The Reader's Guide to the Upcoming Patek Philippe Auctions

The Reader’s Guide to the Upcoming Patek Philippe Auctions

Over the next eight days, we will witness two historic auctions, in Geneva, Switzerland, that will offer for sale the most legendary Patek Philippe watches that our generation is likely to see under one (or two roofs).  On Sunday, November 9, 2014, Christie’s will celebrate the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe with an auction of 100 Patek Philippe watches.  On Tuesday, November 11, 2014, Sotheby’s will hold an auction of “Important Watches”, which will include what is thought by many to be the most important watch of all, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication watch (shown below).

I do not own a Patek Philippe watch (yet), and these two Geneva auctions will not present the right moment for me to purchase my first one.  Still, I am interested in the Patek Philippe brand and its history, and I am especially interested in the Graves Supercomplication watch.  Others who are far more qualified may offer “Buyer’s Guides” to the watches.  My contribution to these historic auctions will be this “Reader’s Guide”, an overview of some of the books, postings and other materials that have been published for these auctions.

Whether or not you will bidding or buying at these auctions, you can enjoy these publications.  On a $200 budget, you can buy three nice books; on no budget at all, you can enjoy some excellent postings and videos on the Internet.  Who says that you have to have money to enjoy Patek Philippe watches!

Christie’s Patek Philippe 175th Anniversary Auction

On Sunday, November 9, 2014, Christie’s will celebrate the 175th anniversary of Patek Philippe with an auction of 100 Patek Philippe watches.  These 100 watches cover the entire range of Patek Phillipe’s history and a majority of the watches have not previously been offered for sale in a public auction.  We see the earliest open face pocket watches from Patek Philippe’s earliest days, through its first wristwatches in the early 20th century, and then the amazing variety of chronographs and other complicated watches through the first half of the 20th century.  In additional to the more mainstream watches, we see a few curiosities, such as pearl and diamond pendants from the late 19th century (Lots 14 and 15) and a handful of table clocks.  There are three samples of Nautilus and Ellipse watches from the 1980s, along with one perpetual calendar chronograph from 1993, although Christie’s has made it clear that it is not covering the last two decades of Patek Philippe watches.  These more recent watches will be offered in special sales held in Geneva, Hong Kong and New York.

You can visit Christie’s homepage for the Patek Philippe 175th Anniversary Auction, HERE.

Christie’s Patek Philippe 175 Auction Catalog — Print Version

The printed catalog for the Christie’s Patek Philippe 175 auction is a magnificent 330-page work of art.  In addition to detailed description of the 100 watches being sold, we have a wonderful illustrated history of Patek Philippe, at the beginning of the book, and numerous sidebars throughout the book, that present additional illustrations and information.

A typical presentation for a watch would be three or four pages, showing the watch and providing some interesting background information.  For example, below is the listing for Lot 24, a perpetual calendar watch made in 1910.  The catalog provides a thorough technical description of this unique watch, and even a photo of the original invoice, from when the watch was sold in 1912.

   

The catalog presents additional information for some of the more important watches.  For example, in presenting Lot 64, an 18 karat gold two-crown world time wristwatch, before even seeing the watch, we read the story of Lou Cottier, the man who invented the “heures universalles”, the system which made the watch possible.  Shown below are the spread about Mr. Cottier, followed by detailed information and photos covering the watch being sold.

  

  

In describing these 100 watches, Christie’s provides the reader with a fascinating history of Patek Philippe, as a company, and descriptions of many of the company’s technical innovations.  Christie’s also provides interesting about the men behind the technical innovations – for example, Andres Zibach with the gyromax balance and Louis Cottier, who pioneered the “heuers universalelles” world time system.  (Mr. Zibach’s personal watch will be sold in the auction (Lot 53).

The catalog provides interesting profiles of some of the gentlemen who owned the watches being sold, from William E. Boeing, who founded a company to produce airplanes (Lot 35), to Jean-Claude Biver, who has recently revived the Hublot brand (Lot 45) [both these watches are shown below]  Through these profiles, we see that if an important customer wanted a particular watch or combination of complications, Patek Philippe was happy to oblige.

With 330 pages to describe 100 watches, Christie’s has not cut any corners.  There are magnificent photos of each of the watches, along with related ephemera — original invoices for many of the watches, related advertisements and catalog entries, and correspondence between Patek Philippe and its customers.  The smallest details of the watches receive full treatment.  For example, the catalog provides a two-page spread seeking to explain the three tiny red stripes on the minute hand of Mr. Boeing’s chronograph, and an explanation as to why a pocket chronograph (Lot 40) might have the spiraled tachymeter scale measuring speeds between 20 and 60 units per hour.

The catalog provides photos and information covering some of the brand’s legendary dealers, from Gubelin in Lucerne, to the LaViano dealership in Westwood, New Jersey, which had the distinction of selling a perpetual calendar chronograph, in 1961, for $1,500, that carries an estimate of $660,000 to $1,100,000 in next week’s auction.

Overall, Christie’s spectacular auction catalog left me with a new appreciation of what the Patek Philippe brand represents – watches that combine magnificent designs with technical innovations, and are built to the highest standards.  It is a tribute to Patek Philippe that so many of these watches are thought to be unique (truly one-of-a-kind watches).  If a customer wanted a particular configuration or complication, then Patek Philippe would built it.  It is a tribute to Christie’s that it was able to assemble so many of these remarkable watches for the November 9 auction.

Christie’s printed catalog is accompanied by an 8-page brochure that serves as a quick reference for the 100 watches.

The auction catalog is priced at $110, and available through the Christie’s website.  If that that price seems a shade high, consider it as a nice alternative to the new two-volume set that Patek Philippe has published, covering the watches in the Patek Philippe Museum, in Geneva.  That set sells for CHF 1,300.

Christie’s Patek Philippe 175 Auction Catalog — Online Version

Let’s give Christie’s credit for taking almost all the information included in the printed version of the auction catalog, and making it available online.  For each of the 100 watches being sold, Christie’s provides an Overview of the watch (which is the basic technical description) as well as the “Lot Notes” for the watch (which tells the history of the watch, including any interesting provenance.  As examples, here is the online information covering Lot 64 (which is shown above) and the information regarding Lot 65, a watch being sold by Ben Clymer, of Hodinkee, as described below.

The Journalists.

Christie’s “Patek Philippe 175” auction has received wide coverage in the media.  Here are a few of my favorite postings previewing the auction.

  • Eric Wind posted an excellent preview of the Christie’s auction on Hodinkee.  Eric focuses on the “Grails” and the “Dream Watches”, but also includes some of his other favorites.
  • And speaking on Hodinkee, Elizabeth Doerr has written a nice feature on the Reference 2508 Calatrava  being sold by Hodinkee owner, Ben Clymer.  Let’s see.  If you want a Patek Philippe watch with some strong provenance, there’s Packard, and there’s Graves and then there’s Hodinkee!
  • Ariel Adams, of ABlogToWatch, interviewed John Reardon, the International Head of Christie’s Watch Department, about the auction.
  • Steven Pulverint posted a nice preview of the Christie’s Patek Philippe 175 auction on Bloomberg.
  • Brice Goulard covers some of the high profile watches being offered in the Christie’s auction, in his posting on the Monochrome blog.
  • Finally, though not directly related to the Christie’s auction, Eric Wind wrote an excellent posting on Hodinkee, back in July 2014, telling the story of J. B. Champion, Jr., another famous patron of Patek Philippe.  It’s worth a read, as part of the pre-game pump up for the upcoming auctions.

Here is Lot 65, the Reference 2508 Calatrava, being sold by Ben Clymer.

 

Results of Christie’s Patek Philippe 175 Auction.

Here is a list showing the results of the auction.

Review and Analysis of the Auction

Brice Goulard provides an excellent review and analysis, on Monochrome (November 10, 2014).

Sotheby’s Auction of Important Watches, Including the Henry Graves Supercomplication

Sotheby’s November 11 auction will take a different approach to Patek Philippe and its unique history.  Rather than an auction comprised entirely of Patek Philippe timepieces, Sotheby’s will offer 368 watches from a variety of brands, with 69 of the watches being from Patek Philippe.  But, as you probably know by now, among the Patek Philippe watches being offered is what many consider to be the most important watch ever produced by Patek Philippe (or anyone else), the Henry Graves Supercomplication watch.

Evaluating the other 68 Patek Philippe watches being sold by Sotheby’s, or the 299 watches from other brands, is almost like asking about the warm-up band for The Beatles.  With the Graves Supercomplication in the line-up, the other 367 watches in the auction seem far less important.  Still, Sotheby’s is offering some very interesting Patek Philippe timepieces, that also provide a nice sampling of the company’s production over the last 175 years.  Among the other brands, we see the usual variety offered in an auction of important watches, with 67 watches from Rolex, 23 from Vacheron & Constantin and 17 from Breguet.

Sotheby’s Auction Catalog.

I may have made a mistake in my approach to reading the Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction catalogs this weekend, as I attacked them in chronological order.  I started with the Christie’s catalog (November 9 auction) and then moved to the Sotheby’s catalog (November 11 auction).  After studying the amazing Christie’s catalog, covering 100 watches in 330 pages, the Sotheby’s catalog faced an impossible task, in covering 368 watches in 227 pages.  Other than the section dedicated to the Henry Graves Supercomplication watch, the catalog seemed very ordinary.  While some of the special watches received more coverage, the usual approach was three watches per page, ironically, the reciprocal of the three pages per watch presented by Christie’s.  But as I was saying, when you are presenting The Beatles in concert, you can probably worry less about the star power of the opening acts.

Of course, it’s difficult to rate an auction catalog, as a piece of literature, apart from the watches that it presents, and in this respect, the Sotheby’s catalog was at a marked disadvantage.  You have to wonder what even the most skilled writers and photographers could have done with the three quartz watches produced by Ebel circa 1995 in Lot 61 (estimated to sell for $5,100 to $7,200) or a pocket watch from W.H. Slater in Lot 298 (carrying an estimate of $1,100 to $2,150).  The answer:  they would have deleted these entries from the auction, sacrificed some small commission dollars, and given us more information and images covering the truly “important” watches in the auction.

All this is forgiven, however, when we see the presentation of Lot 345, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication watch.  In the 12 pages dedicated to this watch, we have excellent diagrams narrating the features of the dials (yes, there are two separate dials, front and back), showing the details of the movements, and pointing out the operational features of the case itself (13 adjusters, pushers, sliding switches, etc.).  There are also explanations of the major complications of the watch, explaining the chimes, sidereal time and, of course, the star chart that shows the night sky from Central Park, in New York City.  Sotheby’s also gives us a profile of Mr. Graves, and an appreciation of the watch, written by Alan Banbery, former curator of the Patek Philippe Museum.  Finally, we have a timeline covering the history of the watch and a bibliography, providing additional references covering the watch.

If we can have only 12 pages covering the most important watch produced by Patek Philippe, I credit Sotheby’s with packing a wealth of information and some beautiful photos into those 12 pages.

Sotheby’s has published an online version of the auction catalog, as well as an online version of the printed catalog.    The description of the Graves Supercomplication in the online catalog is especially interesting.  You can buy a hard copy of the catalog for the auction, through the Sotheby’s website.

Other Resources Covering the Graves Supercomplication Watch.

In the run-up to the Sotheby’s auction of the Graves Supercomplication watch, several writers have explored this amazing watch.  Let me recommend the following:

  • In mid-October, Ben Clymer posted an article on Hodinkee describing his hands-on experience with the Henry Graves Supercomplication, which he described as “the most important and expensive watch on the planet.”  Ben has reviewed a lot of watches over the years, but his treatment of the Henry Graves Supercomplication is very special.
  • An article by Jonathon Keats, Would You Pay $17 Million for the Most Complicated Watch Ever Made by Hand? provides some interesting information on the Graves Supercomplication.
  • Of course, one of the most interesting aspects of the Henry Graves Supercomplication watch is that Sotheby’s sold it in a 1999 auction, for $11 million.  Well, we are all here today because the “purchaser” at that auction, Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, never paid for the watch (or another $70 million of art and collectibles), so the Graves Supercomplication was returned to Sotheby’s in 2012.  This is how we are fortunate enough to see the watch come up for auction again, next week.  Here are a couple of reports about the deadbeat Sheik, and his return of the watch to Sotheby’s, from Bloomberg and ABlogToWatch.  The Bloomberg report has some interesting details about the Sheik, and his “purchases” of fine art and collectibles.
  • If you prefer to receive your information by watching a video, you may enjoy this video produced by Sotheby’s.  Daryn Schnipper, Chairman, International Watch Division at Sotheby’s, tells the story of the Graves Supercomplication watch and gives a quick summary of auction of the watch in 1999.  Her closing words in the video are interesting, “It is beyond a watch, it is a masterpiece.”  On November 11, we will watch as Ms. Schnipper again serves as auctioneer of the watch that she loves so much.
  • Elizabeth Doerr has an interesting article, in ForbesLife, Would You Pay $17 Million for the Most Complicated Watch Ever Made by Hand?, in which she provides some interesting information on the Graves Supercomplication.  Considering the 199 Sotheby’s auction to the current one, Daryn Schnipper says, ““It was a real star then, but it’s a superstar now.  This is the Mona Lisa of the watch world.”
  • Sotheby’s has produced a short video that provides a nice overview of the Graves Supercomplication.
  • The New York Times covered Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary, and the Graves Supercomplication watch, in this very interesting November 5 article, by Victoria Gomelsky.

Over the past few months, we have seen dozens of photos of the Henry Graves Supercomplication.  The Hodinkee posting reference above includes a photo that I found particularly interesting, showing the Supercomplication alongside a normal-sized chronograph from the 1940s.  Yes, this is what a watch looks like, when it breaks through the 70 millimeter / one pound barriers.  [Photos below copyright Hodinkee; used with permission]

  

Journalists Postings Covering the Sotheby’s Geneva Auction.

Less has been written about the Sotheby’s auction than the Christie’s auction.  Hodinkee has posted a preview of the Sotheby’s auction, covering some of the interesting watches, other than the Patek Philippe watches.  Among them are some very interesting watches from Universal Geneve, Vacheron & Constantin, Cartier, Audemars Piguet, Rolex and Omega.

Reports Covering the Sale of the Graves Supercomplication (After the Auction).

Here are reports covering Sotheby’s sale of the Graves Supercomplication, on November 11, 2014:

A Grand Complication, by Stacy Perman

In college, which was two full decades before I began wearing, or reading and writing, about watches, I majored in history.  The area that I found most interesting was social and cultural history, especially the history of America in the period from the Industrial Age (say, beginning in 1876) through the Roaring Twenties.  I enjoyed reading about the Industrial Revolution and the great industrialists, and about how these industrialists consumed the fruits of their prosperity, with American society being transformed as a result of the country’s new prosperity.

Over the last few years, I have spent a disproportionately insane amount of time reading about watches – websites, blogs, magazines, catalogs, discussion forums and even the occasional book (although most books about watches are not really designed to be read, if you know what I am saying).  What a thrill then, to discover Stacy Perman’s book, A Grand Complications, which is the only volume that I have found covering both of my interests – American social and cultural history and watches.

In A Grand Complication, Perman tells of the contest between two prominent American businessmen to own the most magnificent watch in the world.  The protagonists are James Ward Packard and Henry Graves, Jr., two very different men each of whom enjoyed the finest watches (and had a bankroll to support his habit).  Packard lived in Warren, Ohio, and was a self-made man, using his engineering skills and entrepreneurial instincts to establish the company that would build America’s first luxury automobile, the Packard.  Graves was the son of a Wall Street financier and lived in New York City, very much a part of the City’s high society.

But Perman goes far beyond these two gentlemen’s interest in watches, to tell us about the fascinating lives they lived.  She gives us interesting details about their business careers, as well as the colorful stories of where they lived, how they spent their vacations, and the development of their families.  We see these two gentlemen within the context of American society, and we see America’s changing position among the other nations, as America is suddenly blessed with an abundance of material wealth, but a relative scarcity of fine objects of art and culture.  Packard and Graves certainly do their part to achieve more balance, traveling to the finest salons of Europe and returning to America with the world’s most notable works of art, including the magnificent watches made for them by Patek Philippe.

A Grand Complication serves as the perfect complement to the two auction catalogs produced by Christie’s and Sotheby’s.  The auction catalogs tell the story of Patek Philippe as a company, and they describe the technical elements that went into the finest watches in the world.  Perman tells us about the men who were the patrons of Patek Philippe, seeking and financing the development of these amazing machines.  Between the three books, we gain some essential information that will help us understand the watches that will be sold, on November 9 and November 11, 2104.

A Grand Complication is available through Amazon, and if you move quickly, you can have it in hand (or on your Kindle) well before the Graves Supercomplication watch goes in the auction block.

The Right Watch for All this Reading – Patek Philippe 5146G Annual Calendar

As I have been immersed in all this wonderful literature relating Patek Philippe and these amazing auctions, I decided that I needed to actually be wearing a nice Patek Philippe watch, just to see what it might add to the experience.  So, as this urge became stronger, I did what any collector of humble vintage watches might do – I borrowed a Patek Philippe from a friend.

In this instance, my friend was Hamilton Powell, owner of the Atlanta-based watch seller Crown & Caliber, and the watch that I borrowed was the Patek Philippe 5146G-010, an annual calendar watch in white gold, with a gray dial.  The watch is an annual calendar, with three sub-dials displaying the day, month and power reserve, with discs displaying the moon phase and date.  The watch has a diameter of 37 millimeters and is 11 millimeters thick.

The 5146G is powered by the Patek Philippe caliber 315/299, an automatic watch with the full-rotor movement visible through the display back.  The movement is made up of 316 parts, including a 21 karat gold rotor and 35 jewels.  The movement is marked with Geneva Hallmark, signifying the highest quality of the mechanical movement.

I enjoyed this watch greatly.  It’s a “stealth” watch, with the white gold case and conventional size and shape allowing it to go unnoticed (except by watch freaks who might be able to spot it).  The defining elements of the watch are the amazing charcoal gray dial and the sunken sub-dials, with the white printing.  This watch also has some beautiful accents – the dagger markers, the sporty numerals and the railroad track for the minutes.  The watch seemed to easily disappear from view, but be a beautiful object, when I chose to admire it.

This watch is certainly not in the same league as most of the ones that will be auctioned in Geneva next week, but it was a good companion as I read the Christie’s and Sotheby’s catalogs.  It was satisfying to examine this watch as I examined the auction catalogs.  Yes, there is good precedent for the subsidiary dials to show the day and the month, and Patek Philippe frequently used the dagger markers.  Of course, the charcoal gray dial gives the watch a more modern look, but this seems entirely consistent with Patek Philippe’s historical palette.

Crown & Caliber has the watch listed for sale on its site, for $31,000.  So if the auction catalogs and A Grand Complication book leave you wanting more, you can grab this watch, and have it on your wrist in time for the auctions.

As We Approach the Auctions . . . 

This is an exciting time in the watch world, with the Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions both coming within the next eight days.  Whether you will be bidding in either of these auctions, or wearing your favorite Patek Philippe just to feel like part of the action, I hope that you will enjoy some of the exceptionally good literature generated by the two auctions.

In the opening scene of A Grand Complication, Perman provides a play-by-play description of the December 1999 Sotheby’s auction of the Graves Supercomplication.  For Patek Philippe, a company then in its 160th year, the auction ended with an anonymous telephone bid of $10,000,000, and company President, Philippe Stern uttering the words, “We’re out.”

A world of Patek Philippe enthusiasts is waiting for November 11, 2014, and hoping that the auction ends differently this time.  Happy 175th Anniversary to Patek Philippe and good luck on November 11!

Thanks

Special thanks to Crown & Caliber, for lending me the beautiful Patek Philippe, Reference 5146G, that contributed so much to my review of the auction catalogs, to Reginald Brack (of Christie’s), for sending me the amazing catalog, and to Hodinkee, for allowing me to use its beautiful images.

Jeff Stein
November 3, 2014

Updated, November 5, 2014 (to add reference to New York Times article); November 9, 2014 (to add link to list showing results of Christie’s auction).