As an auctioneer, there is always the risk of the inevitable Only Fools and Horses reference when valuing pocket watches. In the Time on our Hands episode that aired in 1996, Del Boy and Rodney finally achieve their dream of becoming millionaires when a pocket watch they find sells at Sotheby’s for a whopping £6,200,000.
Whilst the vast majority of pocket watch sales unfortunately fall below this fantastic and fictional figure, the sentiment certainly rings true. Pocket watches are something that most of us have inherited, either from relatives that were presented a gold ‘25/50 years of service’ to a particular workplace, or perhaps a pair cased pocket watch once owned by a well-dressed relative from couple of generations back. This auction category is endlessly exciting in the fact that these pieces are most likely languishing away in a drawer, with owners unaware of the value or potential appeal to horological collectors. In a similar vein, Albert chains, watch chains, and even decorative watch keys also sell exceptionally well at auction.
Despite obvious changes in fashion and how we now wear and display our timepieces, the market for pocket watches remains incredibly strong at auction, with keen collectors searching for fine and unique examples of the category. Gold and silver pocket watches do retain a certain intrinsic value owing to their case material, however there are additional factors that really help these pieces fly at auction:
An 18th century silver pair cased watch by C. Clay, the signed circular dial with roman numeral markers and outer minutes track, verge fusee movement signed and numbered C Clay London, 1974, within a silver case bearing hallmarks for London, 1751, outer case base metal, case diameter 48mm. Sold for £480 at Wilson 55.
The first ‘pocket clock’ thought to be recorded traces back to 15th century Italy. In 1462, the Marchese di Manta was offered in writing a pocket clock by clockmaker Bartholemew Manfredi fit to ‘rival the Duke of Modena’s’. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, these early watches were mainly owned by nobility, seen in portraits of Cosimo Medici and Mary Queen of Scots to name a couple!
By the 18th century, pocket watches were much more of an established item and exploded in popularity. These examples are predominantly pair cased – housed in a separate decorative outer case – and featuring a verge or cylinder movement that is signed, pierced and ornamental - a real treat to the eye that can belie their relatively modest exteriors!
These older pocket watches are sought-after by dedicated collectors – all keen to possess their own piece of watchmaking history.
In the world of pocket watches, complications are the name of the game! Pieces with exceptional chronograph movements – combining the watch movement with a stopwatch capability – can command piqued interest from bidders, similarly the exquisitely crafted detailing of verge fusee watches is the very first thing that bidders will want to see when examining each lot. Signed, complicated and rare movements are amongst the most valuable under the hammer.
An 18ct gold open face chronograph pocket watch, with roman numeral markers, subsidiary dials to 12 and 6, and outer minutes track, unsigned keyless movement within an 18ct gold case bearing Swiss assay marks, numbered 62911, case diameter 51mm.
Sold for £1,000 at Wilson 55.
(Also Cover Image) A Victorian 18ct gold open face pocket watch by famed maker Litherland Davies & Co., the circular two-tone gold dial with foliate detailing and Roman numeral hour markers, key wound fusee lever movement with foliate watch cock, rose cut diamond end stone, signed and numbered Litherland Davies & Co., Liverpool, No.9127, within a case bearing hallmarks for THJH, Chester, 1884, featuring repoussé decoration of cupid to the back and foliate detailing to the surround and bow, case diameter 48mm.
Sold for £1250 at Wilson 55.
An 18ct gold hunter pocket watch by Terry & Co., Manchester, the signed dial with roman numeral markers, subsidiary seconds dial to 6 and outer minutes track keyless movement signed and numbered Terry & Co, Manchester, 274588, within an 18ct gold case bearing hallmarks for London, 1949, numbered 856, case diameter 50mm.
Sold for £1,900 at Wilson 55.
Pocket watches by local makers and retailed by local jewellers can command fantastic prices at auction. Whether signed to the dial, the movement, or revealed through a giveaway assay mark, these locally crafted timepieces certainly retain an appeal with the market – with the more unusual or rare maker’s achieving uplifted hammer prices.
A late 19th century 18ct gold enamel hunter pocket watch, the 18ct gold case bearing vari shade enamel decoration, one side a monogram, and the other coat of arms and 'y ddraig goch a ddyry gychwyn' motto (the red dragon inspires action).
Sold for £1,700 at Wilson 55.
Finally, the case detailing can account for a certain degree of value in pocket watches. In the above example, this superbly enamelled watch soared well above its estimate owing to the wonderful decoration on its case back and the provenance that it alluded to.
This eye-catching timepiece by J.W.Benson was commissioned by Sir Thomas Duncombe Love Jones-Parry, 1st Baronet for his sister. Love Jones-Parry was a colourful figure in Caernarfonshire, as both a landowner and the Liberal MP for the borough. Significantly, he was also one of the founders of the Welsh settlement at Patagonia, with Puerto Madryn named after his Welsh estate.
Decorative details to cases such as enamelling, embossing, gemstones, and engraving can really tell the story of a pocket watch and as such attract keen collectors.
Wondering what your pocket watch may fetch at auction? Feel free to get in touch with us for a free and confidential auction valuation. Our quarterly Fine Jewellery & Watches Sales regularly sell a wide variety of timepieces and attract brilliant prices owing to our cataloguing, presentation, viewing events, service, and well-established network of collectors and bidders.
For a free, confidential and obligation free valuation of your pocket watches, book an appointment with our valuer here. Alternatively, send clear photographs of your timepiece to include the dial, case back, dust cover and movement if possible and submit to our online valuation form.
References: Britten's Old Clocks & Their Makers, Clutton, Baillie & Ilbert
How The Watch Was Worn, Cummins
With thanks to Euro Antique Watches Ltd