Secret French illegal clock restorer gets the job

One of the men involved in a clandestine restoration of the clock at the Panthéon in Paris has been appointed its official restorer – more than a decade after being taken to court.

19 December 2018
By BRIAN MCCULLOCH

“It’s a lovely story,” said a Panthéon spokeswoman. “The circle has been completed.”

The clock stopped working in 1965 and this was noticed by Untergunther, the “restoration wing” of UX, a “positive and apolitical” group which infiltrates and improves neglected public places and stages events.

Clock resto­rer Jean-Baptiste Viot was a member, and he and friends found ways to enter the Panthéon after hours in 2005 and 2006. Methods included not leaving at closing time and copying keys left hanging on a hook by the door by guards.

They even set up a “lounge” with sofas, a hot plate and dining table in a space between the dome and the wall, with a stunning view of Paris.

They did the work, spending €4,000 on parts. But when they told the administrator what they had done (“so he could keep it wound up,” one of the group, Lazar Kunstmann, told Con­nexion in 2007), they were taken to court. Authorities from Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) failed in attempts to prosecute because the concept of breaking into a public monument did not exist.

Lawyers argued it was, by definition, open to the public. What is more, “you can’t be prosecuted for improving something”, Mr Kunstmann said at the time.

CMN eventually got them in court in 2007, demanding €48,300 in damages and costs after they were caught sawing through a padlock.

The group was let off but with a warning about the consequences of a criminal conviction,
especially for a member who worked as a nurse.

Unter­gunther then moved out of the spotlight and the clock was neglected and stopped working again – until this year when a budget was allocated for restoration.

Mr Viot, now a respected clock restorer and watch maker, won the tender. Mr Kunstmann said that when Mr Viot applied, he did not hide that he was the clockmaker taken to court.

“It was a strong argument in his favour,” he said. “Through the work he had done, he knew the mechanism better than anyone else and had a good idea of what needed doing.

“Without the work we did, this would not have been possible. We saved original parts from rusting beyond repair.”

The clock is in three parts: the face, which was not touched in the clandestine restoration because it would have needed scaffolding; the mechanism in a room above it, restored in 2005-2006 by Mr Viot; and bells, situated above the mechanism.

All three parts have now been restored.

Asked what is special about the mid-19th century clock, Mr Kunstmann said:  “It was very well made by Wagner, who used to be royal clockmakers, with inge­nious mechanics, de­signed to last centuries if looked after.

“To neglect it, or replace it with a digital unit which will last 10 years before being thrown away, would be shameful.”

Untergunther’s theory is that the clock was sabotaged in the 1960s by an employee bored with winding it, then neglected.

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