Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-1871)
An exceptional exhibition mystery portico clock by the legendary horologist and magician Robert-Houdin made for the ‘Exposition des Produits de l’industrie Francaise’ in 1839 that incorporates never before seen horological mysteries that mystified both the public and, more importantly, his fellow horologists. Before this piece was discovered the most complicated known Robert-Houdin clocks were the ‘Series 4’ or ‘triple mystery clocks’. This exhibition piece not only incorporates the mysteries of the ‘Series 4’ but also includes several more making this the rarest and most complicated mystery clock every made by him. No other Robert-Houdin mystery clock has an inverted glass pendulum, concealed linkages between the escapewheel and the movement, two glass columns or the linkage between the rotating glass tube and the dial mechanism.
The well-cast and finished ormolu case has two glass columns that support the dial above and stand on a stepped base with interlocked garlands and a detailed molded edge. It is engraved ‘Inventée et exécutée pr. l’exposition de 1839 ROBERT HOUDIN’ around the escapement. The mark ‘VI’ is found in two places – the base and bottom of the dial support.
The dial is composed of two glass plates and has a split bezel secured by tiny screws, reverse painted Roman numerals for the hours, very light arrow shaped ormolu hands mounted to finely machined steel motion work and the whole is supported by a y-shaped cast ormolu support on a flat plate that spans the two columns. The hands are mounted with the minute hand on the inside and hour on the outside which is not normal for regular clocks, but typical for Robert-Houdin’s triple mystery clocks.
The time and strike movement is mounted in the base, wound and set out the back, has countwheel striking on a bell mounted to the back plate and is adapted to incorporate both the escapement and the glass tube. Most of the screws carry touch marks to help identify their position throughout the movement. Both springs are original and the time spring is inscribed with numerous repairers’ names and dates including the original spring maker ‘Berel jeune avril 1839’. The inverted decorative grid-iron pendulum has glass rods and bob, a spring suspension, the fast/slow with micro adjustment and lock nut at the top and a steel wire crutch shaped to be as inconspicuous as possible below. The dead-beat escapement has a finely cut five-spoke escapewheel that is screwed to the collet and horizontally secured by a set screw. It also has steel pin pallets on steel caliper-style arms, a finely threaded depth adjustment, a slip in the pallet collet to adjust the beat and jeweled pivot holes in the two shaped stands. The glass pendulum bob has a small flake/chip on the bottom edge.
How is the power transferred from the movement below to the escapewheel?
The secret lies in the rear jewel of the escapewheel arbor. It is not solid as expected and like the others, but is actually two jewels. The front jewel is attached to a castle gear and is mounted on the escapewheel arbor. The power is transferred from the movement below by an arbor that goes up through the back stand. It engages that castle gear and in turn provides power to the escapewheel. Although they present as a single stationary jewel only the rear jewel where the pivot spins is stationary. The front jewel is actually always spinning with the arbor.
Robert-Houdin was a master at creating horological mysteries by cleverly concealing the transfer of power from the movement to the hands. Derek Roberts in his book ‘Mystery, Novelty and Fantasy Clocks’ creates six categories that he refers to as ‘series’ for the Robert-Houdin type mystery clocks with each ‘series’ based on a new ingenious mystery. It is often assumed that they followed a straight forward chronological arch beginning in about 1837 with each new innovative design being conceived and produced simultaneously in subsequent years. Robert-Houdin, as this clock proves, had already worked out almost all the mysteries by 1838/39 and simply produced new series based on different mysteries as the public lost interest in the previous ones.
The Exposition des Produits de l’industrie Francaise en 1839, the ninth exhibition under Louis Philippe, ran from May 1– July 31, 1839 in the Grand Carré des Fétes ou des Jeux on the Champs Elysées. It included 3381 exhibitors and Robert-Houdin won a bronze medal for his mechanical ingenuity and business acumen.
The June 10, 1839 edition of ‘The Moniteur Universel’ was particularly enthusiastic when reviewing Houdin’s exhibit:
‘The feats of strength are not lacking in the category we are dealing with. The most remarkable is the mysterious pendulum, exhibited under no. 824 by M Robert-Houdin street Vendome no.13. This piece, the description of which would be too long for our frame, has considerably worked the imagination of the watchmakers and the numerous visitors to the Exhibition: we are convinced that for each of the singular effects it offers to the curiosity of all, more than fifty means, more or less ingenious, have been born, and that at present there are at least a hundred or so mysterious clocks. We will render full justice to the fertile skill of Mr. Robert-Houdin in recognizing that he is doing a truly remarkable work; But we can only regret that he has expended so much talent for the sole purpose of putting the minds of his confreres into torture, when he could have used, more usefully for art, the resources of his fertile imagination.’
This piece is a tour de force in horological mysteries some of which were never used before or have been used since. One can only assume fooling other horologists would be exponentially more satisfying to Robert-Houdin then creating another pretty clock.
Exhibited at The Exposition des Produits de l’industrie Francaise en 1839 by Robert-Houdin.
Millicent Rogers (1902-1953) – Model, Socialite, Artist. Granddaughter of Henry Huddleston Rogers who was one of the partners in Standard Oil. Believed to have bought the clock in the early 1930’s.
Arturo Peralta-Ramos II (1928-2015) – International Sportsman and Businessman. Inherited the clock from his mother Millicent Rogers.
To see this magnificent clock running go to our youtube channel at sundialfarm.
The excerpt about Robert-Houdin’s bronze medal is listed on pg.237 of ‘Rapport du Jury central. Paris: Chez L. Bouchard-Huzard, 1839’.
For a much more in depth history of Robert-Houdin see: ‘Mystery, Novelty & Fantasy Clocks’ by Derek Roberts, Chapter 19.
‘Le Moniteur Universel’, 10, Juin, 1839.
20.5 in. high
10.5 in. wide
5 5/8 in. deep
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