It all began with a Swiss collector who for 35 years nurtured a passion for all kinds of erotica, filling a room in his home with erotic artefacts. The 32 timepieces that came under the hammer on March 27th (30 pocket watches and two wristwatches) were part of this unusual collection. The earliest pieces were watches made for the Chinese market in the seventeenth century. Watchmakers in France, England and Switzerland, in particular Geneva, specialised in this niche and rather risqué art which no less requires the finest horological and enamelling expertise.
Beneath a seemingly innocent exterior, these pocket watches are the theatre of erotic and, in some instances, musical scenes which are revealed on pushing a hidden button. They are all the more rare as they were manufactured in small quantities, and for many years were forbidden by the Church.
A record for Henry Capt
Activity in the room was relatively calm, with a small audience of some thirty people at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhone in Geneva. However, online and telephone bidding gave rise to battles between Chinese (the most numerous), Japanese and Turkish buyers. As expected, a pocket watch by the Genevan watchmaker Henry Capt, dubbed Musique d’Amour (lot 187), swept the board. Dated 1810 and estimated at CHF 70,000-90,000 (US$ 75,720-97,350 / € 53,460-68,735), it sold to a Chinese collector for CHF 200,500 (US$ 216,880 / € 153,120). This beautifully crafted yellow gold timepiece features a particularly sophisticated mechanism. Indeed, Capt was one of the first watchmakers to use a cylinder musical mechanism. The watch is also rare in that it features two automaton scenes and three animations on the dial instead of the more usual two.
Several other lots sparked intense bidding. Lot 173 (Vienna, 1880) went to a Chinese buyer for CHF 64,900 (US$ 70,200 / € 49,565), ten times its high pre-sale estimate. Lot 174 (John Bittleston, London, 1790) also sold to a Chinese collector for CHF 67,300 (US$ 72,800 / € 51,400), seven and a half times its high estimate. Lot 170 (Girardin L’Aîné, Paris, 1810) and lot 179, Le Théâtre de l’Amour by Breguet (Paris, 1820), both tripled their high estimates, selling for CHF 16,250 (US$ 17,575 / € 12,410) and CHF 26,250 (US$ 17,575 / € 12,410) respectively.
Disappointing results for wristwatches
Two pocket watches by James Cox of London (lots 184 and 185), including the delightful heart-shaped Affaires de cœur, fetched CHF 50,000 (US$ 54,085 / € 38,185) and CHF 57,500 (US$ 62,200 / € 43,915). Originally made for China, they left Geneva destined for Turkey. Lot 177, made by Lugrin for the Russian market in 1890, almost tripled its high estimate at CHF 21,250 (US$ 22,985 / € 16,230).
Modern wristwatches fared less well, perhaps because their coverless dials lack the intimacy of their vintage counterparts. The Kama Sutra Swatch (1993) with matching bracelet (lot 160) sold for CHF 1,250 (US$ 1,350 / € 954) (est. CHF 1,000-2,000 / US$ 1,080-2,160 / € 760-1,520). The last item in the sale, “The Dentist” (2000) (lot 188) by the Genevan watchmaker Svend Andersen, went to a Japanese bidder for CHF 30,000 (US$ 32,450 / € 22,910), exactly its high estimate. Etienne Leménager, Antiquorum director, was delighted with the result of the sale, which lasted 45 minutes and achieved CHF 722,300 (US$ 781,320 / € 551,645): “We expected good results but nothing as extraordinary as this, thanks to Asian buyers. It all came down to four collectors.”