eastern end of the legendary Silk Route, the city boasted two million inhabitants including an estimated 200,000 foreign residents. Indians, Persians, Turks, Arabs and Jews were there to trade in a wide range of exotic merchandise making its way from east to west. Different races and religions provided a heady cultural mix that was reflected in the artefacts of the city’s craftsmen.

Merchants, servants, entertainers, courtiers, monks, dwarfs and their animals were popular subjects for the artisan potters. The strange features of these foreigners, with their large noses and hairy faces, proved striking to the Chinese, and were a gift to the craftsmen.

Relatively low-fired and light bodied, Tang pottery is typically composed of earthenware, a porous and permeable common clay. Ranging in colour from almost white to buff, red, or brown, depending on the mineral content, the figures were produced in three basic ways: moulded; hand-crafted with individually made parts combined or thrown on the potter’s wheel. The earthenware was fired in kilns at a temperature between 600 and 1100 degrees Celsius.

The hallmark of Tang tomb wares is the sancai, or three-colour, lead-silicate glazes. These were produced by melting lead with clay and then finely grinding the resulting glassy material before mixing it with water for application to the already fired earthenware.

Using a transparent glaze as a base, iron oxide was added to produce tones ranging from straw to amber to dark brown, copper oxide was added to impart rich greens or cobalt oxide was added for dark, vibrant blues.

Potters faced an early death

There is usually an unglazed area above the bases of figures, because the potters were not able to control the flow of the lead glazes during firings. During the seventh century, many figures were fired with a clear glaze or left unglazed with features painted on them. This was because potters faced an early death from high levels of lead poisoning in the glaze mixes.

A safer method evolved some centuries later and glazed figures enjoyed a revival in the Ming period. Today, collectors tend to prefer either glazed or unglazed figures, although good, glazed examples are usually more expensive, costing several thousands of pounds.

Of all the pottery animals, horses are particularly evocative of Tang society. For good reason, horses were symbols of prestigious status and a measure of wealth and power in Tang China. Pottery horses were not modelled on the native Chinese Przewalski pony, a small and stocky animal not suited for the demands of the mounted cavalry who were facing the skilled horsemen of the Steppe, but on thoroughbred horses.

It was in the search for such horses to the west of China, as well as for the lands of the immortals, that the Silk Route was opened. The Chinese bartered thousands of bolts of silk for such coveted thoroughbreds.

Horses were also used for sport. Polo was introduced to China from Persia in the early 7th century and became a popular pastime enjoyed by both men and women. The emperor kept 40,000 horses in his stables, both for games and for war.

Pottery models of the horses are most commonly found in two poses: prancing with one leg raised, or standing four-square with head slightly turned to one side. Horses with warrior riders or occasionally entertainers were also made, particularly to protect the entombed from evil spirits.

Less expensive was an unmounted horse with a groom or guardian figure. They come in a variety of sizes, unglazed or glazed and sometimes with painted decoration.

The main market for tomb figures is in the West, particularly America, and leading dealers and auctioneers hold sales and exhibitions of rare and sought after pieces. Tomb figures also now appear at antiques fairs and markets and are still to be had at affordable prices. Small, unglazed items can be had for under £100, although finer examples will be much more. Fine quality pieces should prove to be good investments, particularly when the market begins to dry up, as it must in the long term.

Tomb figures are rarely in pristine condition. Their age and fragile nature means that almost all works have suffered some damage in the past. Value is not affected entirely by condition and modest restoration, so long as it was carried out by a professional, should not significantly affect the price of a figure. Age and authenticity is more of a concern.

Although tomb figures came out of China and were once imported quite legally into Britain, the export trade is now strictly forbidden, and the Chinese authorities have cracked down hard on smugglers. It is a capital offence for Chinese people to trade in tomb figures and a corporal offence for Westerners caught in Chinese territory.

Historically, however, sufficient numbers have been in circulation in the West for long enough to ensure they have a well-documented history. Most dealers will buy only from such collections that are known to have been in the West for a generation.

Lynne Elliott said: “Collectors should buy from reputable dealers at vetted fairs and get to know the specialists.” She has been trading for more than 10 years and is highly selective in her choice of stock. “Experience in these matters is most important. With replicas being sold around the world in tourist shops, gone are the days when the general antique dealer could be sure of the authenticity of any old piece of Chinese pottery.”

A thermo luminescence test will determine the age of a tomb figure and dealers who sell expensive pieces will usually provide a test certificate. Oxford Authentication Ltd is one company which carries out such tests, extracting a small plug-like sample from the object which is laboratory-tested. The tests cost upwards of £200 per item.

Pictures show, top: A Chinese Tang period Sancai (or three glazes) glazed pottery horse with official

Below, left to right: A painted pottery Tang period figure of a female attendant. Complete with its own Oxford Authentication Certificate, it is priced at £3,450

A group of Chinese Ming period glazed pottery attendant figures

A Chinese Tang period group of painted pottery figures as favoured by the rich to join them in their tombs and the afterlife


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Monday, 27 March 2006

Antique Welsh pottery - gorgeous Gaudy relics of a lost art

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Lotus Gaudy

Our house move to the North Wales coast has introduced us to a whole new hunting ground for weekend antiquing excursions and we braved the recent blizzards to visit a new fair at the Llandudno Junction leisure centre.

Sadly, the weather had beaten a few of the exhibitors but the blaze of colour from the stands of dealers who had made it more than made up for the gloom outside.

More colourful than most were those tables displaying groups of a unique pottery - the so-called Gaudy Welsh, a name which describes perfectly the hand-painted decoration applied primarily to tea sets, bowls and jugs,

Made in both England and Wales between 1820 and 1860, the earthenware, creamware, ironstone and bone china is decorated in charming patterns picked out in underglaze cobalt blue, often in panels, rust or burnt orange and copper lustre, while floral decoration often included pink lustre, green and yellow, all on a white background.

It appealed to people of modest incomes in both Britain and the United States, and even today connoisseur collectors are dismissive of Gaudy Welsh. It's not as posh as the porcelain from Meissen, Chelsea or Worcester or any of the wondrous products of Japan or China, although that is undoubtedly where it has its roots.

Gaudy Welsh china is pretending to be something it is not and never will be. It was produced for working class families and a piece cost only a few pennies. It had aspirations, though, like the people who bought it.

The pots produced by factories such as those in Swansea, Llanelly and subsequently Staffordshire, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland, are thick and coarse, covered with pitting and often woefully out of shape. That aside, Gaudy Welsh is naive in a folksey way, unpretentious and delightfully cheerful.

The name for the distinctive ware appears to have been coined by American collectors. Their Welsh counterparts know it by more prosaic names such as Welsh lustre, peasant enamel, cottage Swansea or simply cottage ware.

Fact is, more Americans than Brits collect the stuff, perhaps because it was exported in huge quantities to that country, most of it through the Port of Liverpool and into Philadelphia, where it was particularly appreciated by Dutch settlers.

Interestingly, it is most commonly found in states where Welsh settlers established expatriate communities in the latter part of the 18th and early 19th centuries - notably New York, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The appearance of Gaudy Welsh coincided with a transformation of life in Britain. The Industrial Revolution was beginning to get up steam (literally), railways had replaced horse-drawn carriages and the population was on the move from the country into the towns, seeking work in the factories.

The result was a burgeoning middle class which could afford the finer things in life and a working class that couldn't but was striving to make it so. A home decorated with cheap and cheerful china ornaments was tangible proof that a family's move from country farmhouse to industrial slum was a wise one.

Interestingly, Welsh manufactories that produced Gaudy Welsh were responsible for less than a quarter of total production. They include the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea; the South Wales Pottery in Llanelly and the Glamorgan Pottery, also near Swansea.

The former began production in 1764 and passed into the ownership of Louis Weston Dillwyn. In 1814, he persuaded the potters from the ailing Nantgarw porcelain factory to join him and production of earthenware pots - including Gaudy Welsh - began there in 1826.

The Llanelly factory, situated a few miles west of Swansea, began production in 1840 under the ownership of William Chambers and exported Gaudy Welsh to America.

The latter firm began in 1814 on a site near the Cambrian works run by Dillwyn's rival George Haynes. They copied Cambrian shapes and patterns and skilled workers were enticed away, but Dillwyn got his own back ... he bought the pottery on Haynes's death and closed it down.

Pirated designs

Staffordshire potters were quick to spot the potential market of Gaudy Welsh and were soon producing versions of their own having pirated designs from their Welsh cousins.

The same happened subsequently among Newcastle potteries, notably Robert Maling at his Ford Pottery; Thomas Fell of the St Peter's Pottery; John Dawson at North Hylton and Dixon & Co., of the Garrison Pottery, all in Sunderland and, in Gateshead, the Sheriff Hill Pottery and Richard Davies & Co., of Salt Meadows, South Shore.

Surprisingly little is known of the Staffordshire firms involved in the enterprise, although they produced by far the largest quantity of Gaudy Welsh.

One of the earliest manufacturers was William Adams of the Greengates Pottery, Tunstall, later taken over by John Meir, while the well known Enoch Wood of Burslem exported Gaudy Welsh to America until 1846.

One of the largest Potteries manufactories that may have produced Gaudy Welsh is Spode, while other possibles are Mellor, Venables & Co., of Burslem and Thomas Walker of Tunstall.

Edward Whalley of Villa Pottery, Cobridge, is known to have exported the ware to America but knowledge about others is scant. Staffordshire makers are reckoned to have produced 80 per cent of all Gaudy Welsh ever made, but the identity of other factories is pure speculation.

Whatever the source of any Gaudy Welsh you may come across, one thing is certain: sweated labour produced it, much of the work being done by children, sometimes as young as eight.

Pottery workers led lives of hardship. Wages were low, disease was rife, homes were inadequate and education unlikely.

The result was the charming, rustic naivety of Gaudy Welsh, which can be compared with the production of the thousands of flatback chimney ornaments which are also highly desirable today.

How many different Gaudy Welsh designs were created by often untrained outworkers, paid piece rates by their employees, is open to debate.

A figure of 300 is quoted by some reference works, although only half that number is likely to be found, even by the most ardent collector.

Successful patterns came and went in a matter of a few years depending on fashion, although there are similarities which reappear throughout the period of production.

Panels, cartouches, grape leaves and petal shapes are predominant, mostly representative of the Japanese Imari pottery the ware was attempting to emulate.

Considering the ware was decorated by a largely untrained workforce whose only concern was the number of pots it was possible to produce in a day, is it not surprising that pattern shapes degenerated from the recognisable to the incomprehensible.

A case in point is the so-called blue rocks pattern found on a large number of later pieces. Originally, this featured three bright blue leaves surmounted by a bud appearing at the top of the centre leaf. As time passed, the leaves became three successively smaller blobs, painted one on top of the other, looking more like rocks.

Collectors who know about Gaudy Welsh are able to date pieces accordingly, although that kind of knowledge takes a lifetime of study. I would be happy to acquire examples of Gaudy Welsh simply because it is colourful and fun. It wouldn't matter a jot who manufactured it, but living in Wales as I do, it would be good to be supportive of my adopted homeland.

Pictures show, top: Gorgeous Gaudy: This magnificent teaset, decorated with the Lotus pattern sold last November for £330

Below, left to right: A Gaudy Welsh Drape patterned teapot, bread plate and four cups and saucers, together worth £150-200
A pair of Allerton's Gaudy Welsh Sunflower jugs with handles modelled as serpents. They're worth £100-120
A large Gaudy Welsh jug decorated with the Prestatyn pattern. It's valued at £70-80


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Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Ten ways to buy well on eBay

  • Know your subject. If you don't, research it well and get to know values.
  • Know about fakes. Branded jewellery, clothes and fashion accessories that sell cheaply are usually too good to be true.
  • Know your seller. All eBay vendors build up feedback from their buyers, which is your way of checking out their reliability.
  • Know your limits. Just as you would in a live auction, fix a limit in your mind of how much you're prepared to pay. And learn to stick to it.
  • Know the enemy. With experience you'll start to identify those buyers who snap up all the good stuff in your chosen collecting field. Bookmark their user pages to check what their bidding on.
  • Know about bid sniping. Computer software can be obtained to place bids in the closing seconds of an auction. Do the same if you must, or compete with bullish commission bids.
  • Know about added extras. Be sure to check out how much the vendor wants for postage and packing. EBay outlaws sellers who ramp up charges, but lots do.
  • Know your options on payments. There are pros and cons to all the various systems of paying for something you purchase. Get to learn what they are.
  • Know your rights. Understand eBay's disputes procedures. Better to be safe than sorry.
  • Know how to spell. Not all sellers can, with the result that some items get listed but ignored by search engines because an object is spelled incorrectly. Find them at


Friday, 10 March 2006

Ten ways to sell well on eBay

  • Always start your sales during the week, so that they finish at the weekend, when most potential buyers are at their computers
  • Most sales happen in the closing minutes of the sale, so don’t waste buyers’ time with long listings. Research has proved against the argument that long auctions raise awareness and therefore prices. They don’t.
  • Always illustrate your lots with quality photographs – a good digital camera is an essential.
  • If you chose to add a “buy it now” option to your auction, set the price high. A lower price might attract more bidders but not necessarily result in higher value bids.
  • If you’re unsure of values, search completed sales to find objects similar to your own.
  • Target new or unsuccessful bidders. Auction psychology suggests that they are likely buyers if you have something similar to what they want.
  • Write well-written descriptions. Keep them punchy and to the point, but above all be honest.
  • Answer emails from potential buyers swiftly and honestly. And ship goods to buyers without delay once they’ve paid.
  • Make it easy for them to pay by using an electronic service such as Paypal. Be very careful about accepting cheques.
  • Always leave fair feedback. That will encourage your buyers to do the same for you, thus enhancing your selling reputation.


Thursday, 9 March 2006

Collectors carve out a hobby from antique Japanese ivory figures

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Standing on his little circular plinth, his inscrutable smile belying the fact that time has caused him to stoop under the weight of his burden, this little Japanese figure of a basket seller is so lifelike, you almost expect him to give you a wave as he marches off across the table top.

But he was carved from ivory and he's stood in that pose for perhaps 100 years, every feature of his little face and every detail of his baskets clearly defined. The skill it must have taken to carve such a perfectly detailed little work of art as this should not be dismissed lightly.

Come the auction sale, though, and at £380, I thought he was a cheap buy for someone with the cash to spare. However, it seems the market in okimono, the name given to Japanese ivory like this, is relatively new and prices are far from established. Consequently, the less well heeled buyer can, with a modicum of knowledge and an eye for quality carving, still find affordable examples that are sure to appreciate in value.

Purist collectors of Japanese works of art might dismiss okimono as "modern" knickknacks made by the thousand for the export market. And, of course, they'd be right. For more than 200 years, until the mid-19th century, Japan had existed in almost total isolation.

However, in 1853 the Americans, under Commodore Perry, forced the Japanese to take notice of the outside world and permit free trading. For the first time the country became exposed to the West and its cultures.

It was a time of sweeping changes, affecting most aspects of life, even the traditional kimono. Until then, it had been worn by both men and women, but soon the kimono became relegated to ceremonial occasions in favour of more modern Western fashion.

With it went the traditional accessories like the netsuke (pronounced netski) the name given to the small toggle used to tie the belt of the garment. For years these toggles, usually in wood or ivory, had been skilfully carved by craftsmen who relied on the work to make a living. When the fashion died, their livelihood disappeared.

However, they quickly learned that to survive, they had to produce more decorative netsuke that would appeal to Westerners and a lucrative export market soon grew up.

On the whole, the quality of workmanship was excellent. Much was signed by the artist responsible and high quality ivory was employed. A little later, though, and market forces began to play a part.

Mass-production followed quickly, with a consequent loss of quality and, naturally, value. At the same time, customers began to demand more intricate, purely decorative pieces and, thus, carvers of netsuke also began to produce okimono.

There are distinct similarities between the two sets of objects. Figures of warlike Samurai warriors, scenes from mythology and pretty young courtesans, were joined by animals and birds, legendary figures, exponents of the martial arts, peasants and farmers, in fact a whole range illustrating Japanese life and customs all feature strongly as the subjects of both categories.

Avoid sunlight

Like all collectors' items, condition is of paramount importance. Damage has a dramatic affect on prices. Centrally heated rooms are bad news for ivory which does not take kindly to changes in temperature. Display it in a glass cabinet kept humid with a small container of water. And avoid sunlight.

Cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits is the best way of cleaning dirty ivory, but be sure not to rub too hard or the fine patination that comes with age could be lost forever.

Restoration should be carried out only by an expert and that means it's horrendously expensive. That said, complex okimono involving numerous pieces are somewhat prone to falling apart because the fish glue holding them will perish with age. The problem looks worse than it is and pieces can be reassembled using modern adhesive.

Biggest problem facing a newcomer is the abundance of fakes that exist. Clever but crooked souls are doing nicely out of plastic resin copies made from moulds which faithfully reproduce not only colour and weight, but also the most intricate of carving and even the cracks that appear only with age.

The expert can spot them just by touch: ivory feels cold, plastic does not. The novice should employ an equally simple, though somewhat more drastic test: heat a pin to red hot and give the suspect piece a prod. Plastic melts, ivory does not, so pick a hidden spot such as the base.

Failing that, buy only from reputable sources where a guarantee is freely given, either in conditions of business or on paper.

Pictures show, top: A Meiji period (1868-1912 or roughly similar to our own Victorian) okimono of a basket seller. It's worth £300-400

Below, left to right:
A Japanese ivory figure of a young woman with a flower in her hair and holding a pair of scissors. She has suffered slight damage to her right hand and the cord she should be holding is missing, reducing her value to £150-200

A finely carved okimono figure of a vegetable seller. Note the intricate detail of the produce in his basket. He's worth £250-350

An ivory figure of a young woman holding a lotus flower. The frills and folds of her dress are particularly well modelled. She's worth £400-600

girl with scissorsvegetablegirl with lotus

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Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Collectors set for bidding battle for their comic book heroes

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The Salvation Army will benefit from the auction of thousands of forgotten comic books after a chance discovery by workmen called in to clear a warehouse in the North West of England. The sale is set to produce a substantial cash windfall for the charity.

To their amazement, the workmen uncovered thousands of now highly collectable American comic books and magazines, some dating back to the 1950s, some wrapped and boxed in the same pristine condition as when they left the printer.

The comics - which number approximately 12,000 - will be sold by Ewbank Auctioneers, Guildford, Surrey, on Thursday March 16. After deducting their expenses in handling and shipping the comics to the auction, the liquidation company that discovered them has decided to donate the profit from the sale to the Salvation Army.

"We handle a great number of jobs where we are asked to clear the complete contents of a shop, office or warehouse and we handle some interesting things, but this was one of most amazing discoveries of my career," said Mr Robert Majithia, of Woking, Surrey-based Drakus Limited, distributors of excess, surplus and liquidation stock.

"There were 40 boxes of the comics each containing about 300 copies, sitting on palettes which had been forgotten over the years. When we realised just how valuable some of the collectable comics are, we called in Ewbank to auction them for us. We were working in the warehouse on a completely different assignment and the comics were a surprise bonus. Consequently, we have decided to donate the proceeds from the sale less our expenses to the Salvation Army."

Among the most valuable and sought after comics in the consignment are some dating from 1955 featuring 'Captain Gallant of the Foreign Legion'. They will be sold in lots of 50, giving collectors the opportunity to buy a lot, keep one copy for their collection and trade the others for similarly rare prizes. Estimates of £60-100 have been deliberately kept low to encourage private buying, particularly via realtime bidding on the internet from the U.S., where the hobby has a huge following. Internet bidding is provided by in association with eBay Live Internet-bidding services.

Other comic book heroes and titles represented in the collection are legion. They include 'American Flagg', 'Champions', 'Outposts', 'Northguard', 'Judge Dredd', 'The Sisterhood of Steel', 'Terraformers, Shapers of Worlds', 'Robotech Masters', 'The New DNAgents', 'Dynamo Joe', 'Dan Dare', 'Mai The Psychic Girl', 'Doom Patrol The Official Index' and many more.

Viewing for this Spring sale at Ewbank's Burnt Common, Guildford, saleroom is on Tuesday March 14 from 2-5pm and on Wednesday March 15, 10am-8pm. Illustrated catalogues will be available approximately five days before the sale and can be viewed at and

For further information, please contact Christopher Ewbank FRICS ASFAV on 01483 223101 or antiques at

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PayPal: with friends like this …

A cruise around eBay's community forums throws up a raft of problem posts from sellers who claim they are victims of PayPal's unaccountability and apparent intransigence when it comes to settling disputes.

A typical case involves an individual who sells an object on eBay, receives payment via PayPal, posts it to the winner of the auction in good time and then goes on holiday thinking no more about it.

In his absence, the winner complains to PayPal that the object was never delivered and in his absence, emails to the seller having gone unanswered owing to him being on holiday, PayPal sides with the winner, removes funds from the seller's account without his knowledge and refunds the winner.

EBay says the seller would have been reimbursed had he had a seller-protection insurance policy and proof of shipping. He is adamant that he posted the item, but cannot prove it because it was sent first class post.

Emails to PayPal are answered either by automatic response -- somewhat worse than phoning a call centre in India -- or using stock responses which bear little or no relation to the issue in question.

EBay say they're working on it. In the meantime, it's a case of caveat vendor!

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But is it art?

A new name on the scene -- to me a least -- is Tino Sehgal who by his own admission -- actually a press release from the Institute of Contemporary Arts -- "fulfils the conventions of a visual artwork without physically producing anything".

Sehgal's latest gimmick, sorry exhibition, relies on an individual paying £25 at the shop at the ICA in return for a word of the artist's choice. The manager of the shop then whispers the word in your ear and you become the proud owner of the work of art. Or should that be word of art?

Word has it that five people have already parted with the cash since the exhibition opened at the beginning of the month.

Word also has it that the London-born artist now living in Berlin has sold one of his "works" to the Tate. It's called "This is Propaganda" and will be performed next month.

When a visitor walks into the gallery, a woman dressed as a gallery assistant will turn to the wall and sing, "This is propaganda, you know, you know" twice. The Tate declined to reveal what it paid, but it is believed to be a five-figure sum.

Nice work if you can get it.

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Times past: antique clocks to hold a candle to

by Christopher Proudlove©
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Lantern clock: Simple brass clock introduced circa 1600 and the most common type of domestic clock throughout the 17th century. So called because its posted-frame case housing the movement, has opening side panels similar to those in early candle-powered lamps. Also called Cromwellian clocks, they have a bell on top surrounded by a fretwork gallery, a weight to make the thing tick and a short bob pendulum. Sadly most found today have been converted years ago to spring-driven movements and, the purists would say, ruined. Less finicky collectors would regard this as part of the clock's history and accept it as inevitable.
Grandma phoned last week to tell us how, in the middle of the night, she woke up and couldn't see the time on her alarm clock (she's in her nineties). Was there anything we could do about it? We found the answer at a car boot sale that weekend. For the grand outlay of £2, we snapped up a 1950s vintage electric alarm clock with illuminated red numerals the size of a small neon street sign. Job done.

Things would have been different in 1690, the date of manufacture of another bargain clock we snapped up. A simple, but in its own way beautiful antique alarum lantern clock, it had been pooh-poohed by the huddle of dealers at our local Saturday village hall auction.

They were convinced it was modern. After all, how else could such a little gem turn up in this forgotten saleroom in the middle of nowhere? I have no idea, but the fact of the matter was it was as right as ninepence, as confirmed by a clock expert who checked it out and cleaned it for us so that we could have it running without fear of damage to its movement.

Convinced all along that it was right, we paid £100 for it in those cavalier days when we were still learning about antiques. A £100 mistake would have been less upsetting than it might be today when we’re supposed to know what we’re doing. Now part of our pension fund, we reckon we could add a least a nought to its value.

Ironically, but perhaps understandably, dealers and collectors tend to shy away from buying lantern clocks, not because they are particularly complicated or troublesome, but rather because of their reputation as being the target for all sorts of "restoration" over the centuries.

Lantern clock production lasted for barely 150 years and in that time, they were a particularly common given that they were made entirely by hand and were thus expensive. Robust but inherently crude in their manufacture, the earliest examples had a balance wheel or sometimes verge escapement that needed winding a least every 12 hours and sometimes every eight.

So the first thing that happened was that movements were changed to anchor escapements capable of running for 30 hours. Similarly, both these movements were driven by weights: one to power the going train (to make it tick) the other striking train. When the eight-day duration spring balance movement was developed, clocks were updated again and the weights discarded.

Some lantern clocks, such as our own, were fitted with an alarm mechanism visible on the centre of the dial and most, but not all, did not chime the hour. However, as a clock was passed down through the generations of a family, requirements changed and often the alarm mechanism was discarded and sometimes ham-fisted attempts were made to modify the movement to either make it chime or stop it if the noise was too loud.

Almost all genuine lantern clocks have just one hand, indicating the hours, half hours and quarters -- in other words making the clock accurate up to 15 minutes either way. So, in another modification clockmakers were asked to add the necessary mechanism to allow the movement to run two hands and thus give greater precision. However, these modifications are not common. Instead, the two-handed lantern clock is likely to be a modern reproduction, Smith's making a particularly attractive example in the 1940s.

It's amazing to consider that a clock made 300 years ago is still capable of running today. This was made possible in part by the addition of brass doors to either side of the clock movement. These were originally intended to keep out the dust, of which there was a great deal when even the best homes used straw on the floors.

Attitudes differ on whether this affects value

The doors pivot on two lugs in holes in the top and bottom plate of the clock but easily come unhinged and over time often become lost. So, most clocks coming onto the market today have either lost one or both doors or else have had them replaced. It is often difficult to tell the difference. Attitudes differ on whether this affects value and is really down to personal choice, but the purist would be disappointed by modern replacements.

One of the most attractive features of a lantern clock are the pierced decorative frets which sit immediately below the bell above the dial at the front and on each side. These give the clock its character and are decorated with such motifs as a lion and a unicorn holding a shield; sea serpents; Latin inscriptions and stylised flowers and foliage. They are also often the area chosen by the maker to inscribe his name and place of origin.

They too are held in place by lugs and lost frets are all too common. Similarly, fashions change and over the passage of time, owners will either have discarded the frets or replaced them with new, more stylish examples. Although it is difficult to tell the difference, old replacements are considered more acceptable than new ones, and a clock with no frets looks distinctly odd. Modern replacements can be obtained but whether such a clock should be purchased in the first place is again a matter of personal taste.

Although it is capable of being used, we choose not to have our clock running on the basis that something as old as it is will ultimately wear out. Again this is down to personal taste, but in these days of radio time checks, digital clocks on video recorders, atomic clock synchronisers on computers and wristwatches accurate up to so little that it doesn't matter, it's far from necessary.

But none of the modern timekeepers looks I antything like at home with our little group of antique oak furniture, so that's how it will stay.

Pictures show, top: A lantern clock by Thomas Creed, London, circa 1670. The pointed protrusion on the right rear of the dial is the anchor-shaped pendulum which should be concealed by a decorated brass cover now missing. The holes where it was fixed are just visible behind the slot in the door

Below, left: This good quality German lantern clock was made in the late 19th or early 20th century and as such is a modern reproduction of the 17th century original. The giveaway is the twin winding holes on the dial, for going train and strike train, and the two hands. It runs for eight days, something no original lantern clock could manage

Right: A lantern clock by Thomas Knifton dating from about 1650. It has lost its brass side panels and the frets, although nicely cut, appear to be later replacements

modern knifton