Phillips Geneva XV And Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 50th Auctions Feature Watches With Serious History
On May 7, 1945, the German High Command agreed to an unconditional surrender of all its armed forces, an act leading to decades of peace and prosperity in much of Europe. This May – 77 years to the day – Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo will open the Geneva Watch Auction XV in Switzerland. Regrettably, peace on continental Europe is not something we can celebrate this year given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
There is one particular timepiece in the auction catalogue that serves as a reminder, though, of a famous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arch of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In the twentieth century, one of the men who bent that arch through sheer force of will was Simon Wiesenthal, KBE. Wiesenthal was born in 1908 to a Jewish family living in a region now belonging to Ukraine. After Germany invaded Russia in June of 1941, Wiesenthal was placed in a concentration camp. In May 1945, American forces liberated the Mauthausen camp in Austria, where Wiesenthal was held. He weighed just 41 kilograms (90 pounds), but miraculously survived an almost unimaginable human catastrophe. After the war, Wiesenthal helped bring multiple perpetrators of the Holocaust to justice.
In November 2007, Wiesenthal’s Patek Philippe Reference 1503 manufactured in 1941 appeared at auction for the first time. The watch was consigned by Wiesenthal’s family and sold for CHF 385,000. This is the same timepiece that Phillips will sell in the May 7 and 8 auction as lot 212.
The watch is both serious and beautiful; its steel 35 mm case contains a black lacquer dial, while the time is indicated by elegant leaf-shaped hands, applied Breguet numerals, and subsidiary seconds. The strap is held by elegant teardrop-shaped lugs. Phillips places an estimate of CHF 250,000 – 500,000 on the watch but given recent trends it is likely the watch will sell for one million francs or higher.
Historically important: Vacheron Constantin 222, Rolex Milgauss, and more
Phillips’ auction contains several lots that are historically important to the watch collecting community. If we drop the zero from the year 2022 we get 222, which corresponds to a much-loved Vacheron Constantin design by designer Jorg Hysek.
Phillips offers three examples of this watch in three different materials in this auction: stainless steel (lot 174, estimate CHF 30,000-60,000), yellow gold (lot 138, estimate CHF 40,000-80,000), and two-tone stainless steel and yellow gold (lot 279, estimate CHF 20,000-40,000).
Vacheron Constantin also launched a stunning reissue of the 222 during Watches and Wonders 2022. The reissue, called Les Historiques 222, is available in yellow gold and has been very well received by collectors and press alike. For this reason, it is likely that the vintage 222s in Phillips’ auction catalogue will see keen attention from bidders. Having visited with the gold example at Phillips’ NYC preview, an above high-estimate hammer price is something I’m expecting.
A rare Rolex Milgauss Reference 6541 dating from approximately 1958 can be found as lot 112 of the Phillips catalogue. This example is very early: the Milgauss design was introduced by Rolex in 1956 and offered more consistent timekeeping due to its magnetic resistance. Given the perceived narrow audience for this timepiece, i.e., engineers and others working in magnetic environments, relatively few were produced in the late 1950s.
The progenitor Milgauss offers dauphine-style hour and minute hands along with an unadorned lightning bolt second hand tipped by an arrowhead. There are faceted triangular hour markers at 3, 6 and 9 o’clock while the dial is decorated with a “honeycomb” pattern. This lot has an estimate of CHF 200,000 – 400,000.
In a recent YouTube interview conducted in Italian, mega-collector Sandro Fratini shared some thoughts about the Patek Philippe Reference 1518, a manual-wind perpetual calendar chronograph. Fratini has achieved titan status in the watch community, having amassed a collection of more than 2,000 watches with an estimated value of approximately €1 billion.
According to Google translate, Fratini described the Patek Philippe Reference 1518 with the words “harmony, balance, elegance, and perfect.” These are certainly fitting descriptors for Phillips’ lot 213, a so-called “pink on pink” example. The case is pink gold, while the dial is salmon in hue. Only 12 watches with this combination have been seen in public. Phillips places an estimate of CHF 1.2 million – 1.4 million on this lot.
Phillips Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 50th auction
What’s particularly interesting about Phillips’ traditional late spring auction this year is that it is preceded by an “appetizer” sale on May 6 with a catalogue so rich it could arguably serve as the main course. One day before Geneva XV begins, Phillips will present The Royal Oak 50th auction, a collection of more than 80 examples of the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Gérald Genta’s beloved watch design marks its golden jubilee anniversary this year.
The Royal Oak examples crossing the auction block illustrate many riffs on the Royal Oak theme, variations that Audemars Piguet offered across many decades. For example, the first lot presents one of my personal favorites: Reference 15100ST “Time for the Trees.” The hallmark tapisserie blue dial on this version of the Royal Oak is embellished by the profile of a tree in relief. This limited edition commemorates Audemars Piguet’s financial support for replanting of trees around the globe in the late 1990s and early 2000s, a pet project of chairperson Jasmine Audemars. The auction estimate for this lot is CHF 15,000 – 20,000.
The Royal Oak collection has also featured experiments in textured finishing such as Carolina Bucci’s highly popular 2016 Florentine metalworking on the case and bracelet that the brand dubbed Frosted Gold. The 20-year anniversary of the Royal Oak involved an even earlier application of the textured design motif. Lot 10, for example, is a Reference 14802PT with “Tuscan-finished” dial. This watch was one of only 20 produced in platinum and carries an estimate of CHF 250,000 – 500,000.
Without a doubt, the historical highlight in the Royal Oak 50th catalogue is lot number 8, a Reference 5402ST “Series A.” This particular watch is numbered “2.” It is the second Royal Oak ever produced and the earliest Royal Oak offered at a public auction. The consignor obtained this watch from a retailer sometime after it was exhibited at the Royal Oak’s debut during the 1972 Basel Fair. This timepiece, in unworn condition, carries an estimate of CHF 200,000 – 400,000.
The hundreds of lots in Phillips’ back-to-back May auctions are connected to history in so many surprising and interesting ways that it is difficult to do them justice. As is frequently the result of the Bacs & Russo team’s curation, with these catalogues the collecting public has a chance to obtain and/or appreciate watches that illustrate the depth and breadth of watchmaking over many decades.
It is remarkable that Phillips was able to assemble this assortment through a period of relative turmoil. We can certainly hope that the Geneva Watch Auction XV and the Royal Oak 50th will mark a waypoint to more tranquil and peaceful years in the near future.
Brendan M. Cunningham, PhD has a forthcoming book on the history of Rolex. You can learn more by visiting www.sellingthecrown.com and sign up for email updates on the project.
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