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Obsession is a demanding mistress. On December 2, 1999, Philippe Stern, president of the venerable Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe, found himself once again in her grasp. Keeping his steely Genevese reserve, he glanced at his watch, an impeccably crafted Patek Philippe, purportedly the perpetual calendar made in 1943, the one given to him by his father, Henri, who had preceded him as president. At sixty-one, Stern remained the very picture of understated elegance. A gentle man with thinning white hair, he had quietly slipped away from his office at the company’s headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Geneva, well before the appointed hour for the auction of the legendary Supercomplication, the most exquisitely complex mechanical watch ever created. Given the time, it was probably best to take the telephone call from his family’s villa in Anières on the shores of Lake Geneva. In any event he would be more comfortable there.
The time quickly approached 8:30 p.m., nearly 2:30 p.m. in New York City. There was still some time before the auction began. It had been thirty years since the Supercomplication had last surfaced. Having already eluded the family once, the moments until bidding opened were relatively short.
Outside, the wind scythed across the lake in the spectral dark of winter. Here on Lac Léman, Stern had won a record seven regattas as a young sailor. A fierce competitor, he had also been a member of the Swiss national ski team. Along with his wife, Gerdi, herself a European mushing champion, Stern had competed in international dog sled races. The roster of pastimes enjoyed by the head of one of the oldest Swiss watchmakers, as it had been noted, all revolved around beating the clock. Stern had once described his hobbies as good business training, saying that they had taught him “to go fast and take risks sometimes.”
With the anticipation of victory, Stern put the telephone to his ear. Four thousand miles away, his aide-de-camp Alan Banbery was waiting for him.
• • •
Everyone who was anyone in the insular world of watch collecting filed into Sotheby’s ten-story glass-and-steel tower at 1334 York Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on that unseasonably warm afternoon. Just three weeks before Christmas, thermometers registered 60 degrees. At the Botanical Gardens, fragrant white blooms had broken out five months prematurely, and a ring of yellow forsythia blossoms graced the city with a touch of spring. As the mercury soared, so did the stock market. The Dow pushed past 11,000, marking the end of the millennium with record gains. The entire city appeared to levitate on its great good fortune. Watching the buoyant crowd descend upon Sotheby’s, a betting man could wager with ease that, before the day was over, more than one record would be broken.
As in previous years, the major auction houses dangled before an excitable audience the spectacle of record-smashing greatness for paintings, jewels, and objets d’art, all with impeccable provenance or rarity. Each season brought an increasing fervor. A daisy chain of superlatives wrapped around each sale. The items featured were not just rare but extremely rare. They were not merely important but the most important. More than offering desirables of a certain vintage, the auction houses were peddling history bound in shiny catalogues and generated in regularly scheduled cycles. And the press and public responded like hounds to blood.
For weeks, expectations followed the Dow over Sotheby’s “Masterpieces of the Time Museum.” Eighty-one watches and clocks were set to go on the block. Culled from the 3,500-piece collection of Seth G. Atwood, a wealthy entrepreneur and something of an eccentric, these were some of the most extraordinary and important timepieces created since man began calculating the minutes and hours and fashioning devices by which to measure them. A quick rifle through the handsomely appointed catalogue yielded numerous affirmations that the auction’s billing offered more than hyperbole. “Sometimes sales catalogues are mutton dressed as lamb,” one Sotheby’s veteran dryly noted at the sale. “This was not the case.”
By any measure the sale was unprecedented. Fascinated with the art and the science of time, Atwood had become one of the world’s most significant collectors and horological scholars. He hailed from an old-line Illinois family that made its fortune in manufacturing, banking, and real estate, which afforded him the leisure to pursue his interests wherever they took him. He had spent the past three decades circling the globe, cherry-picking the most important clocks and watches in history, mounting a private collection that came to rival that of the British Museum—in importance if not scope. To house his collection, Atwood had constructed the Time Museum, located in his hometown, far from all known capitals (horological or otherwise), in the basement of his Clock Tower Inn in Rockford, Illinois, a green little pocket of nowhere straddling the Rock River, off Interstate 90.
While universally acknowledged as an endearingly kind and charming fellow, Atwood had rightfully earned a reputation as a bull in the world’s china shop of clocks. Rivals collapsed when he was in the game. And once a timepiece was in Atwood’s possession the game was over. Knowledgeable horophiles accepted that it was as likely that the sun would change course and rise in the West as that Atwood’s collection could ever be broken up and sold in lots. Yet at age eighty-two, Atwood had resolved to do just that. He was shutting down his museum (a process that would be filled with a number of unforeseen twists and turns and take several years) and, somewhat unsentimentally, deaccessioning its priceless contents.
Few could recall an auction of this caliber and range. Atwood’s assemblage represented an astonishing array of ancient astrolabes, astronomical chiming clocks, musical automata, and other devices of wonder from every period, important watchmaker, and country from the beginning of timekeeping. “It was mind-blowing,” described one British dealer who arrived with instructions to bid on a number of the lots on behalf of his deep-pocketed clients. “Just looking at it set the heart aflutter.”
Lot 22 contained the famous Ormolu-mounted red boulle Sympathique no. 128, made in 1835 by the House of Breguet for the Duc d’Orléans. Watchmaker to Louis XVI, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, the Swiss-born Parisian Abraham-Louis Breguet remains the greatest watchmaker in history. It was Breguet who invented the tourbillon, circa 1795, an ingeniously delicate and tiny gyroscope-like device that turns about every minute to compensate for gravity’s pull on a movement, dramatically improving accuracy and revolutionizing timekeeping. The wittily inventive Sympathique was designed with a removable pocket watch that rested in a cradle atop the main clock. A series of pins locked the pocket watch into position, while overnight a mechanism inside the clock movement rewound, readjusted, and reset its companion with jumping hours, a quarter repeater that chimed precisely on the quarter hour, and a power reserve indicator. The clock was one of only eleven ever produced.
Even in the seventeenth century, when the manufacture of any timepiece was far from routine, the final lot, the Tompion no. 381, was quite something. A gilt-brass, mounted red tortoiseshell table clock featuring both grande sonnerie and quarter repeating chimes, it was one of only three such pieces manufactured by the brilliant seventeenth-century British clockmaker Thomas Tompion. The Englishman first earned a name in 1676 when King Charles II commissioned him to create two faultlessly accurate clocks for the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, which notably became the center of world time in 1884. By the time of Tompion’s death in 1713, the eminent clockmaker had become a national treasure and was buried with royalty in the nave of Westminster Abbey.
In an auction with many rare and ingenious instruments, the sale’s crown jewel belonged to Lot 7. Known as the Graves Supercomplication, the double-dial pocket watch was a miniature masterpiece of mechanical engineering. First commissioned in 1925 by the enigmatic New York financier Henry Graves, Jr., from Patek Philippe & Co., the pocket watch, measuring three and a half inches wide and scarcely one inch deep, was the storied Geneva watchmaker’s magnum opus, requiring three years to contemplate its design and nearly another five to produce.
Elaborately constructed in eighteen-carat gold and jeweled pivots, the Supercomplication boasted the skill and expense expended by Patek Philippe. The watch’s enamel dials were protected by crystal with the hardness of sapphire, penetrable only by a diamond. Crafted at a time when watchmakers hand-tooled their own parts, the Supercomplication consisted of over 900 individual pieces—most no bigger than a grain of rice or thicker than a strand of hair. An orchestra of 430 screws, 110 wheels, more than 120 various movable parts, and 70 jewels produced a symphony of 24 complications. This dazzling array included a different chronological function for each hour of the day, a perpetual calendar (requiring resetting only in the year 2100), and a split-second chronograph. Smaller sub-dials indicated the exact time of sunrise and sunset calibrated for New York City, while another measured the phases of the moon. A minute repeater struck the hour, half-hour, and quarter-hour, playing the same tintinnabulary melody as heard ringing out from Big Ben, the great bell clock rising over London’s Palace of Westminster. These were but a fraction of the watch’s virtues. A midnight-blue celestial chart also mapped the nighttime sky over Manhattan, complete with the exact magnitudes of the stars and the Milky Way gliding across the sky in tandem with the actual heavens.
For this horological Willy Wonka factory in miniature, Graves paid 60,000 Swiss francs, the equivalent of $15,000 at the time, a staggering amount. Measured in 1999 dollars, the price equaled some $265,000, but in effect such an undertaking would cost closer to $2 million.
The Supercomplication was more than just a golden toy for the Gilded Age. In the history of timekeeping, less than a handful of grandes complications—including Breguet’s fabled Marie-Antoinette, the crystal pocket watch made for the ill-fated French queen—have reached the highest levels of haute horlogerie, earning the title of a “supercomplication.” Possessing twenty-four complications, the Graves eclipsed them all. Even with the march of years and the advent of modern technology, the watch is a technological achievement of the highest order. Entirely calculated and crafted by hand, the Supercomplication was a powerful computer of time before there were computers.
Produced on a dare, Patek Philippe’s tour de force inspired marvel and desire. It was as if Merlin captured Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, encased their essence in gold, and then slipped the mechanism inside a man’s waistcoat, where their collective genius might tick through eternity.
In the annals of timekeeping the Supercomplication loomed large in any important collector’s understanding of the field. Its technical triumph, however, was only part of its luster. The pocket watch had been the victor in a strange contest that took place long ago between Graves, a fiercely private society tycoon, and his rival, James Ward Packard, the automobile magnate, during the early years of the twentieth century, when enterprising Americans amassed huge fortunes in banking, auto making, coal, oil, steel, and the railways. Their newly minted prosperity soon eclipsed the lucre accumulated over a millennium by European royalty. Keen to demonstrate the cultured face of capitalism’s excess, America’s moneyed moguls scooped up European patrimonies, paying enormous sums for Old Master paintings and sculptures, antique tapestries, ancient manuscripts, and ingenious mechanical pocket watches.
Throughout history, these beautiful instruments represented the most innovative, extravagant gadgets that money could buy, available to an elite few. King Farouk I of Egypt, intrigued by their beauty and exotic novelty, possessed a collection of erotic automata pieces. On one of his most famous, the king calculated the time by counting the number of sexual thrusts executed by the figures inside the watch’s movement, visible with the press of a button on the lid. In the early seventeenth century, Swiss, French, and English watchmakers flocked to Constantinople, vying for the patronage of the sultans who acquired thousands of highly ornate timepieces as astrological amusements.
Once the prerogative of the aristocracy, watches had become the ultimate status symbol of wealth, and America’s financial princes found themselves not merely bewitched by their beauty but transfixed by their illustrious pedigrees. The country’s most powerful banker, the cigar-chomping John Pierpont Morgan, spent enormous sums to purchase 240 European timepieces dating to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In love with his own legacy, Morgan eventually bequeathed his collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Henry Graves, Jr., a private man of fine tastes and even grander possessions, and James Ward Packard, the brilliant engineer, both possessed the passion and limitless purse to acquire the finest instruments ever produced. Timepieces from antiquity scarcely roused their attention, but over the course of three decades the pair engaged in a surreptitious collecting duel to own the most complicated watch of their era. Their patronage spurred Swiss watchmakers, chief among them Patek Philippe, to craft ever more innovative and ingenious timepieces, pushing the boundaries of mathematics, astronomy, craftsmanship, technology, and physics. Their contest produced a series of transcendently unique grandes complications. Almost a century later, very few of their timepieces had ever come to market. The rather gauzy tale of how “the Graves” ended up in the hands of Seth Atwood added another layer to the watch’s already considerable mystique.
Among horophiles, the Supercomplication was considered the Mona Lisa of timepieces, and most believed they were likely to see Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece appear on the market before the Graves ever went under the hammer. Should the legendary piece leave the Graves family and come onto the open market, it was widely accepted that it would land in Patek Philippe’s private collection. Yet in a stunning reversal, Seth Atwood acquired the Supercomplication on March 26, 1969. Thirty years later, even the Stern family had to admit that the pocket watch’s path from Henry Graves, Jr.’s Fifth Avenue vault to Sotheby’s wood-paneled seventh-floor salesroom was as unexpected and random as the watch was obsessively crafted and meticulously built.
• • •
Surveying the room, Daryn Schnipper, Sotheby’s director of worldwide watches and clocks, found it difficult to contain her composure. Securing the Time Museum sale and with it the Graves had been a coup for the auction house. For nearly twenty years, the petite, bright-eyed brunette had traveled between Europe and New York and, more recently, Asia, building up Sotheby’s slice of the growing global watch market. When she first joined the auction house in 1980, timepieces remained the exclusive domain of a small group of collectors whose obsessive tastes ran to historical clocks and pocket watches. Mechanical wristwatches were regarded mostly as an afterthought. In recent years, however, a vortex of money and rumors had catapulted vintage wristwatches into serious collectibles, fetching prices in the six figures, nudging them above their previous station in the art world as expensive trinkets for eccentrics and ephemera for curiosity seekers. The mounting interest drew in new buyers while helping to pull all horology from the periphery to the center, where the big money resided.
The commission to sell the Supercomplication was an auctioneer’s dream. Schnipper had never sold anything like it. She was about to witness the biggest sale of her life, one that had the potential to drive Sotheby’s ahead of its great rival, Christie’s, in dominating the watch market. This was a once-in-a-lifetime sale that could change the field. In her mind, there were two possible outcomes: spectacular triumph or humiliating failure.
Schnipper first laid eyes on the Supercomplication during a visit to the Time Museum in 1986. She had traveled to Illinois to assist with Atwood’s single catalogue dispersal of 370 pocket watches for Sotheby’s. At the time, she had little notion that she was witnessing the beginning of the end of Atwood’s entire museum. There, Atwood produced a fitted tulipwood box and handed it to Schnipper so that she could inspect its contents. Inlaid with ebony and centered by a mother-of-pearl panel engraved with the Graves family coat of arms, it held a gold pocket watch. In awe, Schnipper removed it and turned it over to see the inscription: Made for Henry Graves, Jr., New York 1932 by Patek Philippe & Co., Geneva, Switzerland. “It was,” she later recalled, “like holding a beating heart in the palm of my hand.”
Sotheby’s had no clear picture of who exactly might pursue the pocket watch. In most instances, an auction house can predict with a fair degree of confidence which collectors and dealers might push a sale, particularly at this level, for which the pool of potential buyers is notably small and included a handful of Americans, a few well-placed Germans, petrosheiks, and the Stern family. The Russian oligarchs and the Chinese had yet to enter the art world with their centrifugal force. Yet the Supercomplication introduced a high degree of uncertainty, for, although only a handful of people could afford to spend the kind of money that Sotheby’s was hoping the pocket watch would bring at auction, to date none of them had ever done so.
• • •
During the weeks before the curtain rose, Sotheby’s aggressively promoted the sale. The auction house re-created a replica of the Time Museum on its tenth floor, high above York Avenue, where interested parties viewed the sale’s lots in an environment primed to stoke buyers’ interest. The Supercomplication sat alone in a bulletproof case, separate from the other masterpieces. Parties interested in a closer inspection were accompanied by one of Sotheby’s watch experts, given a pair of latex gloves, and taken to a small room, where they examined the piece under the intense gaze of security.
As part of the presale activities, Sotheby’s had toured the prized Supercomplication to select clients in a series of private viewings. John Reardon, a young vice president in Sotheby’s Watch Department, who had given up a stint in the Peace Corps after becoming a watch enthusiast, was charged with showing the watch around the country. Reardon had developed an enormous appreciation for Henry Graves, Jr., as a collector and an even deeper fascination for the chef d’oeuvre of his collection. Formal security remained discreet. Reardon later recounted that he had created an impregnable bag out of a bulletproof and fireproof camera case; he stuffed it with foam and cut a hole in the middle in order to hold the delicate timepiece in place. “If the plane went down,” he said, “the Supercomplication would survive.”
During a stop at O’Hare Airport in Chicago, Reardon nearly missed his flight when security agents at the x-ray machine thought the double-dial watch looked like a bomb. In a moment of quick thinking Reardon convinced the agents not to pry it open and instead offered a private screening. In a small room he gave them an impromptu lesson on the most complicated watch ever created. In Reardon’s telling, the security agents sat rapt for nearly an hour. “It captured their imaginations,” he recalled, describing his brief confinement at O’Hare as “one of those magical horological moments.”
In New York, despite palpable anticipation, the exhibition did not draw the kind of presale crowds that Sotheby’s had expected. Schnipper remembered that in 1986, when the house had handled Atwood’s initial sale of fine pocket watches, they had to turn away private viewers. The dearth of spectators was troubling, given the overall hype surrounding the sale. Even more puzzling, it mirrored another odd phenomenon: few people were talking up the price of the Supercomplication. Usually speculation runs high, with any number of individuals offering their opinion on where a price might strike, and with luck—along with a discreet and subtle push from the auction house—the excitement turns to fevered bidding. There was a disquieting silence, however, about the Supercomplication.
In truth, the Supercomplication posed a conundrum for Sotheby’s. In the run-up to the Time Museum sale, the art market’s unrestrained hubris had led to excessive estimates and even wilder sales. The Australian billionaire entrepreneur and yachtsman Alan Bond shattered all previous records in 1987 when he snapped up Van Gogh’s Irises for a cool $54.9 million.1 While astonishing, this record was destroyed three years later when the Japanese multimillionaire Ryoei Saito dropped $82.5 million on Van Gogh’s Portrait du Dr. Gachet during a Sotheby’s auction in New York. Within days, the head of Daishowa Paper Manufacturing bid $78.1 million for Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette. After spending a few hours with his masterpieces, the highflying Saito put them in foam-padded crates and shipped them to a climate-controlled vault in a secret Tokyo warehouse.
These were crazy days in a manic decade. In 1997 an anonymous bidder, widely rumored to be the Austrian-born investment fund manager Wolfgang Flötti, bought Picasso’s 1932 Le Rêve for $48.4 million at Christie’s in New York. The following year, Microsoft’s founder Bill Gates purchased Winslow Homer’s Lost on the Grand Banks for $30 million.
Wine, precious objects, and jewels were also creating monetary spectacles. In 1985 the Forbes publishing dynasty paid $156,450 for a 1787 Château Lafite reportedly bottled for Thomas Jefferson but which was later claimed to be a fraud. Just four years before the Supercomplication was to go on the block, Sotheby’s smashed all former jewelry auctions with the sale of the Star of the Season, a 100.1-carat pear-shaped colorless diamond for $16.5 million, sold to an anonymous buyer.
The auction market for vintage watches had also begun to heat up in recent years, but no timepiece had entered the stratosphere of a Monet or a bottle of Bordeaux. Only three years earlier, in 1996, a single watch had passed the million-dollar mark at auction. The piece was a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe Calatrava astronomic minute-repeating gentleman’s wristwatch with perpetual calendar and moon-phase indication, with a platinum bracelet and case. Manufactured in 1939, the watch fetched $1,715,000 in a New York auction held by the Geneva-based house Antiquorum.
Placing a price on the Graves pocket watch posed something of a dilemma for Schnipper and her team at Sotheby’s. Prior to any sale, auction houses put estimates, one low and one high, on the objects to be sold, based on comparable sales and the current market. But nothing of similar caliber, rarity, or provenance had ever come on the market. In more ways than one, the Supercomplication was without rival. “Everyone was nervous as fish,” recalled William Andrewes, the Time Museum’s former curator.
Schnipper knew that a brilliant result was in no way a foregone conclusion. She had hoped the watch might go for at least $2 or $3 million. In Geneva, one month before the sale, a prominent client casually suggested to her that the Supercomplication could easily fetch $8 million. The figure rocked her composure, but she refused to allow herself such flamboyant imaginings. Anxiously, she asked herself, “Who’s going to buy it? The world is going crazy.” In the end, Sotheby’s put its low estimate on the watch at $3 million, with $5 million at the high end. Still, doubt nagged at Schnipper. Did the price bracket reflect an unreasonable aspiration? Not infrequently, auctions placed a too-high estimate on works that did not slot easily. It was a gamble. There was the danger that a wild estimate might kill the sale altogether.
Osvaldo Patrizzi, the flamboyant six-foot-four head of the auction house Antiquorum, had little doubt the Supercomplication would not only sell but would sell big. Suave and charming, with an encyclopedic knowledge of watches and the instincts of a born salesman, Patrizzi joined the ranks at thirteen, restoring clocks and watches in Milan. By the time he was twenty-nine, he had founded his first auction house, focusing on clocks, watches, and objets d’art. In a relatively short time, he carved out his own role as one of the watch world’s rainmakers. Under Patrizzi, vintage mechanical wristwatches began their ascent as collectibles at auction as early as 1980; he helped push open the Asian market, holding one of the first watch auctions in Hong Kong, in 1979. He was famous for unfurling thematic watch sales accompanied by glossy catalogues and glittering cocktail parties, and his influence reached far and wide. “The watch, for me, is not just one timepiece,” he was quoted as saying. “It is the accumulation of experience. It is about savoir faire.”
Quietly Patrizzi cast about to get a sense of interest in the Supercomplication. Another specialist had told him the watch would go for $4 million. Patrizzi knew better. If a pair of motivated collectors started bidding against each other, anything was possible. Under the right circumstances the sky was the limit. Patrizzi joined up with three investors who collectively raised $5 million for their bid. Still, he thought the odds in his favor were slim to none. “We knew we had no chance,” he lamented. “But then again, in an auction one never knows.”
• • •
Alan Banbery strode into Sotheby’s supremely confident. In the space of one week the curator of Patek Philippe’s private collection had flown from Geneva to New York, where he was given a private viewing of the Supercomplication, and then back again. In Switzerland days earlier, he had discussed the pocket watch with Philippe Stern, and the two men agreed that he should acquire the piece that had long been in the family’s sights.
Banbery first joined Patek Philippe in 1965 as its director of sales in English-speaking markets. A tall gentleman with an aristocratic bearing, he would have been comfortable mingling with the characters in an E. M. Forster novel. Born in London, Banbery earned a degree in horology at the famed Watchmaking School of Geneva and worked on the bench at Universal Geneva, where he specialized in the complicated Compax and Tri-Compax movements. When President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, Banbery was called to Her Majesty’s service. Following the military campaign he returned to England and opened a shop in the town of Windsor, specializing in watches and jewelry. Eventually he took a position with the British house Garrard, a prestigious appointment. Established in 1735, Garrard was one of the world’s oldest jeweler’s. In 1843 Queen Victoria appointed the shop with the warrant of Crown Jeweler. While working for Garrard Banbery garnered the attention of another esteemed house, Patek Philippe. It was no less than Henri Stern who quietly approached him and offered him the position that took him back to Geneva. In 1970 Banbery was named curator of the company’s private collection.
For more than thirty years, almost from the moment he began his association with Patek Philippe, Banbery assisted the Sterns in amassing a colossally important collection of timepieces that had begun a generation earlier with Henri’s father, Charles. Initially Banbery traipsed the planet buying back both at auction and through private deals key pieces that Patek Philippe had produced going back centuries. On behalf of the company, Banbery purchased the one-of-a-kind Calatrava for more than $1.7 million at the Antiquorum sale in 1996, breaching the seven-figure mark for a wristwatch at auction. The maison’s ambitions soon grew beyond Patek Philippe pieces to include miniature portraits on enamel, automata, watches of historical significance dating back to the sixteenth century, examples from the Geneva tradition, and a broader selection of the world’s horological masterpieces.
After Henri retired in 1990, his son Philippe came to see himself as the steward not only of Patek Philippe but of the Swiss tradition, and as something of a caretaker for the world’s timepieces. In 1989, as the firm celebrated its 150th anniversary, the idea to memorialize their private collection in a museum quickly gained favor within the family. Work was already under way to transform one of Patek Philippe’s workshops, Les Ateliers Réunis in the Plainpalais district, into what the Sterns envisioned as “an epic poem to time.” Undoubtedly the Supercomplication would prove to be the pièce de résistance for the new Patek Philippe Museum, scheduled to open in the fall of 2001, two years after the Sotheby’s sale. It was a matter of pride as well as patrimony.
After all, the firm had only recently and rather spectacularly reclaimed the masterpiece that its watchmakers had crafted seventy-one years earlier for Graves’s great rival, James Ward Packard. Without the watch known as “the Packard,” there would likely be no “Graves.”
• • •
In New York expressly for the auction, Banbery was ushered through a side door and up to one of the auction house’s skyboxes, suspended above the sales gallery, where he could bid by telephone in absolute anonymity. Sotheby’s offers these private salons to their most important clients for whom discretion is paramount.
Pressing back into his seat, Banbery held the satellite phone that connected him to Philippe Stern in Switzerland in one hand and in the other a phone that connected him to the telephone banks on the sales floor below. He was not the only eager presence weighing his chances behind closed curtains. A sober-minded German occupied another of the skyboxes where he too could comfortably and anonymously participate in the proceedings. A collector in his own right, he had registered for two paddles and was said to be making bids on behalf of a pair of prominent museums. Infectiously exuberant, Seth Atwood held forth in yet another skybox, surrounded by his family. Considering that his life’s passion was about to go on the block, Atwood remained quite unsentimental, treating the afternoon like an excursion to the theater where he happened to run into old friends. Below them all, the salesroom was packed. Not one of the plastic folding chairs lining the floor stood empty. The earlier silence that embraced the sale had been misleading.
A quick survey of the room revealed a caste system of taste and money among the collectors, dealers, pawnbrokers, hobbyists, and spectators. Catalogue grazers sized each other up, sniffing out who was purely a moneyed, prestige collector and who was the true connoisseur—a distinction that had grown more stark in recent years. Usually an auction such as this was remarkable for who you didn’t see because important collectors preferred to hide behind their dealers, who were themselves cloaked behind the anonymity of the telephone banks. As one of Sotheby’s European watch experts groaned, “The big shots sit on the phone.” The Time Museum sale, however, had drawn some heavy hitters in the flesh. Collectors who normally skipped New York, generally preferring the Geneva and Hong Kong sales, had made an exception, along with esteemed dealers and museum representatives from around the globe. A number of individuals long thought retired from collecting also surfaced at Sotheby’s that afternoon.
Schnipper and others noted that a large number of faces were new to the auction house. The uptick in global wealth over the past two decades had introduced a new generation to mechanical watches. These were men who, like Graves’s contemporaries, had accumulated colossal wealth in a short amount of time and represented a new breed of horophile, an aggressive rookie class that thought nothing of spending thousands of dollars on a suit and viewed such timepieces as the ultimate symbol of affluence. Historically, possession of such objects had gone from royalty and the aristocracy to wealthy industrialists to serious collectors and now to new-issue moguls. They all believed it was possible to know the full flavor of an individual by the timepiece he strapped on his wrist or pulled out of his pocket. This was a new pack of dogs in the hunt.
• • •
The room settled into an electric silence. An Egyptian limestone stelophorous astrolabe dated between 1400 and 1300 BC was the first to go. Hammered down for an impressive $31,625, the funerary stone that ancient Thebans used to determine the sun’s position fetched more than twice Sotheby’s high-end estimate. Within a few minutes, the statuette was a memory. Lot 6 also doubled the house’s high-end estimate, quickly moving the auction into seven-figure territory. An eighteenth-century English brass-and-silvered mechanical clock that measured the celestial equator, once owned by the Earl of Ilay, realized $1,047,500.
Ian Irving, the auctioneer overseeing the sale, stood at the podium, his sharp blue eyes framed in thick black spectacles scanning the room. Nattily dressed in a dark suit, purple shirt, and neon pink-orange tie, Irving had gotten his start in Sotheby’s Silver Department. The Englishman was one of the few individuals who had spent time out in front of the public with the gavel and more recently behind the scenes in private sales. As the head of Sotheby Ventures, Irving had been intimately involved in the Time Museum consignment; now he was presiding over its sale. Eleven years earlier the dapper auctioneer had overseen the estate sale of Andy Warhol, a record-breaking ten-day affair that unloaded ten thousand of the pop artist’s items, everything from cookie jars to plastic chairs, grossing $25.3 million. Although he was no stranger to headline-making auctions, Irving admitted, “This collection was extraordinary.”
The weight of anticipation over the Supercomplication was particularly heavy on Irving, even though he was quite practiced in the auction dance. “I am always nervous until the hammer goes down,” he later confessed. “Everyone is looking at you. You can’t make any mistakes. You don’t want to leave any money on the floor.” The Supercomplication added a new layer of stage fright. “Here we were projecting a record price,” he explained. “We were telling the market to sit up and take notice.”
As bidding on the Supercomplication was about to commence, Irving looked up to the left and then the right, acknowledging “the power players in the little discreet rooms” above. A large screen to his left illuminated a massive image of the pocket watch. Below him were a long, elevated wood-paneled desk and the bank of telephones where anonymous bidders placed their tenders. Situated just behind him was another screen, with a money chart simultaneously displaying bids in ten different currencies.
Irving opened the sale at $2.8 million, and the bidding started at $3 million. After a tentative start, the tenders came in like quick bursts of gunfire. Irving moved the hammer along in $250,000 increments. The blue paddles dipped up and down at $3.25 million, $3.5 million, creating a wave that nearly repositioned the molecules in the room. Most of Sotheby’s staff crowded into the back of the hall, far from the front-row seats reserved for the collecting hierarchy and well beyond the reach of the curtained skyboxes. At each new benchmark gasps were heard. The entire room strained to see from where the bid came. Excitement shot across the floor as the bids ricocheted between the chairs and the telephone banks. Schnipper had positioned herself near the gavel, and from her perch she could observe the entire floor. As the price edged higher, her chest tightened and her throat went dry during what she would later call the longest few minutes of her life.
The Graves Supercomplication goes under the hammer at Sotheby’s New York on December 2, 1999. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby’s, Inc. © 2012.
Caught up in the moment, Irving tried to jump the bidding to $500,000 increments, but the room gently pushed him back. He nervously laughed out loud, briefly breaking the tension. Most on the floor had no idea of the activity above them. The German who had purchased one of the earlier lots, a sixteenth-century gilt-brass compendium for $299,500, found the Supercomplication too rich for his patrons’ blood and dropped out.
Within a few tense minutes, the price had tipped well beyond Schnipper’s most hopeful musings. When Irving called $4 million, the bidding ranks thinned considerably. At this point, the small group of American collectors began to waver. By the time the price reached $5 million, just five bidders remained in the fight. All the Americans had withdrawn their paddles. Schnipper went numb. As Irving called $6 million, four of the remaining bidders dropped out. Then Alan Banbery stepped in to make his move.
Above the gallery floor, Philippe Stern’s lieutenant patiently sat in his skybox. Banbery had nursed a bit of a grudge against Seth Atwood. In the clubby, cloistered universe of watch collecting, the two men’s interests often overlapped and collided, making them either friends or rivals, depending on who sat where during the chase. Over time, their personal contact remained cordial but limited. Several years earlier Banbery had dined with Atwood at Le Richemond, one of Geneva’s nineteenth-century palace hotels that sits like a perfumed dowager overlooking the Brunswick Gardens on Lake Geneva. As their evening drew to a close, Banbery turned to the American collector like a courteous suitor leaving his calling card. “If you ever consider selling the Graves watch,” he said discreetly, “please call upon me as your first option.” The call, of course, never came. As he held a phone in each hand, the memory of that evening burned through Banbery like a lit cigarette in his breast pocket.
In close contact with Stern throughout the auction, Banbery waited until the price hit $6 million. The number of challengers able to bid that high would be mercifully few. Indeed when Banbery stepped in, the contest was reduced to two telephone bidders—a boxing match on the head of a pin. All eyes turned to the phone banks in the front. From this point on, the prices moved along at a caffeinated velocity, from $6 million to $7 million to $8 million. “I have $8.25 million on the telephone,” Irving trilled. “I have $8.5 million on the telephone.” When the price of the pocket watch reached $9.5 million, Irving stuttered, stumbling over the mouthful of zeros.
Over the satellite phone Stern instructed Banbery to bid $9.75 million. Instantly a $10 million counteroffer came in. Banbery paused. It was the first time since the bidding began that there was a real break in the proceedings. Irving looked directly at Banbery’s telephone proxy. “Are you sure?” he gently quipped. “You’ve come so far.” Silence.
The confidence that had carried Banbery up into the skybox scarcely minutes earlier had dissolved. Over the years he had grown deft at recognizing his opponents’ thresholds. It had become obvious to him that his rival for the Supercomplication was more than determined. Rather than bringing him closer to victory, each bid pulled him further into the gloaming. Regretfully, Banbery realized his dogged rival simply had no limit. Rather plaintively, he advised Stern of his conclusion: “I reckon we should step down.”
Irving cast a look at the telephone bank and puckishly inquired, “Any more?,” and the room broke into laughter. “I have ten million.” Banbery pressed the satellite phone hard to his ear. On the other end Stern uttered just two words: “We’re out.”
Irving brought down the final gavel on the Graves Supercomplication. The buyer’s premium brought the total to $11,002,500. Only then did Schnipper realize that she had stopped breathing. The room erupted in flashbulbs. Applause thundered across the room. The price achieved was more than astounding; it was historic. The Graves watch held title as the most complicated timepiece ever created. Adding to its already considerable pedigree, it was now the most expensive watch ever sold.
The Supercomplication remains the most expensive timepiece ever sold at auction. Photograph courtesy of Patek Philippe.
• • •
For the second time in thirty years the Supercomplication slipped away from Patek Philippe. “I was absolutely floored” was how Banbery recalled the end. “It was a very, very big disappointment for me personally and for Mr. Stern.” As the underbidder, the unflappable Brit would come to rue the event as one of his greatest failures. “The watch escaped me. It was an awfully bad evening.”
Save for his bright shirt and tie, all of the color had drained from Irving. Following the sale, an elderly gentleman crossed the room and approached the auctioneer. “Congratulations,” he beamed, extending his hand. “You’ve become a member of the ten-million-dollar club. It is a club that in thirty years as an auctioneer, I have never had the fortune of joining.” Irving later admitted, “I wanted a drink after that.”
Amid the frenzy over the Graves, the fact that the entire sale realized $28,285,050, more than double Sotheby’s $13.7 million high estimate, was almost entirely glossed over. None of the eighty-one works offered failed to find a buyer, but the Supercomplication had carried the day, capturing everyone’s imagination.
Philippe Stern contemplated his defeat in Anières as the victor savored his win from a safe and unknown distance, insisting his identity remain private. In consolation, the buyer agreed to loan the Graves Supercomplication to the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva for a period of time. The generosity was bittersweet, as this would in all likelihood be the last time the watch would ever be seen by the public.
Just as only a small circle knows the codes for launching a nuclear strike, only a few at the auction house were allowed to know the name of the buyer. Outside, speculation was rife. In less than five minutes, a new player had changed the game forever. A day before the sale this mystery man, who had scarcely entered his thirties, showed up to view the Supercomplication. A ravenous art collector of varied tastes, he was known to leave entire inventories empty in his wake, paying enormous sums for art and antiquities in a number of fields—except for mechanical watches, until now. Generally understood to work through European dealers, he was, quite simply, a one-man market. Arriving at Sotheby’s prior to the sale, this intriguing collector made his way up to the tenth floor and dead straight for the Graves, his security entourage trailing behind him. Darting quickly inside, he picked up the watch, tilted it to the side, put it down, and remarked, “I’ll buy it,” before flitting away just minutes after he first appeared.
Once the initial excitement settled over the record-shattering bid and the man who made it, other questions among the growing ranks of new collectors and curiosity seekers emerged. Chief among them: Who was Henry Graves, Jr., and how did he come to possess the most complicated watch ever made?
• • •
More than a century earlier, long before the Graves Supercomplication made global headlines, there was another man and another watch. Far from the roaring excesses of New York City in the 1920s and farther still from Patek Philippe’s ateliers in Switzerland, the story of the Supercomplication began with the American automobile magnate and inventor James Ward Packard at the close of the nineteenth century in the quiet town of Warren, Ohio.
With the players long gone and the evidence—an extraordinary series of mechanical watches—now scattered across the globe in places both known and unknown, the obscure story had been mostly forgotten. Largely ignored by the public, various fragmented tales had been passed down through the years. One horological chronicler described the two men as “adversaries in pursuit of their greatest passion: collecting Patek Philippe masterpieces,” another as the “driving force behind the complications that still hold horologists in thrall.” Cheryl Graves, one of Henry Graves, Jr.’s great-granddaughters, remembered sifting through watches with her father, Henry Dickson Graves, before he died in 1996. She recalled that he had said his grandfather was “in some kind of a contest with this man Packard to see who could have the better watch. They wanted to see who could come up with the more interesting timepiece. They were out to out-do each other.”
In fact their story was slightly more labyrinthine. The two men never met, although their lives intersected. Obsessed with watches, they crossed swords in the dark, each attempting to possess the most ingeniously complicated watch ever produced.