As a discerning collector and admirer of fine quality precision timepieces, Marcel Mennesson (1884-1976), or “Monsieur Vélosolex” as he was better known, was enthused by the work of Antide Janvier (1751-1835). His familly proposed for auction, in Paris on November 9th, four of Janvier’s masterpieces and three documents (reports and manuals). Highlighting the importance of this dispersal – clocks by Antide Janvier are extremely rare – Sotheby’s published a separate catalogue, already a collector’s item. Only sixty of the six hundred or so clocks Janvier made are known to exist. Many were destroyed during the French Revolution, or sold and taken apart when their maker was declared bankrupt in 1810. Antide Janvier was a prodigy who, at just fifteen, successfully presented his first planetarium sphere before the Academy of Science in Besançon. Louis XVI was so impressed by Janvier’s genius that in 1784 he bought a pair of his mechanical spheres.
The "Van Gogh of clocks"
The sale began at 2.30pm in the magnificent Galerie Charpentier (76, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré) with online and telephone bidders compensating for a regrettably small public. A few days previously, the watchmaker François-Paul Journe and a historian had travelled from Geneva to present the Antide Janvier clocks.
In less than 20 minutes, and despite problems with the electronic display, lots 120, 121 and 122 all changed hands. The first, a beautiful table regulator with hour and half-hour striking, calendar and remontoire (circa 1785), went for €48,750 (USD 66,762) (est. €40,000-60,000 / USD 54,780-82,170). Lot 121, a spectacular armillary planetarium timepiece (1774 and 1825), one of the young prodigy’s early works, fetched €324,750 (USD 444,740) after being estimated at €150,000-200,000 (USD 205,420-273,900). Lot 122, a stunning presentation, fifteen-day, mahogany, double dial and triple movement grande sonnerie pedestal regulator with calendar and lunar indications (1812) found a buyer at €432,750 (USD 592,645) after an estimate of €400,000-600,000 (USD 547,795-821,690). With a top bid of just €85,000 (USD 116,400), lot 123, a month-going calendrical mahogany table regulator, failed to make its reserve price and went unsold, as did the three documents, lots 125 (€6,500 / USD 8,900), 126 (€1,200 / USD 1,645) and 127 (€5,500 / USD 7,530), all of which were returned to their owners.
“A satisfactory result overall,” commented a slightly disappointed Geoffroy Ader, European Head of Watches at Sotheby’s Geneva, who helped prepare the catalogue for the man he has dubbed “the Van Gogh of clocks.” Why wasn’t the sale held in Geneva? “Sotheby’s doesn’t auction clocks in Geneva,” he explained, going on to add that Antide Javier inspired many watchmakers. We can only hope this sale will bring more of his forgotten masterpieces to light!