The first "mystery clock" was made by a French magician

Terry And Kim Kovel
Kovel’s Antiques And Collecting

You probably have seen a “swinger” clock but never guessed how it worked. Most are small metal statues standing on a base while holding a long baseball bat, pendulum or other long, thin rod that is topped by a clock or a globe. It keeps time and the pendulum keeps swinging, but there is no sign of an electric plug or other power source.

The first “mystery clock” was made by a French magician, Jean Robert-Houdin, in 1845. Many other versions followed. Junghans, a German clock factory, made most of those seen today. Ansonia, an American clock company, also made these unusual clocks. The secret clock parts that kept the hands moving were even patented. The trick is that part of the base moves around slightly, keeping the pendulum swinging and moving the clock’s hands. Another type of mystery clock was made with two clear crystal disks with a clock hand painted on each. The disks turned with power from the base. Many copies of antique mystery clocks have been made.

The model with an elephant swinging the clock is a favorite that was originally made by Junghans but has been copied in China. Surprisingly, the original had an elephant made of white metal while the copies made before 1930 were bronze. Watch out. There are many copies sold today, and it is very difficult to tell old from new. There are swinger clocks with figures such as a boy with a bat, the Statue of Liberty, Diana, a cherub and even a kangaroo. Neal Auction Company recently sold a metal swinging elephant clock made about 1900, probably by Junghans, for $576. It had a bronze patina.

Q I’m looking for advice on selling a business card with Thomas Edison’s autograph on it. It’s the business card of Harry H. Harris and written on the back of the card in pencil is, “Signed around 1916 in presence of Harry Harris.” The card was given to me by Mr. Harris in 1972, when I was his paperboy. I was thinking of writing a brief description of how I got this and signing it in front of a notary public. Do you think that is sufficient authentication?

A The value of an autograph is based on the importance of the signer and the rarity of his signature. Handwritten, signed letters sell for the highest prices. Autographed photos sell for more than just a signature in an album or on a card. Condition is also important. There are auctions that specialize in autographs, and they will tell you what they need in order to provide authentication. A written description of how you got the card would help. You can find more information about what determines the value of an autograph on Heritage Auctions’ website,

Q I inherited old piano sheet music that belonged to my great-grandparents and grandparents. It’s in fragile to good condition with pictures of the artist on the cover. I’m trying to downsize, but don’t want to throw it out or give it away, but if it takes a lot of time to sort/picture/catalog it, it may not be worth my time either. Do you have some direction about what to do?

A Old sheet music is collectible. Most collectors want sheet music for the covers, not the music. Covers that picture a political event, war, old cars, trains, movie stars or Black memorabilia are the most desirable. The copyright date helps determine the age of the music. The size also helps date it. Before 1918, sheet music was printed on 11-by-14-inch paper. Pages measuring 9 by 12 inches were made after 1920. Early sheet music had lithographed illustrations. Photographs were used beginning in the early 1900s. Old sheet music sells in antiques shops, at flea markets and online. Music with all the pages intact and unmarked sells the best. If your music is fragile and starting to crumble, it will probably not sell. Look for upcoming auctions and find those selling sheet music or related items. They might want to sell your collection.

Q I have a USO jacket worn by Miss USA 1992 when the girls traveled to entertain the troops during the Gulf War. Dick Clark, Ed Mahon and Steve Harvey all signed this jacket for Shannon Marketic, Miss USA 1992. Is there any value to it?

A The USO, United Service Organizations, Inc., is a private, nonprofit organization founded in 1941 to support American troops and their families during World War II. The USO is best known for its tours of entertainers and other celebrities. They visit military bases at home and abroad in an effort to boost morale and connect the troops to home. The autographs and provenance of your jacket may add to the price it will bring. Auctions that specialize in celebrity memorabilia include Hake’s Auctions ( and Heritage Auctions ( There are also auctions of war memorabilia that might want to sell your jacket.

TIP: A paste of baking soda and water can be used to clean old enameled cast-iron pots.