The Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch sold for 23.2 million Swiss francs ($24 million) at Sotheby’s in Geneva, setting the new record price for any timepiece sold at auction. It has held the record since 1999 when it last sold at Sotheby’s for $11 million.
“The Swiss masterpieces of watchmaking are now considered by investors and collectors as real pieces of art, like paintings or sculptures,” Jean-Claude Biver, director of timepieces for Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, said before the sale.
Hailed as the world’s most complicated watch made entirely by hand, the Supercomplication was at the center of a battle between two watch collectors who tried to outdo one another other in the 1920s and 1930s. The watch’s 24 functions include playing the melody of the Westminster chimes and displaying the night sky over New York’s Central Park. It has 920 components, comes in at over 1.5 inches thick, and weighs more than one pound. The original watchmaker even made a note to point out that the Tiffany bag it was shipped in was a bit too tight and could accidentally activate the buttons.
Henry Graves Jr., a New York banker, ordered the Supercomplication in 1925, aiming to surpass James Ward Packard, an Ohio-based auto manufacturer who had been buying complicated pieces from Patek Philippe for years. Graves paid $15,000 for the watch, which was delivered in 1933, and it is often credited with keeping the Swiss watchmaker in business during the Great Depression.
“You need a big pocket,” said Daryn Schnipper, Sotheby’s chairman of the international watch division, in an interview before the sale. She was the one who dropped the hammer at the 1999 auction, when the estimate was $3 million to $5 million. This time around, Sotheby’s estimated its value at more than $15 million, which it again surpassed.
The Supercomplication was pledged by a member of the Qatari royal family along with other collectibles to Sotheby’s in 2012 to cover debts owed to the auction house. Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, a cousin of the Emir of Qatar, pledged collectibles valued at almost $83 million to Sotheby’s, according to court documents released at the time. The watch was sold now to coincide with Patek Philippe’s 175th anniversary.
Geneva’s Patek Philippe Museum has purchased 16 of the 39 watches Graves is known to have owned, according to Sotheby’s. According to Schnipper, it was the under-bidder in the 1999 sale.
Pete Fullerton, the last family owner of the watch, who received it in 1960, once said that his grandfather was worried the watch could put the safety of family members at risk following the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son. On one occasion, Graves once told his daughter Gwendolen he might just throw the watch into the lake near their vacation home in the Adirondacks, according to Fullerton. And no, unlike your $15 Timex, the Supercomplication is not waterproof.
The hotly-anticipated Supercomplication sale was lot 345 in today’s auction, and the evening session started with lot 322. None of the 22 lots prior to the Supercomplication generated any significant interest, and bidding seemed cautious. Close to 150 people were crammed into a side room at Geneva’s Beau Rivage Hotel, which only had seating for 85. The rest of the crowd spilled into the marble foyer.
The bidding finally opened at 9 million Swiss Francs, but it wasn’t until 13 and 13.5 million that the bidders who would carry the sale to the end entered the fray. From that point on, it was the “gentleman in the center of the room” and the “gentleman in the red tie” who sparred back and forth, jockeying for top position. The former was Lebanese collector and jeweler Claude Sfeir, and the latter auctioneer and consultant Aurel Bacs.
Less than a week ago, Bacs and his wife Livia Russo announced the creation of their watch sales consulting firm Bacs & Russo SA, as well as the firm’s partnership with Phillips auction house to run a new streak of watch auctions. This comes almost one year after Bacs and Russo left Christie’s watch department, where Bacs had been international head.
Sfeir, who was seated in the very center of the room, chimed in first. When his 13 million Swiss Franc bid lingered in the air for a bit, he began to look very comfortable in his wool vest and muted blue shirt. But finally, after much muttering into the Apple EarPods dangling from one side of his head, Bacs’ hand shot up with a confident “Thirteen and a half!”
After some back-and-forth, it looked like Bacs had won the watch at 19 million Swiss Francs. But, as the hammer was raised over auctioneer Tim Bourne’s head, Sfeir raised his paddle again. After another bid from Bacs, Sfeir asked to bid 19,999. Bourne chuckled and replied “I might have to get special permission from New York for that.” Then, a spectator from the back of the room yelled in clear American English, “Just take it!”
A few more bids were cast, now in 100,000 Swiss Franc increments, with Sfeir conferring with his associates in Italian and Bacs clutching the white cord handing from his right ear. Sfeir shook his head after Bacs went to 20.6 million Swiss Francs and the room knew the latter had won. After Bourne dropped the gavel, people cheered and pulled out their iPhones for surreptitious photos of the gentleman in the red tie.
The big question now is: Just who was on the other end of that little white phone cord in Bacs' ear?
This story was updated to correct the spelling of Daryn Schnipper's name.