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$31 Million and Change: Inside the Record-Breaking Auction for the Most Expensive Watch in the World

Here's what it was like at the sale of the most expensive watch in the world.

Only Watch Auction Courtesy of Only Watch

The bidding started at 5 million CHF (approximately $5 million) and by the time it was over, a new world record had been set for the highest price paid for any watch sold at auction, ever.

Over the weekend, a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, the only one ever made in stainless steel, sold for a breathtaking 31 million CHF (approximately $31 million). In one fell swoop the sale nearly doubled the 40 million CHF (approximately $40 million) raised by Only Watch last year. Luc Pettavino started the charity in 2005, when his son Paul developed Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a devastating disease that ultimately took his life. The reason the Patek Philippe sold for so much was that it was for charity, according to the Earl of Snowdon, honorable chairman of Christie’s EMEA, which ran the auction. The timepiece was also highly covetable because it was the only time this kind of Patek Philippe watch has ever been available for purchase to the broader public—previous Grandmaster Chime watches are considered application timepieces, meaning they are available only to collectors who submit a sort of resume proving their worthiness of ownership.

Most Expensive Watch in the World, $31 Million Patek Philippe

The two faces of the new most expensive watch in the world, Patek Philippe’s Grandmaster Chime.  Patek Philippe

Whatever the reason, horologic history was made.  “I was the one who opened the bidding at 5 million,” boasted Claude Sfeir, a watch dealer from Beirut who made a not inconsiderable purchase of his own when he plunked down 350,000 CHF (approximately $350,000) for a Tudor Black Bay Ceramic One.

The bids for the history-making Patek Philippe came in via phones manned by Christie’s staff at phone banks lining either side of an ornate salon at Geneva’s Hotel Bergues. When a bid came in for 17 million CHF, the standing-room-only crowd cheered. At 20 million, it erupted into a roar. A new bidder joined the contest offering 22.5 million. The following bid of 25 million was greeted with applause.

The contest winnowed down to two bidders, via phones on opposite sides of the room. Auctioneer Rahul Kadakia’s head bounced back and forth as the bids went from 27 million to 28 million then 28 million to 28.5 million. At 30 million applause broke out. When the bid reached 31 million the crowd held its collective breath. As the hammer struck, everyone rose to their feet in a standing ovation, aware that a world record had been set, and a lot of money had been raised for important medical research.

F.P. Journe Astronomic Blue for Only Watch

F.P. Journe Astronomic Blue for Only Watch  Courtesy of F.P. Journe

It was a stunningly successful auction all around. Another 7 million-plus CHF was raised from the sale of the other 49 lots. Some of the other notables included F.P. Journe’s Astronomic Blue, which sold for 1,800,000 CHF (açproximately $1.8 million). Audemars Piguet’s Code 11.59 Tourbillon Openwork sold for 1 million CHF (approximately $1 million) and earned more cheers as AP’s CEO, François Henry Bennhamias, standing on the sidelines, pumped his fists in victory. And he has plenty of reasons this month to celebrate—just two nights earlier the watch brand took home three big prizes at the Grand Prix de la Haute Horlogerie (the Oscars of watchmaking) including the Aguille d’Or (the grand prize) for its Royal Oak Selfwinding Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin watch.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Two Tone Openworked Tourbillon for Only Watch

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 Two Tone Openworked Tourbillon for Only Watch  Courtesy of Audemars Piguet

Eric Yu, a Bay Area watch dealer, paid 360,000 CHF for Rexhep Rexhepi’s AKRIVIA Chronometre, Contemporain with its platinum case by J.P. Hagmann. “Rexhepi is the greatest watchmaker of our time,” said Mr. Yu, who already owns the watch in rose gold. Others might bestow that honor on Kari Voutilainen. He collaborated on the TP1 Pocket Watch with his daughter Venla, who just graduated from watch school. The hammer price was 110,000 CHF (approximately $110,000). Another big seller: Richard Mille’s RM 11-03 Automatic Flyback Chronograph McLaren which sold for 320,000 CHF.

Richard Mille RM 11-03 Automatic Flyback for Only Watch

Richard Mille RM 11-03 Automatic Flyback for Only Watch 

“It used to be that people came to Only Watch to buy watches at a discount,” said Max Büsser of MB&F. “But in the past few years, prices go for 10 times retail, or more.” Büsser, who has known Only Watch founder Pettavino for 14 years, created the Tom and T-Rex clock, made in collaboration with l’Epée, which depicts a child who can not walk astride his friendly T. Rex. The table clock sold for 85,000 CHF, four times a similar one at retail (all watches created for Only Watch are one-offs).

MB&F & L'Epée Tom & T-Rex

MB&F & L’Epée Tom & T-Rex  Courtesy of MB&F

Before the auction began, as the crowd sipped Champagne and nibbled hors d’ouevres, Prince Albert of Monaco was uncannily prophetic. When asked how this year’s auction would be different from the past, he said, “there are some incredible and unique pieces. It promises to be amazing.” Then, chuckling, he leaned in and quipped, “I was about to say it promises to be tremendous, but that’s a word someone else has co-opted.”

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