Robert-Houdin: magician and inventor of the mystery clock

mystery clock

19th century Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin double mystery clock. 8-day time and strike movement signed “Robert Houdin, Paris, 8896, 4 4, 51” with platform escapement and bell strike. Dial with a fixed glass front plate having Roman numerals marked “Robert-Houdin, Paris,” on a velvet-covered plinth and gilded wooden base that rests on a conforming ebonized base, 20 inches tall. Sold for $18,750 at an auction held October 10, 2020 by Schmidt’s Auctioneers.

NEW YORK – Every so often someone special comes along who excels in more than one unrelated field. Ted Williams was famously the world’s best at three things: hitting a baseball, fly-fishing and piloting a bomber plane. Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed considerable success across three careers: bodybuilding, acting and politics. Then there’s Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (French, 1805-1871), who excelled in the world of magic and illusion and was also a master clock and watch maker. He married both skills when he devised his signature invention: the mystery clock.

He was born Jean-Eugène Robert in Blois, France, the son of a clockmaker. His father wanted him to be an attorney, but Jean-Eugène wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps as a watchmaker. When he was about 20, his mind made up, he ordered a two-volume set of books titled Treatise on Clockmaking. But when his order arrived in the mail, instead he’d received a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Curious, he kept the books and pursued magic as a hobby.

Already someone who enjoyed tinkering with gadgets, the young man found himself immersed in the rudiments of magic and he practiced all hours of the day, in addition to his clockmaking work. He took lessons from a local amateur magician, who taught him sleight-of-hand, juggling and cups and balls. The man taught his student that digital dexterity came with repetition, so Jean-Eugene practiced constantly. But he was also a rising star in the horology world, and when he felt ready he moved to Tours, set up a watchmaking shop and did conjuring on the side.

mystery clock

Robert-Houdin lady statue mystery clock, the dial having gilt numerals and markers plus star hands; 40 inches tall. Sold for $13,310 at an October 6, 2018 auction conducted by Tom Harris Auction Center

He performed at social parties as a professional magician, and it was at such a party he met and instantly fell in love with Josephe Cecile Houdin – a Parisian watchmaker’s daughter – and they were soon married. Robert took his wife’s maiden name and hyphenated it to his own, becoming Robert-Houdin. So, much later, when the famous magician Harry Houdini (real name Erich Weiss) adopted the stage name Houdini, he was actually taking the name of his hero’s wife. Further, Houdini incorrectly believed that the “i” on the end of a name meant “like” in French.

Robert-Houdin went on to become one of the most famous magicians and illusionists of the 19th century, transforming magic from a pastime for the lower classes (seen at fairs mostly) to an entertainment for the well-to-do. He was the first magician to perform in tails, at a theater he opened in Paris. But at the same time, he was still a full-time clock and watch maker. His interest in gadgetry, combined with his passion for illusion, led to his invention of the mystery clock.

mystery clock

Robert-Houdin figural mystery swinger clock with reverse-painted glass dial with black Roman hour numerals, arrow-style hands, a brass disc center with small unusual pinwheel mystery escapement and pendulum bob behind the hands and contained within. 30 inches tall. Sold for $6,615 at an auction held March 23, 2019 by Fontaine’s Auction Gallery

Mystery clocks are aptly named, because at first glance they seem to have no workings at all. The clock hands don’t appear to be connected to anything and they seem to move without any apparent mechanism to drive them. Even if you turn a mystery clock over and examine the back, there’s still no clue as to how it ticks and keeps accurate time. Understandably, these mind-boggling marvels were an instant hit with the buying public and they’re still prized today by collectors and nostalgia buffs alike.

So, how does a mystery clock work? Well, as Robert-Houdin would gladly tell you, it’s a trick. The mystery lies in the movement of the clock’s hands. The workings are hidden from view, so the hands appear to move on their own. Clockmakers, not just Robert-Houdin, have devised many ways to achieve this illusion, and many are patented. Robert-Houdin used various optical tricks in his mystery clocks, including a rod that ran up through the ornate clock base and along the right of the top of the case, attaching to a screw that was connected to a second, invisible glass dial that turned behind the visible dial. His first mystery clock was the hit of the Exhibition of the French Industry of 1839.

mystery clock

Robert-Houdin square dial mystery clock. Paris, mid-19th century. Two-handed glass dial mystery clock, beveled dial bearing Roman and Arabic numerals, the former within a shield form, dotted minute track, signed “Henry Robert (Houdin)/Rue De Vendome,” surmounted by an armorial ornament and contained within a gilt frame elevated by a pair of swans on a marble platform. Sold for $26,250 at an auction held June 16, 2018 by Potter & Potter Auctions

“To an astute clock collector, Robert-Houdin is the genius behind the mystery clock,” said Ethan Miller of Miller & Miller Auctions in New Hamburg, Ontario, Canada. “To everyone else, he’s the genius that inspired magician Harry Houdini. In either case you have a man at the top of his game. Together you have a virtuoso. He was more than smoke and mirrors but the fact that we have his mystery clocks — a physical reminder of his craft — is likely a big reason why he’s so widely known today.”

Miller said the development of the Brocot’s escapement, Breguet’s ‘Tourbillon’ and other groundbreaking inventions can be traced to 19th century French thinking. “Robert-Houdin’s mystery clocks are exemplary in that he integrated the ‘wow factor’ into the design,” he said. “His clocks were a puzzle to be solved. The critical minds of the day lost sleep trying to figure out what made his clocks work. Some might call that vanity, but it’s also genius.”

mystery clock

Mystery clock in a gilt bronze and glass case and a carved giltwood stand, circa 1835 and attributed to Robert-Houdin. The clock strikes the hours and half-hours. Sold for $11,750 at an auction held April 23, 2011 by Converse Auctions

David Gindy, owner of One of a Kind Collectibles in Coral Gables, Florida and himself an accomplished magician, is of the opinion that Robert-Houdin ranks as one of the top clock makers of the period, due to the precision and complicated clock works he created. “This would not mean he was the finest clockmaker,” he said, “but the most unique in his ability to make the clocks work in mysterious ways with optical illusions. His genius was in the fact that he was able to combine his skills as a clockmaker with a passion for the art of magic to create an illusion. This earned him widespread fame and many awards and patents.”  

As for current market demand for Robert-Houdin’s mystery clocks and other timepieces, Ethan Miller said there’s an “upper 5 percent” that exists in any category of collectible whereby market value remains consistent despite economic conditions or collector whims. “So long as his story is understood and appreciated, I would suggest Robert-Houdin’s mystery clocks are among that ‘upper 5 percent.’”

mystery clock

Single-hand mystery clock could be attributed to Robert-Houdin. The clock tells time with no apparent connection between the hand and the base. Robert-Houdin’s name (along with ‘Paris’) is etched on the movement, and the parts appear correct for the timeframe in which Robert-Houdin was making such pieces. The brass bracket that holds the clock safely to its base is not contemporaneous, but is very well made. It sold for $6,250 at an auction held Sept. 16, 2017 by Auction Results in conjunction with Owen Magic Supreme.

David Gindy said several variables are in play that determine market value. “Most show up at auction, so depending on the clock that is being offered, which auction house it is and what is being offered at that time, as well as the participation, the price can fluctuate significantly. I have seen his mystery clocks sell anywhere from $7,000-$90,000, depending on complication, quality, date of creation and location.”

Gindy said he hasn’t seen a significant spike in prices for mystery clocks in the past 10 years, “probably because they’ve always been appreciated and there aren’t many new collectors to the market. But, being a professional dealer of rare collectibles and manuscripts as well as a former practicing professional magician, I’ve always been fascinated by his magical works of art.”

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