Tick, tick, tick. Few can resist the allure of watches and clocks, never mind the exceptionally rare and spectacular examples featured on The Hot Bid. Some are exquisite on their own. Others are elevated by those who made them, or owned them. All are below.
In October 2018, Phillips offered a mantel clock designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens for the Viceroy’s House in New Delhi, India–his most important commission. It descended in the Lutyens family after Sir Edwin had an extra made for himself. “He always had jokes hidden within his work,” says Marcus McDonald, senior design specialist at Phillips. “Here, the pansy at the top of the clock is a key [the winding key]. Pansy is a pun on penser, the French word for ‘to think.’ The play on words–pansy as in flower and the French word ‘to think’– is meant to be a reminder to wind the clock.”
An 18-karat gold French-made pocket watch that once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe wildly overperformed its $80,000 to $120,000 estimate at Christie’s New York to sell for $250,000. “It has a nice weight to it,” says Heather Weintraub, an associate specialist in books, manuscripts, and archives at Christie’s New York. “It’s wonderful to be able to hold something from the 1840s that Poe may have held. It’s one of the reasons to love this job.”
One of the classics of mid-century modern design, George Nelson’s ball wall clock, came up for sale in its polychrome variation at Rago in February 2019. Talking about why an original example from the clock’s long production run can still command three figures, Michael Ingham, Rago’s COO and director of its Unreserved department, says, “Most of the 20th century design market was made for mass production, but good design is always good design. Fifty years ago, it was a good design, and now, it’s still a good design.”
Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott wore this Bulova chronograph prototype on the surface of the moon. When RR Auction sold it in 2015, it set several world auction records, including records for any Bulova watch and the record for the most-expensive lot ever sold at RR Auction. “What was really cool about the watch was he [Scott] drove the lunar rover while wearing it,” says Bobby Livingston, executive vice president at RR Auction. “He was the first to drive on the moon, and the watch stood up to that, obviously. It was very much exposed to lunar material. You can see the scratches on the bezel.”
A 1968 Rolex Daytona wristwatch–Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman” Rolex–appeared at auction at Phillips in October 2017. Virtually everyone expected the legendary timepiece to sell for a record sum, but its final price of $17.7 million dropped jaws around the world. Paul Boutros, head of watches for the Americas for Phillips, explains that the watch’s consigner, John Cox, didn’t grasp the significance of the gift his now ex-girlfriend’s father gave him:”He didn’t know its importance initially. He wore it casually. Once he was in Japan, and someone came up to him and said, “Paul Newman! Paul Newman!” and he thought, “Wow, how did they know I have Paul Newman’s Daytona?” He didn’t know the watch was called a Paul Newman until he did some research. Then he understood it was an important watch. He placed it in a safe deposit box in the early 1990s. Maybe he didn’t know collectors were hunting for it.”
Before he gained fame as a magician, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin was a horologist–a clockmaker. He invented the mystery clock, a device with cleverly concealed works that make it seem as if the clock runs on magic. “This is a double mystery,” says Gabe Fajuri, president of Potter & Potter Auctions. “The single mystery is the glass dial–how does it keep time? The double mystery is the glass dial plus the glass tube.”
The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Graves from Patek Philippe, was always intended as an over-the-top watchmaking feat. Its designers packed 24 complications into a case almost three inches in diameter. The whole weighs in at an impossibly trim one pound, three ounces. Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division, says that watch fans love the one-off “Because it’s everything. It’s a technical tour-de-force. It’s the fact that it’s the Supercomplication, the whole ball of wax, and the fact that it was entirely handmade–no use of any computer technology.”
Special thanks to the following for allowing re-use of their images for this story:
Phillips, for the Sir Edwin Lutyens mantel clock and for Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman” Rolex wristwatch.
Christie’s, for the Edgar Allan Poe pocket watch.
Rago, for the George Nelson ball wall clock.
RR Auctions, for Apollo 15 astronaut Dave Scott’s Bulova chronograph.
Potter & Potter, for the Robert-Houdin mystery clock.
Sotheby’s, for the Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch.
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