Interesting stories to come out of watch auctions are a favorite topic of mine. An auction can tap into so many things that make this hobby interesting: history, rarity, a gauging of the market. And that’s to say nothing of the drama inherent in a live auction, as the numbers go up and up, and collectors battle it out for the sole example of a prized timepiece that they may never have the opportunity to purchase again.
Every so often, you hear about a genuine surprise at an auction. A watch nobody knew about, perhaps, or a result that was just completely unexpected. Some time ago, I was tipped off to a story about an interesting Breguet triple calendar and its circuitous route to a fantastic, nearly six-figure, auction result.
Nye and Co. is a well regarded regional auction house based in Bloomfield, NJ. Specializing in estate property, they include watches in their sales from time to time, but they aren’t known as a specialist in vintage timepieces.
And that’s an important point to understand as we dive in to what happened to this particular Breguet. Unlike the big auction houses that get lots of coverage in the press for selling the world’s most prized artwork, antiques, and, yes, watches, Nye and Co., and other auction houses like it, have a different responsibility, and serve a different clientele. When you run an auction house that deals with estate property, your job is sometimes going to involve sifting through a lot of stuff that might simply be undesirable to large swaths of people. A good seller will be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, getting as much value as they can for their client, but it’s inevitable that even the best auction houses sometimes let certain items slip through the proverbial crack. Not everyone can be an expert on every type of item, after all, and watches have their own peculiar qualities that make them hard to value and easy to ignore if you don’t know exactly what to look for.
With that said, it’s completely understandable that when the Breguet #1030 triple calendar moonphase came across their desk, it didn’t set off any alarms. Head only, in stainless steel, with an oxidized dial, it would be easy to write the watch off if you’re not an extremely seasoned collector or expert in a very narrow niche of vintage watches.
John Nye, President of Nye and Co., told me that the Breguet came in as part of a much larger estate consignment, filled with what he calls “top drawer” items, or the kinds of things that inevitably find their way into a desk or bureau for years, and over time are just forgotten about. “Money clips, cigar cutters, pens and things,” Nye explained, are all considered for a sale, and sometimes a truly special item is mixed in with the more mundane.
You can imagine, then, the surprise at Nye when the Breguet #1030 was placed into one of their “Backyard Auctions” and generated interest that was, shall we say, not expected. Bids well out of proportion with what was anticipated started coming in, and, using their discretion, the Breguet lot was pulled from the auction due to being incorrectly catalogued. “Our primary concern,” Nye told me, “is doing what’s in the consignor’s best interest.” So there was no hesitation on his part to halt the sale, knowing that the right thing to do here would be to step back, do some research, and ensure the client is protected. The question now became, what exactly did Nye have on their hands?
I spoke with Charlie Potters, Nye’s watch specialist, about the Breguet and the research that went into correctly cataloging the watch. It turns out that not only was the #1030 extremely rare, but it’s provenance made it a uniquely and highly collectible piece.
Potters is a seasoned collector and watch enthusiast, but admits that even to him, the Breguet just didn’t stand out. “It didn’t look like I thought it would look if it were right,” Potters told me over the phone the day after the watch eventually sold. “It was nothing extraordinary.”
Oxidation to the dial indicated the watch had been out in the elements for much of its life, not locked away in a safe like many of the high value watches we see on auction catalog covers. A lack of signature on the movement, at first, also raised some potential red flags for Potters and his colleagues, as he would have expected to see something indicating its Breguet heritage on a watch of this vintage.
Potters tends to begin his research with a simple Google image search. “The internet is rich with information,” he told me, dismissing my notion that as a professional in the industry he has access to a trove of secret information the public does not. Potters explained that it’s all about knowing what to search for, and having a deep understanding of the underlying history of the objects he’s looking into.
The research on this particular Breguet led to a listing from a Christie’s auction from May 2016. Although the watch in the Christie’s sale was solid gold, the dial layout was identical. And the Christie’s watch, numbered #1039 on the dial, would seem to indicate these watches were in fact made in close sequence.
If you follow the auction world closely, you may even remember the Christie’s Breguet, as it was notable at the time for wildly exceeding its estimate. Hammer price on the solid gold #1039 was CHF 137,000, with a high estimate of a now laughable CHF 25,000.
The extraordinary result of the Christie’s sale, and the fevered interest in the Nye and Co. watch, can be explained, at least in part, by the watch’s rarity. Potters requested an extract from the Breguet archives, which confirmed only 10 watches with this movement were created, with just 5 in stainless steel.
Further examination of the archive and matching it with information gleaned from the original consignment began to yield a treasure trove of information adding immeasurably to the charm of this watch. A close read of the paperwork from France revealed that this watch had originally been sold to a Dr. Victor King in 1952. The maiden name of the consignor? King, naturally. This watch, then, one of only five ever made in this configuration, had stayed in the same family for 70 years, and was genuinely fresh to market.
Any serious auction watcher will tell you that there’s real excitement that comes from items that are new to the market. There’s an obvious interest among collectors and those like me who follow the market for professional reasons when specific pieces reappear. It tells you a lot about where the market has been since the watch was last sold, and where it might be heading now, but ultimately it just means that a collector wants to cash in on their investment. A watch that’s new to market becomes a test of that market, and there’s something genuinely unknowable and exciting about something fresh hitting the block.
For watch lovers, there’s also something undeniably romantic and special about a watch with real provenance, especially when it’s a watch that’s a little out of the ordinary like this Bregeut.
“When you see a watch that’s an odd duck,” says Charlie Potters, “you always have to say, ‘Who would order this?’”
Indeed, the Breguet is a bit unusual. Most obviously, it’s in stainless steel. In today’s environment of highly prized steel watches made by the elite Swiss houses, it’s easy to forget that at the time watches like this one were made it would be unusual for a fine dress watch to not be made in a precious metal. Steel would have likely been a special request, and for a client who planned to actually wear their watch.
Potters began researching the original owner through publicly available records. Dr. King, it turns out, was a highly accomplished chemical engineer. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1907, King spent time in Switzerland, getting multiple doctorate degrees in chemistry, and studying under Albert Einstein in Zurich. He eventually became the technical director at Calco Chemical, and served as an executive with American Cyanamid Co. until he retired in 1957. He played a critical role in the development of the dye industry in the United States, and was responsible for the operation and staffing of multiple chemical plants all over the world, developing a reputation as a pioneer in process improvements in the chemical industry throughout his long career.
Victor King is not a household name, but his distinguished life and career help us understand his watch, adding value to it. Charlie Potters puts it rather plainly: “People appreciate those things that are unique and honest and real,” he tells me. “This is a really special watch.”
In my conversation with Charlie Potters, he made many references to “the life of objects” and how important the stories behind the things we cherish really are. “If you separate the narrative from the object,” he tells me, “it’s gone for good.” This Breguet, taken as a consignment at a well established regional auction house, was initially nothing special, then something pretty wonderful, and finally, after firmly establishing its manufacturing history and its lived history, became quite extraordinary.
By the time the watch finally went up for sale at Nye’s live auction on October 30, it would seem that the public agreed. The final price, after the buyer’s premium, came to $90,625.
From speaking with Nye, it became apparent that this kind of result, a “remarkably unremarkable” item turning out to be something extremely valuable, is a normal part of the process in the estate auction world. “Mysteries and surprises are always being brought out at auction,” he told me. When I asked him if his experience with the Breguet had scared him off of the vintage watch market, he laughed and told me to Google “Nye Rembrandt.” When I did, and read about how a million dollar Rembrandt slid into a regular Nye auction without anyone realizing it, I understood why the unusual circumstances around the Breguet sale not only didn’t bother him, but excited him and his team.
Nye is uniquely focused on consignors, his clients, and endeavors to do what’s right by them above all else. He’s less focused on producing a big result or gaining media attention, but is genuinely interested in bringing the stories of historic objects to life and ensuring those who have trusted him with their property are taken care of.
And he’s fine with continuing to stumble upon those long forgotten pieces, regardless of how it happens. “It’s not until something new is discovered,” he told me, “that you breathe new life into the collecting category.”
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.