Gérald Genta’s Personal (And Unique) Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo Ref. 5402 Auctioned By Sotheby’s For Record-Setting CHF 2,107,000
by Anders Modig
“May I have your full attention? This is one of the most important watches ever.” As Sotheby’s auctioneer Benoît Colson opened lot 72 on May 10, 2022, the room seemed to hold its collective breath for a moment. He continued, “The personal Royal Oak of Gérald Genta – you could not dream of a better provenance for a Royal Oak, an Audemars Piguet, or even any wristwatch.”
Of course, this lot number in Sotheby’s Important Watches auction on Tuesday, May 10 was no coincidence as it represented the birthyear of luxury steel watches with integrated bracelets, 1972, the year in which the Royal Oak was introduced at the Basel Fair.
Five decades on, the Royal Oak is more coveted and copied than ever. This particular 39-millimeter “Jumbo” was acquired by the man who is perhaps the most famous and important designer in the watch world on May 15, 1978. The man who designed this watch, the famed Royal Oak. And it is a unique piece as it is the only stainless steel Reference 5402 whose octagonal bezel is made of yellow gold – an element installed in Genta’s own workshop.
I had the privilege of handling the icon a couple of days before the auction, the very watch that Genta indeed often wore right up to his death in 2011. It has several scratches, notably at 4 o’clock on the bezel and on the left lug. According to the auction catalogue, the dial was most likely added later as it bears the “Swiss Made” inscription, and the hands appear to have been changed.
For a 44-year-old watch it is in good condition, though. The bracelet measuring 180 millimeters in diameter remains tight, and the double folding clasp locks and closes with distinct clicks.
Bidding gets underway
At 11:45 am the bidding began at CHF 260,000. A frenzy involving eight bidders immediately occurred, and within 90 seconds the humble estimate of CHF 300,000–500,000 was shattered. At 11:48, the one-million mark was reached. Soon there were only three bidders left, one of them being Audemars Piguet.
The following minute brought the bid up to 1.6 million. After a minute’s hesitation, 1.165 million was called, and directly countered with 1.7 million CHF. The brand had reached its limit in trying to secure the watch for its spectacular museum in the Vallée de Joux.
Instead, the watch ended up with a cosmopolitan, Switzerland-based private collector of watches and other things. With fees and charges, the final bid adds up to 2.1 million Swiss francs, thus doubling the previous world record for a vintage Audemars Piguet set by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo at that house’s “The Royal Oak 50th” specialized auction a mere four days prior (lot 8, Reference 5402ST, Series A2 hammered for CHF 1,058,500).
Of course, 2.1 million is an impressive price by all measures. But, personally, I had expected more. Why is it that a run-of-the-mill chronograph sold for nine times that price only because it belonged to actor Paul Newman? Was the Sotheby’s estimate too low, given that at least one of Genta’s Royal Oak sketches recently sold for more than CHF 500,000? Or was it reasonable, given that it was around five times higher than “normal” auction estimates of Reference 5402 in stainless steel and ten times the normal estimates of steel and gold examples?
Did the fact that several parts were changed – one might argue that Genta’s Jumbo is a Frankenstein deluxe – affect the price? According to Mikael Wallhagen, European head of watches at Sotheby’s, the exchanged parts do not matter given the proven provenance and the fact that the changes were made by Genta himself in his workshop. “This watch is such an historical artifact with a story beyond originality. But you are not wrong: if this were any other watch with changed parts it would have been more problematic. We would probably not even have taken it in for selling,” he explained.
I do not have the answers to the questions above, but the market has indeed decided its value.
To me it is interesting to compare Genta’s Jumbo with the aforementioned previous world record, a Reference 5402ST Royal Oak A series, “The A2,” the second Royal Oak made. Why? Because it shows that being unique and having provenance are more important than originality (in a factory sense). And in this case the provenance is totally legitimate, not just celebrity.
Evelyne Genta weighs in
The day after the sale, I spoke with Gérald Genta’s widow, Evelyne Genta. “Gérald really thought of the Royal Oak as his most revolutionary watch as very high-end luxury sports watches did not exist [at that time] – it brought such a change to the industry,” she said.
“He really liked the fact that the screws for the first time became a main feature. And the octagon was his favorite shape throughout his life, we even have octagonal tables in our home. And the bluish color on the dial was his favorite color,” Genta said.
Evelyne Genta is Monaco’s ambassador to the UK and also leads the Gérald Genta Heritage Association, which is set to receive a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this watch. The association’s mission is to encourage and promote the next generation in the watch industry, notably with the launch of the first edition of the Gérald Genta Prize for young talent.
“Gérald had around 40 watches, but this was the only Royal Oak he had. With the gold bezel, he transformed his baby with a personal touch. He wore it often – always on the right wrist, never on the left. When he was young he broke his left wrist, and this is why he only wore his watches on his right wrist,” Genta went on to explain.
Gérald Genta’s personal Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo is a fantastic timepiece and piece of history, and I feel humbled and honored to have been able to handle and photograph it. I salute the gentleman who now owns what Sotheby’s called the “horological Picasso’s Picasso.”
It is a shame that such iconic timepieces cannot be seen by the public. I wonder if it’s too much to hope that the new owner will lend it to exhibitions in the future.
For the full results of this auction, please visit www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2022/important-watches-part-i.
Quick Facts Gérald Genta’s personal Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo Ref. 5402
Case: 39 mm, stainless steel with after-market 18-karat yellow gold bezel; case back secured by 8 screws, case number C1556, B3556
Movement: automatic Caliber 2121, 40-hour power reserve, 19,800 vph frequency, variatble intertia free-sprung balance, movement number 174’078
Functions: hours, minutes
Year of purchase: 1978
Auction hammer price: CHF 2,107,000