Update: The Protona Minifon Mi-51 sold for £466.60, or about $600.
What you see: A Minifon Mi-51 concealed recording device by Protona, a now-defunct German company. The watch and its wire survives, but its recording device and carrying case do not. Fellows estimates it at £140 to £200, or $187.50 to $268.
The expert: Kes Crockett, a horologist and a cataloger in the watch department at Fellows.
What do we know about how the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch came to be? Why did Protona make it? Protona was a company that manufactured covert recording equipment. Originally, it was called Monske & Co., and it appeared after World War II, in 1951. It was based in Hamburg, Germany, and it closed its doors in 1967.
Was the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch made for sale to the general public, or was it aimed at a niche audience? I should stress–I’m a watch specialist rather than a surveillance specialist. But because of the way the watch was designed and the way the wire was hidden, I believe it was designed for intelligence agencies.
So the Protona spying device watch wasn’t a novelty item–this was serious, legitimate spying equipment? I looked back at the original advertisements and press releases for it, and it cost $289.50, which works out to $2,800 today.
That price would scare off the hobbyists, that’s for sure. It was a specialist piece of equipment. To us, it may not look impressive, but it was an important piece of technology. I don’t know if it’s the first or one of the first battery-driven devices, but it’s certainly very portable, compared to things that came before. It’s a serious piece of kit.
Was Protona alone in making a spying device that looks like a wristwatch, or did it have competitors? There were three to four other companies making specialist recording devices, but I wasn’t able to find any other making a watch-based one. It’s important to say Protona was not a watch manufacturer making a recording device, it was a recording device company that made a recording device hidden in the shell of a watch.
The materials I have date the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch to the 1950s, but is it possible to narrow it down to a specific year? It was difficult to find the answer to that. Because the company did not become Protona until 1952, we can say it’s after 1952.
Do we know anything about the production run for the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch, and do we know how many might have been shipped to America? I wasn’t able to find any production numbers, but I did find something that said an order for “120,000 machines”–whether it was for the specific Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch or the watch and other products isn’t clear–but 120,000 were ordered by an American company in the early 1950s. Certainly a lot were sent to America at that point in time.
I imagine, given the nature of which American entities might need 120,000 recording devices hidden inside wristwatches, the paperwork for the order doesn’t specify where it ultimately went. It doesn’t specify, but with that number, I have to imagine it was one of the agencies. Interesting bit of trivia: Jack Ruby, the assassin of Lee Harvey Oswald, apparently owned one.
How did the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch work when used as a concealed recording device? First, we only have the watch and the wire. The recording device is another part of the product. The microphone wire [that attached to the watch] would go up your shirt sleeve and into the recording device. There were no controls on the watch at all. They were all on the recording device.
Where did the wearer conceal the recording device? In the images I’ve seen, it’s in a carrying bag on the shoulder, or under the arm, between the arm and the chest, where it can be hidden under clothing.
How good was the quality of the sound picked up by the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? It was good quality. The watch had holes around the back of the case that allowed sound to get to the microphone more effectively. I think it was designed to pick up conversations between you and someone else you were speaking with. The further away you were, the worse the sound would have been.
So this device was ideal for one-on-one work, like infiltrating the Mob. Exactly.
And the wire went from the watch, up the shirt sleeve, and into the recording device? Absolutely right. You wanted your cuffs in place or you’d be exposed.
But if you were paranoid enough to teach yourself to look for wires coming out of a watch in the early 1950s, you could bust a spy who wore this. The watch doesn’t function at all. There’s not only a wire coming out of the case, it’s stopped at 7:25. Any observant person would notice you were wearing a broken watch.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that the first James Bond movie debuted in 1963. Spies and spying devices weren’t part of popular culture when the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was new. Exactly. It looks obvious to us now, but at the time, people would not have noticed this sort of thing.
What were the limits on the recording device? How much audio could it capture? Depending on the spool size, it was half an hour up to two hours of continuous conversation. You couldn’t sit there for 24 hours and hope to pick something up.
The button to start recording was on the device, not the watch, so you always lost a little time reaching under your clothes to turn it on, and you couldn’t rely on the watch to help you figure out how much time was left on the tape, because the watch didn’t work… You’d have to ask what time it was, or you had to have a good sense of time in your head. It’s quite nerve-wracking.
I realize the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch was used for spy work, and spies are… not forthcoming. But is there any proof this type of concealed recording device was used during any notable incidents? Protona was still trading as a company until 1967, and there was another company that repaired [Protona devices], so it must have been fairly useful. But I wasn’t able to find specific cases where people used it.
What is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch like in person? Are there aspects that the camera doesn’t pick up? At first glance, it looks like a watch, especially from six feet away. The case is the same proportion and size as a normal watch. But once you start looking more closely, you notice the winding crown doesn’t turn, and the dials are purely decorative.
If the little dials on the watch face worked, what would they do? They’re chronograph dials. They’re for timing things like a stopwatch. The dial at 9 am would count the number of seconds, and the dial at 3 pm would have counted every minute up to 30 minutes. The large red hand in the middle of the face is the chronograph second hand. If it worked, you’d press the button at the top right of the case and it would start moving.
Have you worn the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? I’ve tried it on, but I’m not able to test the eavesdropping function. That’s why I can’t be more helpful about that. As far as aesthetics, it looks like a standard watch if you don’t see the wire. If that didn’t give it away, the perimeter holes all the way around the back of the case would. If it was a real watch, it’d never have that. If you saw the holes, you’d know it’s not what it seemed.
Do we know how or when the watch and the wire parted ways with its recording device and storage case? We don’t have that part of the item, unfortunately, and we have very little information on it.
Is it possible to plug the wire into a different period recording device and enable it to work? I’m not sure. I’m not an electrical specialist. I’m not able to tell you if the jack at the end of the wire is able to fit into any [other devices]. I’m not able to test it, so I can’t say if it’s in working order. The buyer should assume it’s not in working order. If it is, it’s a pleasant surprise.
What condition is the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch in? Good condition. There’s no moving parts, so it’s not going to wear the same way that a 1950s watch might. There’s some aging to the dial and the hands, and some scratches on the case, but there’s no big dents. It looks like it would have come with a green or brown zip-up satchel that fit everything. Inside was the recording device, in its own separate case. The satchel appears to have been made of artificial leather. Because of that, I don’t think many cases survive.
Is it fair to assume that Protona would have subcontracted the production of the watch parts of the device to a different company? It’s much easier for a spy equipment company to make a watch then it is for a watch company to make a recording device. Because the watch has no moving parts, it’s not hard to manufacture. Assuming the company was without any watchmaking expertise, it’s not going to make the dial or the case unless the project was so secret they couldn’t outsource them.
How often do Protona Minifon Mi-51 watches come up at auction? This is the first one we’ve seen at Fellows. One sold last year at another house, and I found a couple more sales in 2005 and 2011.
So they’re not common at auction, but not rare? Well, they aren’t watches, but they look like watches, so they can sell in a watch auction. But they may not find their way to watch auctions. They could appear in military auctions, or gentleman’s auctions. Certainly with one American company ordering 120,000 from Protona–that’s a very big number. If there were 120,000, you’d expect to see them more often than this. There are watches limited to 1,000 that we see more often than these.
As we speak on December 1, 2020, the Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch has been bid up to £135. Is that significant at all? There are seven days to go for this auction. The fact that it’s got interest is encouraging. I hope to see enthusiastic bidding as the end of the auction approaches.
What’s the world auction record for a Protona Minifon Mi-51 watch? The highest record I was able to find was from a 2005 Christie’s Geneva sale, when a complete set sold for 1,800 Swiss Francs [roughly $2,000 or so].
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It shows how far technology has advanced in seven decades. I think a smartwatch could do what it does with ease now, and would be able to tell the time as well. But at the point that this was made, it was seen as cutting-edge.
Images are courtesy of Fellows.
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