We may be in the midst of a global pandemic, but time is not standing still. Summer watch sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s are booming. A Breguet pocket watch that once belonged to England’s King George III in 1808 just sold at a July 14 Sotheby’s auction for £1.6 million (approximately $2 million). The sale, dubbed The Collection of a Connoisseur, included several antique pocket watches and decorative snuff boxes, brought in £5.4 million—about $6.8 million at current exchange.
Remarkably, the Breguet watch, a four-minute tourbillon, was in “original condition,” according to Sotheby’s. Other than making an appearance in the Five Centuries of British Timekeeping Exhibition in London in 1955, it hadn’t been seen publicly since it first came to auction in 1999 when it sold for $687,028. This time, the price was driven up by four determined bidders who pushed it well beyond the pre-sale estimate of £700,000-£1,000,000 ($ 895,000-$1.3 million).
“Abraham Louis Breguet watches were the theory of everything in the early 19th century, incorporating all the scientific discoveries of the past centuries, the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the great vision of a man who revolutionized watchmaking and placed time and precision at the core of modern society,” says Sotheby’s watch division chairman Daryn Schnipper. “When you hold the watch he made for George III, you instantly know you are in the presence of something truly exceptional.” It was not branded on the dial, but on the tourbillon carriage inside. Breguet invented the tourbillon in 1793.
Another highlight of the sale was a rare “Temple” snuff box made in 1807-1808 by the Geneva goldsmiths Philippe Sené and Henri Neisser for the Chinese market, selling for £675,000 or $845,438. There was also a decorative gold and enamel singing bird watch created in 1820 by Rochat Frères for the Turkish market, selling for £675,000 or $845,438.
If you’ve been collecting vintage pocket watches, in fact, now may be a good time to sell, since they are having a moment. In June, Sotheby’s dedicated an entire online sale to them, setting a record for the highest price paid for a pocket watch in an online auction. The 1904 watch, called the Dent Ultra Complication, doubled its estimate, selling for $832,240. In the same sale, a 1948 Patek Philippe Heures Universelles watch with an enameled map of America sold for $707,404. A vintage Breguet pocket watch, this one made for Scottish astronomer and general Sir Thomas Brisbane in 1816, sold for $582,568.
Modern wristwatches are also faring well. At a Sotheby’s auction of Important Watches on July 11 in Hong Kong, a one-of-a-kind platinum Rolex Daytona Ref. 16516 with a lapis lazuli dial sold for $3.27 million. Other highlights of the sale included a Piaget Gouverneur, an elegant dress watch with a sector dial, for $314,511, and a white gold Philippe Dufour Simplicity for $290,318. The bidding also went high for a rare Greubel Forsey GMT in pink gold with a 24-seconds inclined tourbillon, which sold for $225,802.
Not unexpectedly, the two top lots in the July 13 Christie’s Hong Kong auction were Patek Philippe wristwatches, selling for a combined total of $3,197,490. The top piece was a Patek Philippe Ref. 5033, a modern minute repeater/annual calendar made in 2003 with a rare titanium case, It sold for $1,950,870. The second-highest lot was a rare platinum Sky Moon Tourbillon with 12 complications, including cathedral minute repeater, tourbillon, perpetual calendar and sidereal time. The third top lot was a combined effort, recognized as a rare masterpiece. The tourbillon wristwatch was made under the auspices of “Naissance d’une Montre,” a program formed in partnership with Christie’s to create an opportunity for a student – in this case, Michel Boulanger – to build a mechanical watch from scratch using only traditional techniques and tools. Boulanger’s mentors in the project were legendary watchmakers Greubel Forsey and Philippe Dufour, who co-signed the watch. This one was number six of 11 made, and sold for $882,887.