James Cox's 'sing-song' clocks were all the rage in China. But these fantastical creations also led to the goldsmith's downfall, says Simon de Burton

The current enthusiasm of Far Eastern buyers for high-quality collectables would not surprise 18th century entrepreneur James Cox. Between 1766 and 1772, he shipped to Asia £750,000 worth of lavishly ornamented works of art, employing up to 1,000 craftsmen in and around London to create them.

Cox started work as a goldsmith, but then embarked on a wider career creating, according to his trade card, a "Great Variety of Curious Work in Gold, Silver, and other Metals. Also in Amber, Pearl, Tortoiseshell and Curious Stones". Working from Racquet Court, off Fleet Street, Cox was as ingenious at devising gewgaws for overseas consumption (records exist of a spring-loaded crown for an East India Company nabob) as he was at self-publicity. But while his success was rapid, thanks to the eagerness of his Chinese clientele to part with their money, "trees don't grow forever," as Confucius might have said. As a result, Cox went bankrupt twice – the second time in 1772 when he could no longer find £9,000 a year to service his debts.

Problems first arose a couple of years before, when the Hong merchants wrote to the East India Company's directors asking that they cease to ship any more fancy objects to China as they had a mountain of unsold curiosities to the value of £330,000 – many from the prolific workshops of one James Cox.

Cox hit upon the idea of saving himself by establishing a museum containing 22 of his most magnificent creations in the Great Room of a former Huguenot chapel in Spring Gardens near Charing Cross. Despite the half-guinea entry fee, the museum became one of London's major attractions, and takings soon hit £500 per week (this, remember, in 1772). When this proved insufficient, Cox held a lottery of the exhibits, issuing 120,000 tickets at one guinea each – but with 40,000 tickets unsold, the museum was closed and much of Cox's stock auctioned. Little is known of his later life other than that he died in Watford and left an estate valued at less than £100.

One magnificent legacy of his earlier success, however, will be seen at Bonhams December sale of Fine Clocks, when an agate-set ormolu musical table clock made by Cox in 1766 is offered for the first time in almost 60 years. Measuring 37cm from the base of its elephant feet to the wingtips of its silver dragon finial, the clock is a perfect example of the fantastical creations that made Cox rich and famous. It is so superb that it found its way into the legendary clock and watch collection of King Farouk of Egypt, from which it was dispersed at auction in March 1954. It remained in the same family until its recent consignment to Bonhams. "We are used to seeing amazing things, but this clock is simply extraordinary," says James Stratton, Bonhams' Head of Clocks. "It is an object that was designed to enthrall and make a statement, a world apart from the sober clocks made by Cox's English contemporaries such as John Ellicott and William Allam."

Cox's clock was not, however, intended for a lover of technology – its mechan­ism is a simple watch movement that needs to be wound daily, and its only complication is a musical box set into the base. Its intended recipient was probably a connoisseur of works of art who would appreciate its magnificence – and live in a suitably flashy environment. As Stratton says, "What is fascinating is that the clock was exported from London to China almost 250 years ago, ended up in Egypt, returned to London. With interest in this sort of clock currently rocketing among Chinese buyers, it is very likely to return to the Far East once again."

Simon de Burton writes about clocks and watches for the Financial Times.


Related auctions