Cautionary Tales & Pulling One’s Punches

Recent conversations with a world-class collector – he’s partial to Patek Philippe minute repeaters and “perp cals” – reminded both of us of how even the great auction houses can find themselves in tricky situations. We also swapped tales of houses reluctant to pay.

I recalled how a mutual friend of ours had bid successfully for a Girard-Perregaux “Three Bridges” tourbillon. Three months later, Interpol was banging on his door: the watch was stolen. Luckily, and in no small part because our mutual friend is notoriously litigious, AND because Interpol was involved, he recouped his £75,000.

Less swiftly served was a friend of mine in the USA who put a Patek Philippe Ref. 1463 into auction. Not only did the house sell it for below the reserve, they were dragging their heels in paying him. He had to send a family member to Switzerland to camp out in front of their offices to secure the $100,000-plus they owed him AND to shout loudly enough to force them to make up the difference between what they sold it for and what was the reserve, as agreed.

Christie’s catalogue entry said it all:

“Patek Philippe. An exceptionally important, possibly unique and previously unknown 18k gold perpetual calendar wristwatch with sweep centre seconds, moon phases, black luminous military-style dial, luminous alpha hands, engraved case back, former property of His Majesty, king of Kings, Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia. Signed Patek Philippe, Genève, Ref. 2497, Movement no. 888’058, Case no. 679’792, Manufactured in 1954. Estimate: $520,000-1,000,000 / €460,000-920,000. This lot is offered in our Important Watches auction on 9 November at Christie’s Geneva.”

With a $1m estimate, and with a level of provenance that causes auctioneers to swoon, the timepiece looked set to establish a record, or – at the very least, some furious bidding. But then the unexpected hit: a question of ownership. Selassie’s heirs pointed out that the late ruler was the subject of a coup, during which many of his possessions were pilfered. Upon the heirs challenging the ownership, Christie’s pulled the item from the sale.

Not all last-minute cancellations involve disputed ownership or the discovery of theft. Fellows recently found itself in possession of a rather special watch from Jaeger-LeCoultre that was either worth a mere few thousand pounds, or in excess of six figures. The watch in question was withdrawn because more research was needed as to its origins, as it is an auction house’s duty – to both its clients and its shareholders – to sell a lot for as much as it can.

Fellows suspects it may be the first-ever timepiece produced by the firm after the pairing of the names Jaeger and LeCoultre. If proven to be that missing artefact, it will be one of the most historically important wristwatches in the world. And I can think of a couple of museums with deep pockets that will gird their loins – and open their financial war chests – for this particular battle.

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