Antiques & Collecting

The Age-Old Instrument For Telling Time

A small, silver antique sundial by Michael Butterfield of Paris sold for $3,198 at a Massachusetts auction.
Terry Kovel, February 2018

The sundial is an early tool used to tell time. It is said that the earliest sundials were made in 1500 B.C., and variations were made in following centuries by the Greeks, Chinese and Romans. But the portable sundial carried on trips during the 18th century was needed only until railroads — not clocks — were popular. The sundial, if positioned and read properly, gave more accurate time than a clock.

Pocket sundials were very popular in the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and America. A surprising number are sold to collectors each year as ornaments or historic relics, or as interesting and attractive conversation pieces. Auctions of scientific instruments sell sundials.

A recent Skinner sale in Boston had brass or silver examples, many from the 17th and 18th centuries. They were made by hand with engraved lines and letters, and an inset compass. The gnomon, the upright piece that casts the shadow, was made so it could fit into the case that held the rest of the sundial. A silver octagonal plate with lines, numerals and a hinged gnomon was kept in a felt-lined leather case. The 2 and 3/4-inch, French late-17th century antique sold for $3,198.

Q: I have a small cut-glass bottle that has a glass stopper and a silver cap. The bottle is rectangular, about 4 inches long by 1/2 inch wide. I read that in Victorian times, a widow would collect her tears in a vial. Could my bottle be one of these?

A: Tear collecting is referenced in the Old Testament of the Bible, in ancient Roman and Greek writings, and in Victorian poems and novels, but whether tear collecting was fact or legend is unclear. In the mid-1800s, when Victorian mourning customs became popular, it is said vials were used to collect tears wept for the departed loved one. Later, the tears were sprinkled on the grave to signify the end of official mourning.

Your bottle, cut glass with a silver filigree cap, is worth about $30. If there is a silver maker’s mark on the cap, it will be worth more.

Terry Kovel writes about the latest news of the antiques market. Her website is


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