Skinner to Auction Important Breguet Pocket Watches (and more) from the Estate of David G. Newsom

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Vintage watch lovers barely need a reminder, but we’re about to be squarely in the middle of the fall auction season. Phillips, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s demand most of the attention from the watch press, but they’re hardly the only auction houses that serious collectors will be looking at in the coming months. Case in point: Massachusetts based Skinner has a live sale set for October 22 that anyone interested in horological history (and in the pursuit of collecting) should check out. It features dozens of incredible pocket watches from a single, world class collector, and flipping through the auction’s catalog is like getting a crash course in 19th century watchmaking.

The watches in this sale come from the estate of David G Newsom, who spent decades acquiring some of the most horologically significant pocket watches he could get his hands on. Jonathan Dowling, who heads up Skinner’s clocks and watches department, explained to me that Newsom had a serious interest in both the engineering side of timekeeping and the technological advances that he field saw over the course of hundreds of years, as well as the artistic side – many of these watches are simply stunningly beautiful objects. 

I had the chance to see these watches (as well as some other horological artifacts and clocks from the Newsom collection) on a recent visit to Skinner’s offices. Even for someone like me, certainly not a pocket watch enthusiast, the impression of seeing these timepieces collected together in one place is somewhat staggering. It truly represents the pursuits and taste of an individual, and it’s hard not to reflect on one’s own collecting when taking it all in. 

Robert Shannon’s AutoRegulator
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Before we get to some of the standout pocket watches in the sale, there are a few oddities that are worth mentioning, and help to illustrate Newsom’s collecting strategy, and what he valued in horology. First, lot 92, an AutoRegulator created by Robert Shannon of Leominster, MA. To someone not particularly well versed in tall clocks (e.g., me) this looks like, well, a tall clock. But it’s actually, perhaps, one of the most state of the art timekeeping devices in operation today. It displays both mean solar time and local sidereal time, and executes adjustments for daylight savings time and leap seconds (yes, leap seconds) automatically. Of course, it’s a perpetual calendar, and it even shows you barometric pressure (both live, and over the course of the previous day). It’s equipped with a (hidden) electronic console at its base running an atomic timekeeping module. And it’s loud, at least with the cover off. You get the sense that it’s working very hard. In terms of accuracy, it’s rated to 157 microseconds per year – milliseconds per century. And it does it all automatically via the onboard cesium atomic clock and GPS system. 

If the AutoRegulator is one of the more serious timekeeping instruments I’ve ever personally encountered, lot 104 is on the other end of the spectrum. This is an automaton that depicts Ben Franklin writing the preamble of the United States Constitution, seated at his desk. Created by the Jaquet-Droz brand in the 1990s, it’s a recreation of the type of automata that the brand’s namesake was known for. Over 1,000 parts work together to show Franklin writing “We the people…” while his eyes follow his pen. It’s completely frivolous, but every bit as impressive from a technical perspective as the AutoRegulator, and it’s fascinating to consider that both of these objects were part of the same collection. 

There are three lots in the upcoming sale that are of particular interest, for a variety of different reasons. 

Lot 69. Abraham-Louis Breguet No. 2729 “Une Minute” Tourbillon Watch

With a starting bid set at $100,000, Lot 69 is perhaps the star of this particular auction. This solid gold tourbillon pocket watch has an interesting backstory, and speaks in subtle ways to how pocket watch collecting, scholarship, and ultimate valuations differ in meaningful ways from the wristwatch world. 

This watch with a one minute tourbillon, an instrument Breguet is credited with inventing, was manufactured as part of a series of 10, produced between 1810 and 1817. This particular watch was given the number #2729 and originally sold in October of 1817. By the time it came into the possession of David Newsom, the original case had been lost, and what’s being sold by Skinner is a restoration taken on by Newsom and Breguet, and the product of a great deal of research. The case, chain, and key were reproduced by Breguet between 2014 and 2019, using watch #3204, part of the Frick Collection in New York City, as a reference. It was determined through Breguet’s records that this watch would be the closest match to #2729 if a restoration to the watch’s original appearance was to be attempted. 

As detailed in a letter from Breguet to Newsom, this restoration was quite complex, as the number of craftsmen capable of creating a solid gold, engine turned pocket watch case in Breguet’s style is vanishingly small. The job was eventually completed by an English craftsman who specializes in recreating old world production techniques of Breguet’s era, and new hads were created by Breguet, who also completed a dial restoration.

This was all completed at a considerable expense to Newsom. The original estimate for the case alone was $45,200, and the dial and movement restoration along with new hands was initially tagged at $18,200. The end result is a watch that is a meeting of originality, and perhaps touched by Breguet himself, and the most careful and considered type of watch restoration, which prioritizes the intent of the original artisan above all else. 

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Lot 75. Breguet No. 2835 Astronomical Quarter-repeating Watch

This is another watch made during Breguet’s lifetime, the so-called “Lord Paget” pocket watch. While it’s impossible to say for sure whether Breguet himself made the watch (he would have had other watchmakers, apprentices, and so forth in the same workshop), there’s no doubt as to its provenance: it was sold on March 23, 1815 to Henry William Paget (the “Lord Paget” that inspired this watch’s nickname).

The watch came into the possession of David Newsom via an Antiquorum auction, and the reputation of the watch has risen in the esteem of pocket watch collectors in recent years thanks to its inclusion in The Art of Breguet by George Daniels. The watch is simply stunning to see in person, with an engine turned dial, unique moonphase layout, and incredibly fine finishing that after all these years is still visible to the naked eye. 

This watch winds and ticks, and has a functioning jump hour mechanism, but unfortunately the repeater function is not currently working. The key used to set the watch’s hands has been lost, and the winding key’s teeth have been stripped, rendering it useless. Even with these mechanical imperfections, the Lord Paget remains a fascinating historical artifact, and is still considered extremely collectible to a pocket watch enthusiast who is going to be more focused on this watch’s history than present day functionality. 

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Lot 13 Breguet-style “Souscription” Silver Open-face Watch

Not every watch in Newsom’s vast collection is massively important and historic. This watch has a low estimate that you’ll understand if you read between the lines of Skinner’s description. They call it “Breguet-style” because while it looks like an early Breguet “Souscription” pocket watch, and has an enamel dial and movement construction that represent real craftsmanship, it is not, in fact, an authentic Breguet.

In our contemporary watch culture, the topic of fake watches comes up frequently – it’s a favorite topic of YouTube watch gurus, who are keen to compare modern, high end “Superfakes” with the real thing, often disposing of the imitators in creative, frequently explosive, ways. This watch illustrates that fake watches are nothing new, and that as long as craftsmen at Breguet’s level have been making exquisite watches, they’ve been imitated and passed off for the real thing. 

It should be noted here that it remains a mystery as to why this particular watch was made. It could have been to fool someone, it also could have simply been an exercise by a watchmaker testing his own skill, or a tribute of sorts to Breguet that was never intended to be an object of deception. 

The ability of Breguet to identify this watch as not being an original all these years later is a result of their diligent record keeping. All Breguet watches are given an identifying serial number and archived, so when a watch turns up with a number shared with another watch known to be the real thing, it’s a fairly simple task for Breguet to identify that something is amiss. The same studious record keeping that results in the ability of the modern day brand to recreate early pocket watches like the one seen in lot 69 is helpful for a variety of other reasons as well. 

To browse the entire catalog of watches going up for auction in the David Newsom sale, click here

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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