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Doc on trail of mystery clock

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CLOCK REPAIRMAN William Lockyer shows off the interior mechanisms of a clock he is currently repairing that may have been owned by Boris Karloff. Democrat photo by Krysten Kellum

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From page A1 | October 29, 2012 | 1 Comment

Walking into The Timepiece repair shop is like visiting a scene in the movie, “The Time Machine.”

For once inside, you are surrounded with the sounds and sights of ticking clocks — all kinds of clocks — from German cuckoo clocks to American anniversary clocks.

And sitting undisturbed in their midst is owner William Lockyer, 68, who at the moment is concentrating on pieces of a disemboweled antique clock. A clock that its owner claims once belonged to horror film star Boris Karloff.

For Lockyer, his job is not just that of returning this particular clock to working condition but to determine, as near as possible, who its former owner was, because doing so could more than double its value.

Right now the clock is in pieces. It’s elegant mahogany case, gilded in gold leaf, sits empty on the front counter. Its brass inner works are propped up on a wooden scaffold in the back room. Lockyer said he’s been working on it for 10 full days and is basically done except for regulating it. When completely assembled, it will weigh a hefty 65 pounds.

The mystery clock

Lockyer says he’s pretty sure the mystery clock was made in England in the 1880s. That’s because the first recorded repair on the clock is dated 1892. A second repair was in 1900. Both dates are scratched on a back plate. He said it has been repaired since, but there are no other marks on the plate.

One of the mysteries of the clock is that it has no markings of any kind, other than those two repair dates. Usually the name of the clock maker is included and the parts are numbered. Lacking those identifiers, tracking its ownership is much more difficult.

According to the present owner of the clock, who lives in Placerville, Karloff bought the clock and then gave it to a woman friend when he became ill. She kept it until she became old and sick and then sold it to its present owner. “I believe the story but can’t authenticate it,” said Lockyer.

In order to find out more about the clock, Lockyer has turned sleuth. He took pictures of the clock and sent them to two groups to research the clock’s origin. One is the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors. ”They will recognize it right away. They have a whole research team,” he said. The other group is in England. He said they are private evaluators who can tell him when and where the clock was made.

On his own, Lockyer plans to rent some old Boris Karloff movies, hoping the clock will show up in a scene. He figures Karloff may have bought the clock for sentimental reasons. He’d also like to talk to surviving members of the family.”I believe Karloff’s daughter is still alive. I’d love to talk to her,” he said.

Authenticating the clock as belonging to Karloff would ultimately make a big difference in its value. Right now Lockyer estimates it’s worth between $15,000 to $20,000 but if it’s Boris Karloff’s clock, it’s value could be as high as $50,000.

Reconstructing the past

Repairing the clock has been a challenge but also a labor of love. Before he started, he photographed every part of the clock so he would know how it went together. And when removing the clock’s 300 screws, he bagged and labelled each one because often in English antique clocks, each screw only fits a certain hole.

“It’s the most difficult clock I’ve ever repaired and the most rewarding because it’s ticking. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with it. I had to actually think and sometimes that’s kind of tough. I had to figure out what the original broken pieces looked like and what they did in order to manufacture replacement parts. That’s exciting. It’s part of the fascination of figuring things out.”

Lockyer said he’s certain the clock was made in England because it has what are called nested bells which are typically English. It also has five gongs. He demonstrated the lovely sound they made when struck and noted that the clock plays different sequences every quarter-hour.

After working with all kinds of clocks, Lockyer said he can easily tell what country it comes from. He says it’s a matter of the clock’s internal workings, size of the movement, the way it ticks, its gears, and the metals used. “The French tend to use hard but beautiful steel and their clocks are smaller, delicate and refined. The English make more clunky and larger clocks. American clocks have a certain shape and are clunky work horses because they were usually mass-produced. German clocks are less refined than French clocks.”

The clock doc

In business now for two years, Lockyer said he didn’t get into the profession by choice. A doctor of internal medicine, he previously had his own practice in the Bay Area for 25 years.

At the time, he said the AIDS epidemic was just getting started. “I saw one of the first AIDS patients and got to be an expert because we saw so many,” Lockyer said. “It was stressful because we didn’t know what was going on.” He said he stopped counting after 90 of his patients died. “I think that made me old very fast.”

Lockyer said it was one of his patients who got him into repairing timepieces. The man, who went by the name “Doc,” ran a local newspaper stand. Lockyer said “Doc” would stop by in the evenings to talk. One day “Doc” told him he was going to die soon – he had heart failure – and he had a pocket watch that he didn’t want his brother to inherit because he disliked him. So he gave it to Lockyer instead. Two weeks later, the man died. “This watch is very valuable to me,” said Lockyer, “because it was the only thing this guy owned.”

Because of heart problems of his own and fatigued from working seven days a week and paying exorbitant rates for malpractice insurance, Lockyer later decided to retire.

His getting into the watch repair business was something of an accident after the pocket watch from “Doc” dropped out of his pocket and the crown broke. He took it to Placerville to have it fixed but no one would work on it for less than $300.
“So I decided to repair it myself and $2,000 in tools later, I did!” In time friends started coming to him and he’d work on their broken timepieces as well. “I got fascinated by it,” he said.
Becoming more serious, he attended several schools on repairing clocks at the same time he was winding down his medical career. His hobby was later helped along when a friend, who was in the business of clock repairs, took him under his wing and began tutoring him.

Now, after 30 years of working on clocks as a hobby, he has a full-time business although he only works on antique clocks. Since opening two years ago, he says he’s repaired 631 clocks but is still 167 clocks behind even though he works six days a week and even makes house calls for those with grandfather clocks.”You wouldn’t think there would be this kind of need in a digital age,” he said. “It’s more than I wanted and I need help.”

Training an apprentice

Lockyer said he is now in the process of moving from Fiddletown to Placerville to be closer to work. His new home has a workshop where he plans to teach people the craft of repairing clocks. “I want to teach people a trade. But the person has to have a lot of patience and a certain amount of intellect to figure things out and diagnose problems.”

He said it would take three years to train someone, but that once trained, that person would have a great profession with a guaranteed income saying he repairs several grandfather clocks a week alone.

People interested can contact him at his store in the Black Oak Mall at 530-626-1362.

In the meantime, Lockyer continues working his way through his backlog of clocks and, in particular, on his mystery clock.

“I don’t know what the owner plans to do with the clock once it’s fixed,” he said. ”I’d buy the clock just because of the rarity of the chains and the way the clock functions, for the movement, and the works. I loved Boris Karloff and loved his movies. He looked like a kind human being. A good spirit.”

Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or dhodson@mtdemocrat.net. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

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