The Legends of Time: What Makes it Christie’s ‘Auction of the Decade’By Neha S Bajpai
Besides the exceptional ref. 3448 “Alan Banbery” Patek Philippe that has been making headlines for Christie’s upcoming auction in Hong Kong on May 22, there are some amazing horological pieces from the 1800s that have the potential to break the record for any watch sale ever held in Asia. “This auction will showcase pieces that we haven’t seen in the market for over 20 years and we are likely not to see these pieces again. It is the first time in a decade or more that pieces of this importance are coming up together in one auction,” says Alexandre Bigler, vice president and head of watches, Christie’s Asia Pacific.
So what exactly makes the ‘Legends of Time’, the ‘Auction of the Decade’ in Asia? Split into two sessions, the upcoming auction has set some really high stakes for the evening sale, which has 18 lots that are expected to generate total sales of over $25 million including the Alan Banbery piece that has the highest estimate of the auction at USD 3.2 million-5.16 million. “We are going to present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people to go back in time to see what was done 200 years ago in terms of the rare horological pieces that will be showcased at this auction. Usually you have one object that you know is special and everybody talks about, like we have the Banbery watch, but here you have a selection of 18 lots one after another that tell a different story, which is relevant and important for different collectors at different moments. Most people are not aware of these pieces. Only collectors who have been on the market for 20 years or more know about them or appreciate them. If you look at the lots 2501, 2502, 2503, 2504 and 2505, you will find these absolutely exceptional objects that are more than just time-telling devices. The gold and enamel snuff box, for instance, has figurines that are playing harp and mandolin. The automaton is extremely beautiful and entertaining at the same time. And when you see the craft that has been put together to create this, you can see that it’s not about how much it’s going to cost, it’s more about how you can impress the next owner,” says Bigler. “I think it is important for people to appreciate this creativity from the 1800s, which is almost impossible to achieve today. These objects are like luxurious toys—fun, entertaining and intriguing at the same time. This is why we call them Legends of Time.”
Made in pairs, while some of these pieces can be seen in the Patek Philippe museum, it is fascinating to discover the stories behind them through the specialists at Christie’s. The afternoon sale with its 147 lots will include 56 Patek Philippe timepieces as well as an enticing selection of 36 unusual Rolexes, and an F. P. Journe Chronomètre Souverain made for British watchmaking legend George Daniels.
We are most fascinated with the “luxurious toys” coming up at the Auction of the Decade. Here is a low-down on Bigler’s favourite pieces from the selection.
Flintlock Pistol-Form Perfume Sprinkler with Concealed Watch
Estimate HKD 800,000-HKD 2.4 million
“This is one of the most elegant objets d’arts on offer in our upcoming sale. Flintlock pistol form perfume sprinkler watches are amongst the greatest rarities in the realm of automated precious objects, only around 12 examples are known to exist today, gracing some of the most distinguished collections in the world. The watch has a chain fusée movement, which is quite complicated and has been seen in timepieces like A. Lange & Söhne “Pour le Mérite” . Imagine achieving that in a piece made in 1805! It’s just incredible,” says Bigler.
Modelled on the duelling pistols, these exquisite gold pistol perfume sprinklers were originally made in pairs for discerning dignitaries and royalty in China and Europe. When the pistol is ‘fired’, a gold and enamel flower bud emerges from the end of the barrel and opens to release a spray of perfume. The watch is fitted within the butt and concealed by a hinged cover. The names of two Geneva firms are associated with the manufacture of this kind of pistol; signed examples exist by both Moulinié, Bautte & Cie. and J.B. Garrand.
“The beautifully enamelled gun is adorned with gold plates depicting a hound on one side and a rabbit on the reverse, while the head of the flint arm is engraved with the lion’s head. It is an amazing masterpiece both in terms of decorative arts as well as technical complexity,” says Bigler.
Musical Perfume Flask and Automaton Amphora-Form Watch
Estimate HKD 8 million -HKD 40 million
“It may look like a breathtaking showpiece that you could have on your table but there is so much more to the Amphora watch. It is thinner than your iPhone, it has got beautiful paintings on it and the panels open up to reveal another scene inside. We have a musical scene with two different types of music and two different automaton in action. We know that this piece was made as a pair and its mirror-image is currently at the Patek Philippe museum in Geneva,” says Bigler.
Originally one half of a mirror image pair of amphoras was owned by Lord Sandberg CBE (1927-2017), former chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. His collection was sold in a landmark auction in Geneva in 2001 and the amphora was acquired by the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.
The enamel painting below the watch is perhaps painted after a composition by Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1755-1842) and can be seen on several watches of the same period. The panel opens to reveal the varicoloured gold automaton scene, which depicts a boy to the left raising and lowering a stick, trying to encourage a dog to jump over it and a young lady on the right playing a guitar.
Quarter Repeating ‘Barking Dog’ Automaton Openface Watch
HKD 800,000 – HKD 2,400,000
“This one is another example of superb craftsmanship and technical complexity in a pocket watch from the 1800s. Signed by the great Geneva makers Piguet and Meylan, the watch presents a beautiful enamel painting of a couple with a butterfly in hand and as you turn the watch, it surprises you with this delightful depiction of a ‘barking dog’ chasing a swan. It is actually a quarter repeater where the hours and quarter hours are sounded by the simulated bark of a dog. At the same time, the head of the dog on the front of the watch moves with the repeating mechanism. The sound of the barking dog is ingeniously reproduced by a set of bellows activated by pushing down the pendant,” explains Bigler.
Made for the Chinese Imperial court, this pocket watch is the perfect illustration of the ingenious and precious automata timepieces from that period. “These days minute repeaters are all about achieving crystal clear sounds. Here you have something that is totally different and fresh. We know of only 20 examples of ‘barking dog’ watches that have survived to the present day, some are in museum collections and the finest private collections worldwide. Such timepieces give us a chance to learn more and share this passion with our collectors,” says Bigler.
The Unique Patek Philippe ‘Gradowski’ Grande Complication
HKD 4,000,000 – HKD 12,000,000
“In 1890, this was the most complicated watch Patek Philippe had ever produced. It featured a unique minute repeater with two-train Grande et Petite Sonnerie movement, keyless lever, instantaneous perpetual calendar, indications for both the Julian and Gregorian calendars, moon phases and a chronograph with central 60-minute recorder. We have seen some pocket watches from Breguet displaying both Julian and Gregorian calendars but not on a Patek Philippe. This watch is of huge importance also because it comes before Henry Graves’s famous Grande Complication and it was made on request for Jean de Gradowski, a Polish collector, who was one of the first ones to order a timepiece of this complexity,” says Bigler.
The 18k pink gold watch has a guilloché back with the engraved coat of arms of Gradowski, reeded band, gold hinged cuvette, bolts in the band for Grande or Petite Sonnerie selection and a small pin at 3 o’clock for adjusting the Julian calendar. Since this watch was with the family of the original owner until the 1990s, it has been a highlight of one of the world’s great collections for the past two decades.
Patek Philippe World Timers
“Over the last couple of years, world timers have been in vogue and growing in terms of value. In 2019, we sold the Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 in pink gold at a record price of USD9 million. Recently, Phillips sold one at about USD 7.8 million, so you see the prices are strong for these models. At the upcoming auction in Hong Kong, we have a selection of three amazing world timers. One of them is the unique platinum Patek Philippe World Time wristwatch manufactured in 1946. There is only one platinum reference 1415 HU in the world and it is up for grabs now! The watch resurfaced after almost two decades, so it is a really exciting offer,” says Bigler. Estimated at HKD 8,000,000 – HKD 24,000,000, the platinum reference 1415 HU has its case, dials, hands and even the numerals in platinum.
Then there is the two-crown World Time wristwatch ref. 2523-1 from the 1950s. Only 15 pieces of this watch were produced in 18k yellow gold. This piece has a unique dial, as the hands and indexes are enhanced with luminescence and it is offered on a detachable gold bracelet.(Estimate HKD 8 Million – 24 Million)
The third one in Christie’s selection of unique world timers is the ref. 1415 in 18k pink gold with cloisonné enamel dial depicting the eastern hemisphere (Estimate HKD 8,000,000 – HKD 24,000,000). “It is one of only two known examples with this dial in a pink gold case. It is clearly the most desirable of all world-class vintage Patek Philippe wristwatches. The enamel on the dial is absolutely stunning and not something that can be replicated these days. In fact, depending on the angle that you look at it, the watch reflects different shades of blue and gold. In 2002, this watch was sold at a record price of 2,753,500 Swiss Francs. This was almost two decades ago and the watch has been carefully preserved since then as part of an important private collection,” says Bigler.