No Provenance, No Problem

March 18th, 2017

Willis Henry Auctions, Rockland, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Willis Henry Auctions

All 53 lots of military watches and instruments sold strongly, without reserves, at Willis Henry Auctions on the afternoon of Saturday, March 18. The Commander William R. Bricker single-owner collection was offered live at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Rockland, Massachusetts, but sold mostly to Internet, absentee, and phone bidders.

Willis Henry, a longtime auctioneer based in Marshfield, Massachusetts, is well known for his Shaker expertise. He recently visited a local home to view a possible Shaker furniture consignment. The piece was not Shaker, but the family mentioned a timepiece collection that they also wanted to sell. Henry took the consignment, produced a dedicated printed catalog, and marketed aggressively.

Commander Bricker (1923-2001) carried on his father’s passion for military timepieces. For several years he led the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors’ Society of Military Horologists. He unexpectedly died at age 78 from heart failure just after leaving the July 2001 NAWCC convention in New Orleans. I attended that big meeting and recall seeing him there.

Horology was his hobby. Director of the Boys Clubs of America from 1972 to 1989, he was a nationally recognized figure who for more than 40 years worked as a champion of children. Earlier in life, he served as a naval aviator during World War II and then continued his military activities in the Naval Reserve, ending as a Naval Air group commander. His interest in military timekeeping originated during those years of service.

My article title may be a bit misleading, but it echoes the oft-repeated statements by Willis Henry and his horological advisor for this sale, Dan Haff. They made it clear that the only guaranteed provenance was that the pieces were from the Bricker collection. This can be verified not only because the collection came from Bricker family members but also because most of the timepieces appear in the printed 2001 catalog accompanying a special exhibit at the National Watch and Clock Museum in Columbia, Pennsylvania. In that booklet, 67 timepieces are listed and described, but Henry explained that some were retained by the family.

The exhibit booklet obviously eased the cataloging chore for Henry and Haff. Mostly the information for each piece in the booklet and in the Henry auction catalog directly corresponds. The booklet contains substantially more information about the subject background and about the celebrity attributions made by Bricker. This is where, for some collectors and horology experts, some questions arose.

Although the auctioneer emphatically urged bidders to pay just for the watch, not for attributions engraved on cases and accompanying brass plates, it became clear that bidders could not resist names like Sir Ernest Shackleton, Admiral David G. Farragut, Admiral R.E. Peary, Admiral Richard Byrd, James Doolittle, W.F. “Bull” Halsey Jr., and E. Rommel. Lesser-known historical figures also appeared, such as C.V. Gridley, commander of the U.S.S. Olympia at the 1898 battle of Manila Bay, W.T. Sampson, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron during the Spanish-American War, and ace pilot Roscoe Turner.

The top lot, sold to an Internet bidder, was this circa 1900 English explorer’s watch supplied by Herbert Blockley. A screw-down cover for the winding crown helps keep the movement dry. It is associated with famous Antarctic traveler Sir Ernest Shackleton and the Royal Geographic Society. Estimate $2500/3500; sold for $9600.

No lot carried a receipt or documentation from Bricker supporting these attributions. To some experienced eyes, certain case engravings looked in an inappropriate style, appeared as if they might have been done by the same hand, showed no signs of wear, were unusually located on the case edges, and had questionable attributions and dating. Other experts questioned whether some watches were of sufficient quality for their associated users. Nonetheless, for most lots, the high bids seemed well above what unattributed and unengraved timepieces would bring at auction these days, so the market had the final say.

This unsigned English silver pair-case pocket watch carries an 1861 inscription including “D.G. Farragut.” Bricker claimed that Union Admiral David Farragut used this watch during the Civil War. Estimate $800/1200; sold for $5100.

This is not to deny that many of the lots were timepieces important in their own right. There were examples by English makers Arnold, Pennington, and Blockley. There were several good American watches by Waltham, Hamilton, Elgin, and Howard. French watches included one by Pierre LeRoy. There were good pieces by Swiss makers Ulysse Nardin, Huguenin, Tissot, Longines, Lemania, Agassiz, Rolex, and Omega. Japanese, German, and Russian makers also were represented. Specialized chronographs, chronometers, compasses, and timers added to the selection. For several lots, the high bids fairly represented the market value even without celebrity associations.

John Arnold (1736-1799), one of England’s most renowned watchmakers, signed the movement of this circa 1800 pocket chronometer. It features his style of detent escapement. The silver case has the engraved name of Captain Henry Blackwood, who served under Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. The 2001 exhibit booklet offers more than two pages of information about Blackwood and that famous 1805 sea battle. Estimate $2500/3000; sold for $4560.

Overall, the sale could be considered a tribute to Commander Bricker. His avid collecting and promotion of military timepieces, his long military service, and his professional career in child advocacy have previously been acknowledged and honored. The new owners of his collection now have added to that deserved recognition.

For further information, see Willis Henry Auctions’ website ( Sold prices reflect a 20% buyer’s premium.

According to the engraving on this 18k gold case, Pratt and Whitney presented this Swiss Agassiz pocket watch to Roscoe Turner in 1930. He was a prize-winning and flamboyant aviator, with a pet lion. The chronograph movement probably was the nicest of its kind in the sale, and on its own it was well worth the high bid. Estimate $1000/1200; sold for $2400.

This American Watch Company, Waltham, Massachusetts, Model 83 pocket watch has Matthew Henson’s name engraved on its case edge. The exhibit booklet includes a photograph of Henson and Admiral Peary, who were together on the 1908 North Pole expedition. The base-metal Silveroid case kept down the original purchase price. According to the movement serial number, the watch was made in 1887, so it was more than 20 years old at the time of the polar adventure. Estimate $150/200; sold for $3240.

Three pages of the 2001 exhibit booklet are devoted to the Spanish-American War. Included is a photograph of Captain Charles V. Gridley, commanding officer of the cruiser Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship. This Elgin coin-silver pocket watch is engraved “U.S.S. Olympia, C.V. Gridley, Commander, 1898.” Estimate $450/550; sold for $2280.

This is an example of the wood boxes and brass descriptive plates Bricker produced to display some of his collection. The Swiss Longines chronograph pocket watch has a 1929 inscription including the name “James Doolittle,” a famous civilian and army pilot. Estimate $400/500; sold for $1320.

Titled in the auction catalog as an explorer’s watch, this Swiss Longines model is much more fully described, as an aviation timepiece, in the classic 1992 book Military Timepieces by Marvin E. Whitney (my first clock-repair instructor). Whitney wrote that it would help calculate gasoline consumption during flights and that Admiral Byrd used several of these on his polar trips. The Bricker example’s case engraving reads “Byrd Antarctic Expedition - 1933.” Estimate $500/700; sold for $2400.

Originally published in the May 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest

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