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Breguet shines at the Geneva auctions in May
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Breguet shines at the Geneva auctions in May

Wednesday, 23 May 2012
By Danièle Chambas
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Danièle Chambas

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12 min read

Geneva’s May sales saw 940 timepieces change hands for CHF 45.8 million, of which CHF 30.3 million for Christie’s, which realised its second-highest result for a watch sale and scored two-thirds of sales in three days dominated by Breguet.

Nine in the morning on Monday May 14th, and Aurel Bacs steps up to the podium for a show that will last seven and a half hours, in the Grand Salon at Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, before an attentive and impatient audience. The tifosi are out in force, eager to bid for Patek Philippe, Rolex but, most of all, two Breguet masterpieces.

These unique and historic pocket watches, the work of genius inventor Abraham-Louis Breguet, were last-minute additions to Christie’s catalogue. They had spent more than 150 years in the hands of a European noble family, and were being offered for sale for the very first time. Two exceptionally rare lots, then, which sold in minutes to the Breguet Museum in Paris for a total CHF 6.886 million (EUR 5.715 m / USD 7.431 m), to thunderous applause. The first, No. 2667 (lot 230), was a fine and elegant precision watch in yellow gold, with two movements and two independent dials, manufactured in 1814. It fetched CHF 4,339,000 (EUR 3,601,370 / USD 4,68,120) after a pre-sale estimate of CHF 800,000-1.4 million. A world record price for a Breguet watch at auction.

The second masterwork, No. 4111 (lot 232), was a half-quarter repeating watch with equation of time. This grande complication piece in gold and silver, dated 1827, sold for CHF 2,547,000 (EUR 2,114,010 / USD 2,750,760). “These two exceptional watches which made their mark on the history of fine watchmaking are the most expensive ever purchased in Breguet‘s history,” said the Breguet Museum and its president Marc Hayek of Swatch Group. Also in the running, Philippe Stern, honorary president of Patek Philippe, sportingly pulled out of bidding faced with the Paris museum’s clear determination, while Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of Hublot, chose not to bid.

Three other Breguets with the same provenance went to private collectors. They were No. 979 (lot 231), a simple watch in yellow gold from 1803 which fetched CHF 68,750 (EUR 57,250 / USD 72,930 / est. CHF 40-60,000); lot 233, a slim lever watch with à tact device and outer detachable case in yellow gold, dated 1818, selling for CHF 87,000 (EUR 72,200 / USD 93,900); and lot 234, a minute repeating watch with jump centre seconds dated 1817, also in yellow gold. It went for CHF 483,000 (EUR 402,208 / USD 512,410 / est. CHF 400-700,000).

Three other world records were set on this auspicious day for the auction house, including by the very beautiful Patek Philippe Ref. 864 “The Mosque” (lot 186) in yellow gold, dated 1974, with perpetual calendar and moon phases. It is embellished with an enamel miniature signed by the acclaimed Geneva enamellist Suzanne Rohr, depicting the Mosque adjacent to the College at Wattayah in the Sultanate of Oman. After some competitive bidding between Italians, this unique pocket watch sold for CHF 723,000 (EUR 600,090 / USD 780,840). Lot 87, a Patek Philippe World Time pocket watch manufactured in 1950 (Ref. 605), in yellow gold with cloisonné enamel dial showing a map of North America, was sold in two minutes to a telephone bidder for CHF 687,000 (EUR 570,210 /USD 741,960), after a pre-sale estimate of CHF 200-400,000. The same collector acquired the next lot, number 88, a Patek Philippe World Time wristwatch in yellow gold (Ref. 2523) from 1955, also with a cloisonné dial of the North American continent, for CHF 2,771,000 (EUR 2,1307,495 / USD 2,939,770 / estimated CHF 1.6-2.6 million).

Rolex was also among the world records with lot 61, a fine stainless steel automatic triple calendar wristwatch with moon phases (Ref 8171) circa 1955. It went to a private collector for CHF 543,000 (EUR 450,690 / USD 586,440) after a pre-sale estimate of CHF 200-300,000. Equally noteworthy was a delightful quarter-repeating musical watch signed François Nicole, circa 1800, in yellow gold and polychrome enamel (lot 123). Sold to the Patek Philippe Museum, it exceeded its pre-sale estimate of CHF 200-400 000 by making CHF 591,000 (EUR 490,530 /USD 638,280). The sale fetched a total of CHF 30.3 million (EUR 25.1 m / USD 32.7 m) with 356 of the 405 lots selling. This is the second-highest result for a watch sale at Christie’s, exceeded only by the CHF 31 million generated on November 12th 2007.

Christie's (lot 61): Rolex Ref 8171, a fine stainless steel automatic triple calendar wristwatch with moon phases, circa 1955. Sold for CHF 543,000 © Christie's

True to its Sunday rendezvous, on May 13th, 469 lots came under the hammer of Julien Schaerer, who as always performed before a packed room at the Hotel Kempinski for this Antiquorum sale. The top lot kept bidders waiting until the very end of the sale. This was the Patek Philippe World Time wristwatch in yellow gold Ref. 2523 from 1953, with two crowns and a stunning centre guilloché dial. It more than doubled its low estimate, selling for CHF 1,190,500 (EUR 991,365 / USD 1,263,000) and setting Antiquorum’s second record for this model in the process. Indeed, the same reference, this time with a yellow gold bracelet, fetched CHF 1.3 million in 2003. Surprise number two came courtesy of the Rolex Ref. 5512 Submariner in steel, dated 1959 (lot 296) with, engraved on the back of the case, the emblem of the State of Israel and the name, in Hebrew, of the former Mossad director Isser Harel, its former owner. This hotly disputed lot was finally acquired by an American collector for CHF 248,500 (EUR 206.930 / USD 263,635), over nine times its high estimate and a record price for this reference, proving that historical significance can send prices skywards.

Other Rolexes fared well, selling for double their high estimate, namely Ref. 2508 (lot 287), a 1930 stainless steel wristwatch that sold for CHF 62,500 (EUR 52,045 / USD 66,306) and Ref. 1587 “Jump-Hour, Prince Railway” (lot 459) in white and yellow gold which fetched CHF 60,000 (EUR 49,963 / USD 63,655). As for lot 100, the magnificent and unique Patek Philippe pocket Tourbillon, one of the twentieth century’s most accurate mechanical watches and the winner of multiple prizes, not least from the Geneva Observatory, it went for CHF 362,500 (EUR 301,864 / USD 384,578) after a pre-sale estimate of CHF 300-500,000 (EUR 250-415,000 / USD 325-550,000).

Antiquorum (lot 100): Patek Philippe pocket Tourbillon. It sold for for CHF 362,500 © Antiquorum

Enamel pocket watches also performed well. The Patek Philippe Ref 715/5, the only one to feature an enamel portrait of General Lafayette by J. Pellarin-Leroy (lot 463), was acquired by an Asian bidder for CHF 134,500 (EUR 112,000 / USD 142,690). An even more impressive result came with the Vacheron Constantin “The Lacemaker”, a unique watch made circa 1960 in yellow gold and signed by the Geneva master enameller Charles Poluzzi (lot 97). The hammer came down at CHF 206,500 (EUR 171,958 / USD 219,000), more than ten times the high estimate. The stunning “Chinese Peony Flower” grande sonnerie, the work of a Genevan enameller circa 1820 (lot 236), fetched CHF 152,500 (EUR 126,990 / USD 161,780).

The sale was also an opportunity for Antiquorum to mark the 40th anniversary of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, as 55 vintage and modern examples (lots 398 to 453) of this iconic watch, designed in 1972 by Gérald Genta, came under the hammer. Of them, 47 found takers for around CHF 1 million (EUR 850,000 / USD 1.1 m). This could have been higher except that lot 428, a unique grande complication piece made in 1994 in white gold, with perpetual calendar, moon phases and a diamond-set dial, bezel and bracelet, went unsold. It had been estimated at CHF 600,000-1 million (EUR 500-850,000 / USD 650,000-1.1 m).

The sale totalled CHF 7,466,737 (EUR 6,197,400 / USD 8,213,400) for 341 lots sold. This compares with the CHF 6.3 million (EUR 5.2 m / USD 6.9 m) for Antiquorum’s Geneva sale in March. “Demand for rare and historic timepieces remains high, with interest continuing to grow in Asia,” said Julien Schaerer. “In contrast, Italian collectors, who are great admirers of vintage and modern watches, are taking a significantly smaller share after a keen presence on the market for thirty years.”

Breaking with a four-year tradition, Sotheby’s left its evening slot for a “day sale” on Tuesday May 15th, but stayed true to the Hotel Beau-Rivage in Geneva. In two sessions at 9am then at 2pm, Geoffroy Ader, who is head of Sotheby’s European Watch Department, presided over 386 lots which had been carefully presented in the sale’s well-documented catalogue. The highlight of the day were 54 lots by Breguet, a record number, including several exceptional pieces by the inspired watchmaker whose multiple inventions are still used in watches today. Forty-one lots were sold, including seven to the Breguet Museum in Paris, for a total of CHF 2 million (EUR 1.6 m / USD 2.2 m).

After snapping up two outstanding pocket watches the day before at Christie’s for close to CHF 7 million (EUR 5.8 m / USD 7.7 m), the museum continued its horological shopping spree at Sotheby’s. Its most costly purchase was an attractive, large quarter-repeating carriage clock (“pendule à almanach”) made in 1825 (lot 365), in gilt brass with grande and petite sonnerie. It flew off the auctioneer’s block in twenty seconds for CHF 422,500 (EUR 351,730 / USD 452,202) after a pre-sale estimate of CHF 350-450,000. This historically significant clock by Abraham-Louis Breguet thus made Sotheby’s “top ten.” A smaller version (lot 364) from 1810, again in gilt brass and estimated CHF 250-350,000, failed to sell. The Breguet Museum also left with four pocket watches, including a charming and interesting quarter-repeating model in yellow gold with silver guilloché dial (lot 357), sold in 1815 to the Price of Liechtenstein for CHF 2,168. Estimated CHF 50-70,000, it went for CHF 62,500 (EUR 52,030 / USD 66,190). The remaining two lots (374 and 375) were wristwatches made in 1955 and 1960. They fetched CHF 16,250 (EUR 13,550 / USD 17,875) and CHF 18,750 (EUR 15,550 / USD 20,625) respectively. The Breguet Museum’s total bidding on this Tuesday amounted to CHF 628,750 (EUR 521,850 / USD 691,625).

Still in the Breguet section, Ref. 3857, a pink gold, minute-repeating, perpetual calendar, tourbillon wristwatch (lot 388), never previously offered for sale and one of a limited edition of three, produced in 1997 for the 250th anniversary of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s birth, quickly sold to an Asian collector for CHF 242,500 (EUR 201,880 / USD 259,548 / est. CHF 200-300,000). Lot 366, the pink gold, minute repeating Louis Audemars Grande Complication, fetched CHF 182,500 (EUR 151,930 / USD 193,330) with a pre-sale estimate of CHF 150 -250,000.

A number of Patek Philippes changed hands during a subdued morning session, namely Ref. 5029 (lot 251), a yellow gold, automatic minute-repeating wristwatch made in 1998, sold to a European bidder for CHF 362,500 (EUR 301,780 / USD 387,984), and Ref. 5971 (lot 140), a platinum and diamond chronograph from 2007, which found a new home in Asia for CHF 236,500 (EUR 196,886 / USD 253,126) after an estimate of CHF 180-220,000. As for Ref 5102 “Celestial”, a magnificent automatic astronomical tourbillon in white gold, it found a taker at CHF 182,500 (EUR 151,930 / USD 195,330 / est. CHF 150-200,000). In contrast, lot 141 which illustrated the back cover of the catalogue, the exceptional and unique grande complication pocket watch Ref. 959, manufactured by Patek Philippe in 1992 and estimated at CHF 500-800,000 went unsold.

The afternoon session proved much livelier, no small thanks to active bidding from the Breguet Museum. Results confirmed collectors’ interest in the Rolex pink gold, triple calendar “Star Dial” Ref. 6062 from 1950 (lot 307). Estimated CHF 200-300,000, it went to Asia for CHF 314,500 (EUR 261,820 / USD 336,609).

Of the different pocket watches, lot 341, a slim, yellow gold watch with thermometer, manufactured circa 1845 by Sylvain Mairet – the only one of the four to sell – went for CHF 182,500 (EUR 151,930 / USD 195,330), easily doubling its low estimate. Lot 257, a delightful yellow gold, enamel and pearl-set watch, made circa 1820 for the Chinese market, containing a gold movement, also fetched CHF 182,500 (EUR 151,930 / USD 195,330). It was acquired by the Patek Philippe Museum for three times its high estimate of CHF 60,000.

Of the five watches by Frédéric Houriet in the sale, only lot 336, a pocket watch in yellow gold with enamel and pearls, manufactured for the Chinese market, found a buyer at CHF 37,500 (EUR 31,220 / USD 39,715) after an estimate of CHF 30-50,000. The last five in the “top ten” (lots 257, 366, 186, 240 and 341) all made the same price of CHF 182,500! Of the 386 lots proposed, 243 were sold for a total of CHF 8,112,200 (6,733,125 / USD 8,923,420).

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