A fine and rare gilt bronze and glass mystery clock. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Paris, mid 19th century.
Lot 1136
A fine and rare gilt bronze and glass mystery clock. Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Paris, mid 19th century.
Sold for US$ 68,500 inc. premium
Lot Details
A fine and rare gilt bronze and glass mystery clock.
Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, Paris, mid 19th century.

The transparent circular glass dial with roman chapters and gilt arrow hands within a gilt bezel above a transparent glass column on a fluted gilt base supported by four mythical creatures, all resting on a brass inlaid ebonized oval base concealing a movement with platform lever escapement, striking the hour and half hour on a gong by means of a count wheel.
height 22 1/2in (57cm)


  • The clock has been recently restored and a conservation report from West Dean College accompanies the lot.

    By the early 19th century, improved manufacturing methods, driven by increasing consumer demand led to the proliferation of relatively inexpensive clocks. What had been an expensive luxury was now an affordable decorative accessory. Nevertheless, "clockwork" remained an object of fascination. The workings of even the most humble shelf clock remained somewhat mysterious. Imagine then what a 19th century audience thought of a clock that had no apparent mechanism.

    The present clock is a fine example of such a "mystery" made by Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805 – 1871) today considered the father of modern magic and during his lifetime, a French national hero.

    Throughout Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin's life the magical and the mechanical were always deeply intertwined. We see this dichotomy best expressed in his famous stage acts such as "The Marvelous Orange Tree" and his unique horological designs.

    Born into a family of clockmakers in 1805, young Jean Eugène was a lover of the mechanical arts, especially automatons and soon began an apprenticeship under his cousin Jean Martin Robert. Soon after, Jean Eugène began to work for Noriet, a prominent horologer in Tours where on one fateful day, a very ill Jean Eugène met the famous conjurer Giovanni Torrini. After moving to Paris to start a comedy company, Jean Eugène met his future wife, Josèphe Cécile Egaltine Houdin, a daughter of the famous horologist, Jacques-François Houdin, who was once under the tutelage of A.L. Breguet. After their marriage, Jean Eugène changed his last name to "Robert-Houdin," and with this change came a great rebirth for the artist whose career as both an illusionist, inventor and horologist soon soared to incredible heights.

    This rare and important clock is part of his fourth series of clocks. In the late 1830s, Robert-Houdin began to make mystery clocks with glass dials and their movements hidden in the base of the clock. As the movements for these clocks were invisible to the naked eye, onlookers were enchanted by the pieces, coming up with their own theories on how the hand moved. Robert-Houdin showcased his creations at the Exhibition of French Industry in 1839, for which he won a bronze medal.

    The secret of this mystery clock is that the glass column is actually two concentric tubes. The outer one is fixed but the inner one is free to rotate transmitting motion from the movement to the dial. The dial is also made in two parts. The numerals are painted on a fixed disc. The hands are moved by a second disc with finely notched rim that engages the inner column. This mechanism was the inspiration for the 20th century mystery clocks of Cartier.

    Throughout the 1840s and 50s, Robert-Houdin's celebrity grew as he preformed private shows for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace and exhibited his inventions at the Universal Exposition of 1855. He passed away from pneumonia on June 13th, 1871, aged 65.

    Perhaps the most famous tribute to the master illusionist was Ehrich Weiss's decision to change his name to Houdini.
  1. Jonathan Snellenburg
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