Aurel Bacs, International Head of Watches at Christie’s, was adamant in his announcement before the sale: “The Stephen S. Palmer Patek Philippe Grand Complication No. 97912 is the undisputed highlight of the spring 2013 worldwide watches auction season.” This exceptionally rare, 18k pink gold, openface, minute-repeating, perpetual calendar, split-seconds chronograph clockwatch with grande and petite sonnerie and moon phases, manufactured in 1898, anticipates by ten years what had previously been accepted as the first grande complication watch by the Geneva firm. It was sold to an American private collector for USD 2,251,750 on June 11th, the last date in the season, at the auction house’s Rockfeller Center salesroom in New York. Its pre-sale high estimate had been set at USD 1.5 million. The previous day, Sotheby’s had closed its New York season on a total USD 7.1 million. Unusually, the top-selling lot was a Chopard which fetched USD 461,000. Among the 257 lots proposed were some sixty pocket watches and some harp-shaped musical watches by Bessière & Schneider.
A rare opportunity
At Christie’s, 87% of the 360 lots found buyers, achieving a total result of USD 7.9 million. After the sale of a Rolex ref. 5036 pink gold, triple calendar chronograph from 1949 for USD 171,750 (estimated USD 100,000-150,000), and a gem-set Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso hours and minutes, which went for the same amount (estimated USD 80,000-120,000), both setting world records in their categories, all eyes were on the Stephen S. Palmer Patek Philippe Grand Complication n° 97912.
To qualify for the prestigious title of “grande complication”, a timepiece must feature at least three of the four major horological functions of split-seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar, grande and petite sonnerie, and minute repeater. Previously, it was broadly accepted that Patek Philippe made its first incursion into grandes complications in 1914, and that it had delivered its first highly complicated timepiece, with 16 complications, to the American industrialist James Ward Packard in 1916. A second, this time with 10 complications, was made for the same Packard in 1927, followed by the legendary “Supercomplication” watch with 24 complications, commissioned by Henry Graves Jr. in 1933.
The full story
Unknown to the public and barely mentioned in Patek Philippe’s archives, the Grande Complication n° 97912 can be said to have appeared out of thin air. Its pristine condition suggests the watch never left the safe in Palmer’s home. It was discovered together with the original sales receipt, warranty and presentation box, thanks to which Christie’s was able to confirm the history of this remarkable piece. Manufactured in 1898 and sold in 1900, it now stands as the oldest grande complication timepiece made by Patek Philippe. Enough to rewrite the company’s history! Furthermore, it is the only example known to have been cased in pink gold. The following pieces, some twenty in all, were manufactured until the 1940s in yellow gold, as the style of the early twentieth century dictated.
The documents accompanying the watch reveal even more of its fascinating history. Stephen S. Palmer came to Geneva in person to collect his watch. From his room at the city’s Beau Rivage hotel, the wealthy president of the New Jersey Zinc Company went to the Manufacture Patek Philippe, still at its historic address at 41, Rue du Rhône, on October 3rd 1900. Here he made the purchase of the Grande Complication n° 97912, with an “SSP” monogram engraved on the case back, for what was, even then, the princely sum of CHF 6,000. The invoice mentions that this avid collector and connoisseur also purchased two other complicated watches.
At Sotheby’s, the ten star lots included three vintage Rolex watches and six wristwatches made after 1989. “The discovery and sale of a piece such as the Palmer remains an exceptional occurrence in the history of auctions,” notes Arnaud Tellier, founder of Tellier Fine Art. “Results at Sotheby’s are a more accurate reflection of the current state of the market, which revolves around modern watches and Rolex.” Against all expectations, the top step of the podium went to a Chopard L.U.C diamond-set wristwatch with one-minute tourbillon and power reserve. Estimated USD 100,000-150,000, it sold for USD 461,000.
Among the curios proposed were two musical watches signed Bessière & Schneider. Although the two craftsmen were in partnership for a short time only, they are nonetheless credited with enamels of the finest quality, such as those that decorate these musical harps. Items of this kind are highly sought-after by Asian collectors in particular. First up for sale was a piece, dated 1820, in gold embellished with grand feu enamel and set with diamonds and pearls, with a watch fitted in the base. Curiously, it failed to find a buyer despite a realistic estimate of USD 100,000-150,000. “Harp-shaped musical watches are quite rare but buyers can be put off by the fact the mechanisms are not guaranteed to be in good working order,” explained Arnaud Tellier. The second, dated 1810, nonetheless fetched USD 57,500, slightly less than its high estimate of USD 60,000.