By Laura in collaboration with our in-house expert Annick van Itallie | 22nd September 2020
Cuckoo clocks often show up in movies, cartoons, literature and music as a metaphor for madness, childhood, innocence or fun, but they're also simply beautiful and valuable items. We asked antiques expert, Annick van Itallie, to explain the main things she looks at when appraising cuckoo clocks that help determine its value.
“Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock. "
- Harry Lime, 'The Third Man'
Orson Welles' character in the 1949 film The Third Man was not the only one confused about the origins of the cuckoo clock. In fact, many think the cuckoo clock comes from Switzerland, but it's more likely that it originated in the village of Schönwald in Germany. Schönwald, literally meaning beautiful forest, evolved into 'Black Forest'. Genuine Black Forest cuckoo clocks are some of the most valuable and can be identified by their hand-carved cases depicting the culture of the region. Additionally, the manufacturer's name will be visible somewhere on the case or stamps on the parts of the mechanism inside. This will help you determine the origin of your cuckoo clock and its value.
Late 20th-century cuckoo clock from the Black Forest
Sounds and Songs
One of the most distinctive features of the cuckoo clock is the cuckoo call which served as a natural reminder of the changing of the seasons throughout Europe. Some cuckoo clocks also play melodies. These musical clocks tend to be more valuable and the more tunes the clock plays, the more value it will have. So how do you tell which clocks are musical? It's as simple as counting the weights which hang from the clock. Musical cuckoo clocks will have three weights, usually in the shape of pinecones. The first two weights power the movement of the clock and operate the cuckoo call, while the third operates additional features such as extra songs.
This is a Black Forest cuckoo clock with a music box. It three weights, indicating that it is a musical clock.
There are two types of mechanisms a cuckoo clock can have: 1-day and 8-day mechanisms. As their names suggest, 1-day mechanisms need to be wound every day and 8-day mechanism need only be wound once a week. Clocks with 8-day mechanisms are more valuable than those with 1-day mechanisms. Additionally, collectors often look specifically for clocks with working mechanisms so it's important to test the mechanism to see if it works when determining the value. If the mechanism isn't working, this doesn't necessarily mean the clock is worthless. Some horologists seek out not-functioning clocks for spare parts, or sometimes solely for their case if it's exceptionally beautiful and in good condition.
There are 2 different types of movements that a cuckoo clock can have: mechanical and quartz. Clocks with mechanical movements are more valuable than those with quartz movements because of the craftsmanship that goes into making the movement. While you can expect that most antique cuckoo clocks will have a mechanical movement, this is easy to test: simply pull the weights to see if the clock requires constant winding.
The specific shapes of the clock should also be factored in when determining its value. Is it a chalet, railroad house or the classical environment of the Black Forest? Or is it a hunting scene depicting deer and pine cones?
Left: Early 20th-century Swiss chalet-style cuckoo clock. Right: Early 20th-century West German railroad house-style cuckoo clock.
A great deal of a cuckoo clock's value lies in its quality. The quality can be determined by the materials used and the level of craftsmanship that went into the clock's construction. It's important to look at the quality in relation to all the aforementioned points. Look at the quality of the carvings on clocks coming from the Black Forest, the quality and diversity of the mechanism, and the quality of the movement. Higher quality clocks will command higher prices.
Last but not least is the condition of the clock. Since many cuckoo clocks are made of linden tree wood, a very soft and fragile type of wood, the clock often has cracks or even missing parts. Checking the clock carefully is very important. Any cracks or missing parts will detract from the value of the cuckoo clock. Although collectors and horologists often look for damaged clocks for the use of restoration, a complete, high-quality clock in good condition will be the most valuable.
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