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Buyer Beware!

I bought a clock recently from an online site. It is very pretty and was described as a rare Big Ben. I didn’t buy it because I thought it was “as advertised”. In fact, I strongly suspected it was not a “rare Big Ben”, but the price was reasonable, so I bought it to satisfy my curiosity.

I was absolutely correct that it was not a rare Big Ben, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected either. I thought I was going to find that this was a case of someone re-purposing a Big Ben by fitting it into a fancy case. What I found was a non-working (it was advertised as such) clock that someone had put together from “borrowed” parts. I decided this could be a good teaching tool.

If you’re going to collect anything, it’s a good idea to do your research before buying. How else can you be sure you are getting what you want? When it comes to Westclox clocks this can mean a lot of research. Just because it says Westclox, or even Western Clock Mfg. Co. or Western Clock Company doesn’t mean it really is. Just because I am curator of the Westclox Museum doesn’t mean I know all the answers, but I know how to search company records to try to find them. I also value the knowledge of experts who have been Westclox collectors for at least half a century. My first rule of collecting is research – it’s the only way to know what I’m buying.

My next rule is physical examination. Look over the item very carefully to determine its authenticity and detect any blemishes and flaws. If something looks contradictory to what your research has told you, ask questions of the buyer. Of course, when you’re buying online, it’s not possible to physically examine the item before purchase. Take a close look at any photos posted with the sale advertisement. Sometimes these can give you valuable clues to the item’s authenticity. Sometimes you just have to trust your instinct and hope it is right.

In the case of this clock, my first look at the photo told me something was not right. I have never known of a Big Ben being housed in an ornate cast case. Also, the dial seemed to be crowded in the bezel, with some of the numbers being almost cut off. There was no space at the lower part of the dial to indicate where the clock was made. A photo of the back also looked wrong. Instead of the standard gong back, there was only a flat, ill-fitting back with holes for the winding keys (knobs). I definitely didn’t think a Big Ben had started its life in this case. I still thought it was possible that someone had re-purposed a Big Ben by fitting it into the ornate case, so I bought it anyway.

Two days later, the clock arrived on my doorstep, and I anxiously unpacked it. It looked just like the photos I had seen before buying it, but when I removed the poorly-fit back, I could quickly see that I was wrong about my assumptions. Clue number one was a movement that didn’t look like any Westclox movement I had ever seen. Clue number two was evident to me even before I tried to remove the movement from the case. I could see that the Big Ben dial was held onto the faceplate by Scotch tape. Definitely a replacement dial. I could not easily get the whole thing out of the case, as the sheet metal inner case that someone had manufactured by hand was a very tight fit. Time to consult one of the expert collectors I mentioned.

One of the Museum’s volunteer curators just happens to be an expert collector, so I didn’t have to go far for a valued opinion. He confirmed that the movement was not a Westclox, but he didn’t know who the maker was. (He has theories, but since they are not verified, I won’t mention them here.) It was missing some parts, and he pointed out that the hammer that would have struck the gong of the clock to make the alarm ring had been bent to make the movement fit into the case. We didn’t bother to force it all the way out of the case – just put it back together to use as a “buyer beware” teaching tool.

A little more research by our expert gave us information on the ornate case. It started its life with the Waterbury Clock Co. in the late nineteenth or very early twentieth century. When marketed by Waterbury, its name was “Winner”, and it came in either bronze or nickel. The blue flowers on our nickel case were likely painted by someone who previously owned it – it was not marketed with painted flowers. It originally was an alarm clock, and the dial was rather plain and simple. It is possible that the movement in our clock is a Waterbury movement, but we can’t verify

This clock had a lot of things that signaled and proved it was less-than-genuine, but sometimes the signals are not so obvious. Often, our first clue is a dial with special interest subject matter. It is true that Westclox made hundreds of custom order dials for several models of their clocks. These custom dials were NOT placed on Big Ben or Baby Ben. In the very early years, it was not unusual for a dealer’s name and company to be imprinted on dials, but not illustrations or photos. If you find a Big Ben or Baby Ben with an illustration or photo dial, chances are the dial has been replaced, and was not manufactured by Westclox. Illustration or photo dials were placed on several other models, including pocket watches and wrist watches, beginning as early as 1909.

Subject matter can also point to non-authenticity. Many examples of African-American subject matter have been seen on the market. These are not authentic. The clocks and/or watches the images are on might be authentic Westclox products, but the dials are not. For more tips on these, and photo examples, go to Under Other Westclox Information, click on Fake Advertising and Character Clocks. Bill Stoddard, who maintains this site, is one of those expert collectors I mentioned earlier, and a good friend of the Westclox Museum. You’ll also find many more pieces of Westclox information on his site to help you identify the genuine Westclox clocks.

I’ve given you several examples of how to tell if a clock you are looking at is a genuine Westclox “as advertised”, but I must also tell you that there are some of our “at-least-a-century-old” clocks that don’t have the company name anywhere visible on them. That’s because in those early days the company was happy to get an order wherever they could get it, even if it meant it was marketed and sold by someone else. That’s where the experts are your most valuable tool. If it hadn’t been for our “resident expert”, I would have totally missed the opportunity to acquire the oldest clock in our museum – the 1892-93 model from the Columbian Exposition! Check out our Updates tab to see this beauty and also to see and hear its still-ticking, 125-year old movement!

I hope I’ve given you some helpful tips on how to be sure what you are buying is really “as advertised”. The bottom line is: when in doubt, check it out!

I do not intend this article as a negative reflection on the seller from whom I purchased my pretty clock. I informed him/her of my suspicions and my findings. He/she thanked me for the information, saying the clock had been a mystery to him/her.

Important Note: The Westclox company no longer exists, as of 2001, however the trade names Westclox and Big Ben were sold. Clocks with these names are being manufactured today in China, but the movements do not resemble the movements made by Westclox in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. All of these new clocks are clearly marked “Made in China” or simply “China”.

“You never know what you might find at the Westclox Museum!”

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