Patek Philippe watch owned by last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty to be auctioned

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A Patek Philippe watch owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty, and worn through his five years as a captive of the Soviets in Siberia, will come to auction later this year. Based on similar sales in the past, it could very easily gavel for a price in the seven figures.

Aisin-Gioro Puyi, crowned in 1908 when he wasn’t quite 3 years old, had to abdicate the throne in 1912 during the Chinese Revolution. He was allowed to retain his title and continued live lavishly in the palace until 1924, when he was forced to leave during a coup.

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It’s not known when or how Puyi obtained the watch, which was finished by Patek Philippe in 1937, but it was sometime during the period that he was Japan’s puppet emperor of the state of Manchuria, or Manchukuo, from 1934 to 1945. At the end of World War II, the Soviets took him captive as he tried to flee Manchuria and kept him in captivity for five years.

He managed to keep his watch throughout his turbulent life after abdication, even while he was imprisoned.

To make things more interesting, the auctioneer who’s behind the sale, Aurel Bacs, at Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, notes that even without all this royal history, the wristwatch would be incredibly rare and sought after.

Patek Philippe timepiece owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty. (Twitter)
Patek Philippe timepiece owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty. (Twitter)

The model, known as the Reference 96 Quantieme Lune, features a moon-phase and triple-date calendar: Two windows show the day of the week and the month, and a long central hand gives the date.

Today, we expect such “complications,” which are mechanical display features beyond standard timekeeping. But according to Bacs, in the 1930s when Patek Philippe made the Ref 96, shrinking components to fit complications in slim timepiece cases was a novelty only skilled artisans could achieve.

A complex history

The first wristwatches with any complications debuted in the 1920s. The Great Depression hit shortly after, deeply affecting the watch market and the demand for expensive novelties.

After the market recovered, watchmakers returned to the challenge of adding complications. When Patek Philippe created eight models of Ref 96, Bacs says, it would have been one of the most expensive watches—if not the most expensive—the brand made at the time. “It was the end game,” he says.

It has a platinum case and a base movement created by Victorin Piguet, a watchmaking company that created movements for Patek Philippe. Patek Philippe later upgraded the movement, finishing this watch in 1937. Of the eight models of Ref 96, only three exist with this particular silvered dial, rose-gold chapter ring and enamel hour markers.

“Any auction house, if they didn’t know the story, if it didn’t have any of this extraordinary ephemera coming with it, would already say, ‘Wow, this is the highlight of the season,’” Bacs told Bloomberg.

Patek Philippe bought one of the three for about $2 million at a 2003 Sotheby’s auction, to showcase in its Geneva museum. Back then, the price was astonishing. “The collector’s market has come so far in 20 years that it’s even more difficult to say what a Reference 96 is worth today,” Bacs says.

Patek Philippe timepiece owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty. (Twitter)
Patek Philippe timepiece owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty. (Twitter)

A friendship that stood the test of time

During his five years as a Soviet prisoner, Puyi formed a close friendship with his Russian translator, Georgy Permyakov. One of his personal effects, a red paper fan, will also be sold in the Phillips sale. It’s inscribed with a poem Puyi wrote and dedicated to his friend that speaks of their unusual friendship in the most difficult of circumstances.

Puyi was ultimately repatriated to the Republic of China in 1950, where he thought he’d be executed. According to a firsthand account of the emperor’s nephew, Puyi gave Permyakov the Patek Philippe watch and several other personal items, including his edition of Confucius’s Analects, a notebook filled with the emperor’s musings and the fan. Puyi ended up at a Chinese re-education prison for a decade before he was released to live out the rest of his life as a private citizen.

These personal effects remained with Permyakov and his family until a few years ago, when they were sold to the anonymous European collector who’s now bringing them to auction. It’s taken Bacs and his team three years to research the watch and its history, learn its story, ensure its authenticity and find its serial number and sale date in the Patek Philippe archives.

Bacs admits he is struggling with how to price the watch. The most expensive watch ever sold at auction was a super-complicated, one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe “Grandmaster Chime,” which had never had a previous owner. It sold for $31 million in 2019. What happens when you add important and a compelling story to the mix?

With Paul Newman’s Rolex, which Bacs sold for a record $17.8 million, he says the provenance added 17 times the value of the estimate. With Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection at Christie’s, pieces sold for more than five times their estimate. Could this combination of royal provenance and rare watchmaking history break records? Only time will tell.

This collection will debut at Phillips Hong Kong from March 18-31, followed appearances in New York, Singapore, London, Taipei and Geneva. The sale will take place later in 2023.

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