July 2012 Fine Sale Maritime Antiques Auction Review

Published 19th July 2012

A Mercer's Marine Chronometer produced for the Admiralty. Realised: £1,200. (FS15/417).

A Mercer's Marine Chronometer produced for the Admiralty. Realised: £1,200. (FS15/417).

From a good selection of pieces within the sale, the strong pre-sale interest in marine instruments and nautical time pieces continued both in the room and via the online bidding.

The earliest forms of navigation relied on accurate time keeping and position recording by various arrays of instruments. A small brass folding rule brought to a valuation day in Kingsbridge in South Devon, though unassuming, proved to be an example by one of the 17th century's finest instrument makers, Walter Hayes (fl 1642-1692) (FS15/409).

A small brass folding rule produced by Walter Hayes (fl 1642-1692), one of the 17th century's finest navigational instrument makers. Realised: £2,200. (FS15/409).

A small brass folding rule produced by Walter Hayes (fl 1642-1692), one of the 17th century's finest navigational instrument makers. Realised: £2,200. (FS15/409).

Apprenticed to John Allen of the Grocers' Company in 1631 and freed in 1642, Walter Hayes was admitted to the Clockmakers' company in 1667 and was Master of The Clockmakers' company in 1680. Renowned for his sextants and sundials as well as rules, the quality of Walter Hayes' engraving has led to many examples of his work surviving in museums.

For a piece to appear in the sale from a valuation day is not only a pleasure for the valuer to see, but also an opportunity for the collector to obtain an example of Walter Hayes' fine work. Strong bidding from the room competed with international online buyers to the eventual hammer price of £2,200.

Ship's logs or sand glasses were used for keeping time of the ships working day of six four hour watches. In the early 19th century, Morris Tobias patented a movement for a large watch to replace the old sand glass. Tobias' patent was for a watch with a single revolution of half an hour with the dial further marked for hours and watch divisions. These pieces became known as 'Binnacle Clocks' and generated interest from both the Royal Navy and the US Navy.

 A Morris Tobias 'binnacle clock'. Hammer Price: £1,000. (FS15/408).

A Morris Tobias 'binnacle clock'. Hammer Price: £1,000. (FS15/408).

Production of Morris Tobias binnacle clocks began around 1812 and continued alongside Marine chronometer production and consignments delivered to the US Navy as late as 1864. The example in the sale was a simpler version of a binnacle clock with an enamel dial and single fuse movement signed 'Morris Tobias', international online interest once again helped it achieve £1,000 hammer price (FS15/408).

Marine Chronometers and time pieces have always attracted collectors because of the craftsmanship involved in producing accurate instruments.

Thomas Mercer moved to London from Lancashire where he had worked with the famed chronometer maker Thomas Russell. Finding work hard to come by, he was ready to emigrate to America. He had bought a one-way ticket, but then noticed a fine chronometer in the shop window of John Fletcher. He walked in and was immediately given a position as a watch springer and finisher. He established his own business in 1858 at New North Road, London before, in 1874, moving to St Albans and setting up a factory behind his house in Prospect Road.

In September 1900, Thomas Mercer was appointed as judge for the horological class at the Universal Exhibition held in Paris. Unfortunately he caught a cold on the ferry crossing over and died at the Hôtel Internationale, Paris, whereupon his son Frank took over the running of the business.

A 1929 advert in the British Industries Fair Catalogue shows Mercer's as manufacturers of the 'Octo' timekeeper System of Electric Synchronised Clocks for all purposes, both Land and Marine. Lot 417 in the sale was a 1942 example of a Marine Chronometer produced for the Admiralty and varies very little from those Chronometers produced in the 19th century. The quality of the Thomas Mercier name continues attracting bidders to pay £1,200 for a late example.


  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Fine Sale
  • Maritime Auctions
  • Maritime Antiques
  • Marine Chronometer
  • Nautical Instruments
  • Navigation Instruments
  • Thomas Mercer
  • Thomas Russell
  • Walter Hayes (fl 1642-1692)
  • Morris Tobias

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