Marine chronometers

These gimbal-mounted clocks may have been rendered virtually obsolete by GPS, says Avril Groom, but their complexity still fascinates collectors

Wempe c1943 chronometer in oak box, sold for £744 at Charles Miller
Wempe c1943 chronometer in oak box, sold for £744 at Charles Miller | Image: © Charles Miller

When British watch brand Bremont collaborated four years ago with Rolling Stone and artist Ronnie Wood on a B1 marine chronometer, it set a new focus on an area of horology that was in danger of becoming overlooked. Bremont had already designed the timepiece in memory of John Harrison, the 18th-century British inventor of the genre, but having Wood add his personal artwork gave the piece a uniqueness and provenance that saw it eventually sell for £120,000 – against a starting price of £45,000 for the traditional box-mounted version.

Antique gimbal-mounted versions of this chronometer (built to keep perfect time in all weathers and seas and, crucially, to enable sailors to fix their position) may have been rendered virtually obsolete by GPS, but they are now very collectable. “Chronometers fascinate because they are so complex and were so essential,” says specialist dealer Ben Wright. “People who want to own them are highly inquisitive; they want to know how the movement works and how to navigate with it, neither of which are easy to understand.”

Breguet et Fils c1829 chronometer in mahogany box, sold for €16,000 at Dr Crott
Breguet et Fils c1829 chronometer in mahogany box, sold for €16,000 at Dr Crott | Image: Auctioneers Dr Crott

Chronometers mostly come mounted in a mahogany box and can be very beautiful, especially if a number are lined up. Often they appeal to design aficionados more than yacht owners, as the average 20ft-50ft yacht can be too cramped to have one, says Wright. Watch lovers are also – unsurprisingly – often swayed. Private-equity veteran Ken Lawrence is one such collector who also owns several 19th-century marine chronometers. He is drawn to “the historical value of marine horology, including the big part played by British clockmakers, from Harrison onwards”. Every model he owns is British. Those bought by the Admiralty are a good benchmark of quality, says Wright: “Look for the broad arrow on the dial that is the Admiralty mark.” Currently in stock, he has a 1917 two-day Admiralty chronometer by Johannsen for £5,800.

A two-day model with standardised movements can be snapped up at auction from prices in the low hundreds (for postwar 20th-century models). “It was much cheaper and less complex to make a one- or two-day model,” says maritime-objects auctioneer Charles Miller, “but if your clock-keeper had a week’s leave, you needed to keep it going, so the intricate eight-day version was created.” Miller’s next sale will be in November, but those interested in investing in an eight-day model sooner should look to London-based Howard Walwyn, which has several 19th-century models in stock, including those by John Bruce & Sons (£10,500) and Herbert Blockley & Co (£10,500).

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As in any vintage field, provenance and history make a huge difference to desirability. One of the 22 marine chronometers on the HMS Beagle fetched a record-breaking £100,900 at Bonhams last year. “Two had been known to survive and are in the British Museum,” says James Stratton, director of Bonhams’ clock department, which holds specialist sales twice a year in July and December. “But last year we were offered another two – the first had been on the Galápagos expedition so was worth more than the second, which hadn’t, and made £74,500.” This July 8, the auction house will have four marine clocks, including an early-19th-century Parkinson & Frodsham two-day chronometer (estimate £1,500-£2,500).

Serious collectors mostly have early models from the 18th century in their sights, and although any by Harrison would be in a museum, occasionally items by his followers John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw can be found for £5,000-£150,000. Late last year, Bonhams sold a late-18th-century one-day marine chronometer by Arnold for £31,250.

Parkinson & Frodsham 1825 chronometer in mahogany box, sold for £74,500 at Bonhams
Parkinson & Frodsham 1825 chronometer in mahogany box, sold for £74,500 at Bonhams | Image: Bonhams

By the 1850s, marine chronometers were increasingly production line and, says Wright, “are now worth between £2,000-£10,000 depending on the delicacy of the movement, the condition – boxes that have been altered reduce the price – and the maker. Other sought-after marques include Dent, Charles Frodsham and, more commercially, Thomas Mercer.” Miller recently sold a mid-20th- century Mercer eight-day model for £1,500; Bonhams sold a mid-19th- century two-day Dent chronometer last year for £10,000, while Wright will exhibit at Masterpiece London later this month, with a two-day model (£5,800) by Dent that was on board HMS Mars during the Anzac evacuation of 1915.

Some of these marine chronometer-makers are still going strong, like Italian Panerai and German Wempe. Specialist German auction house Dr Crott recently sold a Wempe chronometer from a U-boat for £3,233, and this May sold six vintage marine chronometers from other names still in production, such as Breguet and A Lange & Söhne, with hammer prices from €3,500-€25,000.

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Historical quirks also add value. Miller recently sold a superficially less valuable 1940s Wempe model with a Bakelite bowl for £500. “The Germans had run out of brass, which was used for munitions, and turned to Bakelite, which was inclined to warp,” he says. Another acquired taste is the unusual dog-strike binnacle clock, which chimes the ship’s night watches. “Because the watch hours were not regular they take a more complex movement,” says Miller. They are, says Wright, “real specialist collectors’ items, because if you just want a good-looking boat clock at home you don’t want one that strikes at odd hours of the night.”

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