What you see: A George Nelson ball wall clock, designed for the Howard Miller company and dating to 1949. Rago Arts and Auctions estimates it at $250 to $450.
The expert: Michael Ingham, Rago’s COO and director of its Unreserved department.
The Howard Miller company produced the ball wall Clock from 1948 to 1969. Do we know how many it made? There are no records that I know of. They made them for 21 years. That shows you how much people liked them. They were very popular and remain so today.
So the clock was a hit from day one? From the day it arrived on the market. 1948 was right at the beginning of the atomic age. The Trinity test was July of 1945, and by August 1946, we dropped Little Boy at Hiroshima. Americans were feeling pretty powerful at that point.
Why was it such a hit right away? It was the end of the war and the beginning of a great boom in America. It was considered radically modern–it was the first clock not to have numbers on the face. That was a big departure. And it looked perfect on a kitchen wall.
Howard Miller offered the clock in six different versions. How popular is the multi-color example coming up for sale at Rago? I call it polychrome. They were, in my opinion, the most popular model, and the one we’ve seen the most of. The runner up is the black ball version, which looks a bit sleeker. The polychrome version is the epitome of the design, and it’s what people look for. [Vitra creates reproductions of all six versions of the clock.]
George Nelson didn’t personally design everything that bears his name. Did he design this clock, or did someone else in his studio do it? Nelson was not the designer of this. Nelson felt it was important, as a branding thing, that he get the credit in the public arena. He would name the designers in technical journals. That’s how Nelson chose to run his firm. It was not a secret that others made the designs, it just wasn’t out for public consumption. Irving Harper designed this. He was a famous guy in his own right.
Officially, the name of this timepieces is “Clock 4755.” A quick glance makes clear why people call it “The Ball Clock,” but do we know when and how it got its popular name? The model number is the driest name possible. I don’t know how it got the name “The Ball Clock.” It was possibly a savvy marketer at Howard Miller. But in my 20 years here, no one has referred to it as anything but.
The original run of this clock was long, and while we don’t know exactly how many were made, we know there had to be a whole honking lot of them. What does it take for a mass-produced object to remain popular enough to command a three-figure auction estimate seventy years after it left the factory? Most of the 20th century design market was made for mass production, but good design is always good design. Fifty years ago, it was a good design, and now, it’s still a good design.
The ball clock is definitely of its era, and yet it manages not to look old. How does it pull off that neat little trick? It definitely references a specific period in history, and I think people like that. Speaking as an older guy, I can remember them hanging on the walls of parents’ houses as a kid. It’s a very clean, modern design. It is radically modern in its way. It’s so clean, you can project what you want onto it. And it’s small. It’s not a big commitment. It’s not like buying a giant sofa. It’s like buying a throw pillow, in the design world.
What condition is it in? And do collectors tend to be fussy about these clocks, given that there’s so many from the original run still out there? People can be very fussy. This one is not in the greatest of condition. The hands are a little bit loose. The enamel on the body of the clock got stained and chipped over time. The enameling on the balls is pretty good, and these are good colors. This particular one is electric, and is meant to plug into a wall.
What condition issues do you tend to see with the Ball wall clocks? The hands often are a bit bent because [the metal] is very thin and very soft. The balls can often be repainted. Most auction houses don’t sell them guaranteed to function. I’ve never plugged it in, so I don’t know if it functions.
How often do original-run George Nelson Ball wall clocks come up at auction? We’ve handled at least one for every year I’ve worked here. Probably closer to 25.
How did you arrive at the estimate? It’s a pretty standard item for us. This particular model, in this particular condition, should go in the $250 to $300 range. A really, really pristine one would get $600 to $800. The dirty little secret of auctions is that estimates should be a little bit enticing, they should be a tad lower. If I can get you to raise your hand once, I can get you to raise your hand again.
What’s the auction record for a George Nelson Ball wall clock? The early 2000s were the hottest moment for these things. The record was $1,527 at at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) in June 2004.
When I think of George Nelson, I think of his marshmallow sofa, and this clock. Why has it come to symbolize his work? It was right at the beginning of his career. It was considered radically modern at the time, and it summed up a period of time [in America]. A lot of what Nelson did was square, with clean lines. And Nelson designs are clever. Not that they’re funny, but they make you smile. This clock has that same sort of feeling to it.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Auctions.
Special thanks to Shannon Loughrey at Los Angeles Modern Auctions (LAMA) for digging into auction records that aren’t online to confirm the record sale price for the ball clock.
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