Investing in clocks and watches – P.W. Cumhaill (1967)

Last updated on September 3, 2020

For fun I ordered a copy of this book, available quite cheaply on the used market. I read somewhere that the author used a pseudonym, and that he worked (as a curator?) in one of the major British museums. (See [*] below…)

The prices and general advice on investing trends are obviously outdated (the book was written 50 years ago!), but I found a lot of the general background information on historical trends in clock and watch evolution, quite enjoyable and informative to read. Of particular interest and relevance were his discussions on the trends in production of fakes and forgeries over the centuries, and the care with which potential investors should approach some of the “ancient” or “antique” timepieces available on the market.

It’s also quite interesting to see what some of the investing trends were like in the 1960’s, what people were buying and why (and at what price!).

Obviously, there have been many many changes in investment philosophies and approaches in the decades since (the increasing infatuation with wristwatches easily comes to mind). I recall a knowledgeable seller of fine pocket watches at the Portobello Market in London lamenting to me a few months ago, that buyers today were “only interested in Rolex’s and Omega’s”.

It would be nice to go back in time and buy up some of the nice timepieces, watches in particular, that “Cumhaill” suggests, at the prices they could be bought for at that time. Then again, he pointed out that they could have been had for even cheaper a decade before.

I don’t consider myself a “collector”, but found this book an interesting read, and some of the insights and general advice are perfectly applicable today, in my humble opinion.

A few quotes…
– Collecting provides a hedge against inflation and currency devaluation, but this should be thought of as a fringe benefit rather than the first objective.
– Only the rich can afford to throw money away.
– The biggest dividends [of collecting] are the pleasures of building and living with collections, of studying a chosen subject, and of pursuing new acquisitions.
– There are many opportunities for the newcomer to become an expert in a previously unknown branch of the field

Here is the final paragraph from the book, may it be useful to some here. I wish I had heard some of these things when I started out with my humble acquisitions and “collecting”.

Finally, a few general points that apply particularly to the investor with financial limitations. Never guess; if you do not know, ask somebody’s advice, check and then make up your own mind. Never buy at random, always have a buying policy — unless you can afford to be a magpie. Always buy the best you can afford, and if you cannot afford it leave it alone. You may have to liquidate in a hurry and probably at a loss. If you do make a loss, try to find out where you went wrong. If after buying something you find that you have made a mistake, get rid of it. If you find a good source of supply, look after it. But if you see something which you know if of interest to someone else, tell them. With any luck they will do the same for you. Goodwill always pays dividends, and today’s unconsidered trifle will be tomorrow’s antique.

In a chapter entitled “Areas for investment”, the author offers suggestions of types of watches or clocks that a collector (or investor) of somewhat “modest” means could look for, in the 20-50 UKP ballpark price range. He purposely avoids more expensive items, since they are generally out of the buying range of more modest collectors. At first I thought “gee, there were some very nice items available in those price ranges back then” but looking at one of the inflation calculators, 50 pounds in 1967 equates to around 750 pounds today, which is not a trivial sum. Sort of demonstrates I suppose, that wise acquisitions 50 years ago would maintain good resale value.

Whether the same holds true today for some of the items he was suggesting back then, is anybody’s guess. Plus as I indicated earlier, trends and tendencies have obviously changed since 1967, and a lot of serious money is currently being spent by wealthy investors/collectors on Rolex’s and other “desirable” wristwatches of the 50’s-70’s, at the expense of some of the fine pocket watches deemed more desirable back then. I know I’m speaking in gross generalities, but I find these trends interesting, even though I don’t personally play in those sandboxes.

I first read about this book in an interview with French collector and watch history expert and author Adolphe Chapiro. He said that when he started out acquiring timepieces in the late 60s, he relied a lot on the recommendations in this book. Chapiro was a successful industrial chemist by profession, and would regularly travel the world for meetings and conferences. Everywhere he went, he would scour antique shops, second-hand shops, estate sales, horology auctions, etc., and amassed a most impressive collection of (mostly but not uniquely) historical French watches. Many of his watches are featured in his two great books “La montre française” (the French watch) and “Jean-Antoine Lépine”. His collection was sold a few years ago at auction in France, and the prices obtained were most impressive. Obviously, his collecting earned a significant dividend for him in his old age, and for his estate. But in my opinion his greatest achievement was analyzing and documenting all his acquisitions, and describing and showcasing them admirably in many articles and in his two books, which in my estimation are two of the finest books on horology ever published (sadly for some readers, neither are available in English).

[*] The author’s real name is Philip G. Coole. He also wrote a book on Orpheus Clocks, and co-authored a book on stackfreed watches at the British Museum (where I assume he worked in the horology department). Here is how Richard Watkins sums up the book in his bibliography (I mostly agree with his assessment):

This book is about buying timepieces as investments, to make money. The focus is on what is worth buying (in 1967) and how to buy, with good advice on collecting, fragments, restoration and the recognition of fakes. The book is limited to pre 1800 pieces. The prices, based on auction figures in 1967, provide an interesting basis for comparison with the present day. The bibliography is interesting because it is one of the few where the author’s opinions are given. But it is restricted to works related to assessing investment potential. I found the book rather ponderous (partly because of poor text layout) and dated, but it is interesting.

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