Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

Balancing out the handful of stellar results in this 293-lot, £802,980 sale of clocks, watches, barometers and mechanical music, was a slew of more predictable results for the less exceptional entries. A 30 per cent slice of the entries was left unsold.

This was the first Sotheby’s clock auction to be held back in Bond Street since the department returned after a two-and-a-half-year sojourn in their Olympia rooms. The move from the auctioneers’ second sale venue to their West End rooms has taken place “because the type of thing we are selling is more easily sold in Bond Street”, said watch specialist Jonathan Darracott. He reckons that Bond Street, with its retailing dominance is “very much a watch area”, especially from the consignor’s standpoint. (The department say that in the first two weeks after moving back to Bond Street they took in £70,000 worth of goods over the counter).

Certainly there was no doubt about the strength of demand and interest in the watch that headlined this March 31 event – the rare gold, open-faced Breguet pictured right. The 2 3/4in (6cm) diameter pocket watch, numbered 942, was not only by the celebrated French firm of Breguet et Fils but also had an illustrious original owner. It was sold in 1805 to the famous Scottish-born engineer James Watt and an inscription to the inside back cover revealed that it had been presented in 1820 to Francis Jeffrey Esq by Watt’s son “as a memorial of him and a token of regard and esteem”. In addition to these attractions, the watch was technically interesting, having a jewelled dead beat verge escapement (Breguet watch escapements were generally cylinder or lever). So, while the Watt provenance was undoubtedly an attraction (Mr Darracott said it prompted some keen initial bidding), once the competition took the price substantially beyond the £15,000-20,000 estimate, the contest was down to two combatants for whom horological features were probably dominant. One of these was the Breguet Museum, who have been building up a collection of their past work for some time now and was sufficiently determined to go to £60,000 to secure it.

A few lots earlier there was stiff competition for a French gold and enamel watch of c.1790 with a movement signed Bassereau. This had an unusual pivoted detent escapement and was a fairly early example of a watch with a musical movement, with a pinned barrel playing five hammers on four bells. Its case had attractive polychrome enamelling of a floral vase set against a landscape. This mix of desirable features was enough to take the price to £22,000, comfortably over expectations, with the hammer falling to a private overseas purchaser.

Watches made up the lion’s share of this sale, accounting for 193 of the 293 lots, although most were of the wrist rather than the pocket variety. In terms of overall take-up, however, the strike rate was around the same for the watches as for the smaller clock section, with around two thirds finding buyers in each case.

Starring role in the clocks was awarded to a wall regulator of small proportions by the well-regarded maker Alexander Cumming (1732-1814). Cumming was born in Edinburgh but moved to London to work and his most celebrated commission is the barograph clock made for George III and still in the Royal Collection.

Sotheby’s offering was a more modest example, measuring 5ft 1 1/2in (1.56m) high in a mahogany case and featuring a six-pillar movement with pin-wheel escapement and an unusually constructed double spring roller suspension to give greater stability to the gridiron pendulum. Eighteenth century wall-mounted (as opposed to free-standing) regulators rarely come up for sale and this example had the bonus of being privately entered in what Sotheby’s head of clocks Michael Turner described as the untouched “sleepy condition” so loved by the trade. It outstripped an estimate of £15,000-20,000 to sell to an American collector for £34,000.

The main area of difficulty in the clock section, reckoned Michael Turner, was the painted face longcases in the £1000-2000 bracket, which he felt were not finding buyers as easily as they did in the Billingshurst rooms.