Auction Watch: Enamelled Automaton Masterpieces at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Incredible fine art with a bit of time-telling.

Sotheby’s upcoming Hong Kong Sale is primarily focused on wristwatches, encompassing several unique Patek Philippe chronographs commissioned by Eric Clapton and a dozen examples of early F.P. Journe. But two of the most valuables lots in the auction – and with estimates well into seven-figure US dollar sums – are a pair of museum-quality automata. Made for the Chinese market more than two centuries ago, this pair of objects are tremendously rare and exquisitely decorated in enamel and pearls.

Two generations ago, such automata as well as pocket watches were the most respected genre in watch collecting. They were sought after by eminent collectors like the former chairman of HSBC and the German billionaire who was once the fifth-richest man in the world, which is why the record-setting lots in watch auctions of that era were inevitably pocket watches or objects, like the million-dollar Cremsdorff.

Almost 400-years old, this pocket watch made by Jehan Cremsdorff sold for £2.175m, or about US$2.734m, including fees, at Sotheby’s in 2019

With the rise of wristwatches as the preeminent collecting category, demand for automata and pocket watches have declined sharply. Now the most expensive timepiece ever sold is the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300A mega-complication that sold for over US$33 million in 2019.

But elaborately enamelled pocket watches are arguably the closest thing to fine art in horology, because of the intrinsic nature of the artisanal decoration as well as the historical importance. Although the circle of collectors who pursue such objects is small, it is certainly well heeled. The top lot in the upcoming sale is not ex-Clapton Patek Philippe or a ref. 2499, but instead it is an early-19th century snuff box that incorporates a question-and-answer automata. And the estimate? It starts at US$2.57 million.


Lot 2229: McCullough Magician Question-and-Answer Musical Automaton snuff box

Made in the early 1800s for the Chinese market, the flagship lot of the sale is an ornate snuff box with an automaton that ranks amongst the most important of such objects.

It stands out not only for its artisanal quality, but also its mechanical complexity – the automaton plays musics and “answers” questions. And above all, the box captures the remarkable work of 19th Geneva watchmakers and jewellers, making it a bona fide treasure.

Around 90 mm long and 55 mm wide, the snuff box is large for such an object, allowing for a full miniature-enamel painting on the lid. Based on The Necromancer by Jean Baptiste Le Prince, one version of which hangs in London’s National Gallery, the miniature-enamel painting depicts a young man and woman consulting a magician.

While the composition of the miniature is identical to the original, its differs from the original painting in that the magician was transformed from a grey-haired, elderly necromancer to a younger man wearing a turban, perhaps reflecting the prevailing European fascination with the Orient at the time.

Typical of items made for the Qing China, the box is set with pearls framed in gold – the whole box is solid gold in fact – which sit on top of a brightly coloured, guilloche enamel surface.

While the decoration is magnificent, the magician automaton within is even more impressive – able to answer a fixed set of questions with pre-programmed answers while simultaneously playing a musical tune. The snuff box must have been an extraordinarily intriguing and mysterious object in the 19th century – remember there wasn’t even electricity then – and arguably qualifies as an early computer of sorts.

That said, it is very early – it can only answer one question at a time, and up to six in total. Each of the questions is recorded on a tiny tablet, which are all stored in a tiny drawer located at the bottom right of the box.

The six question tablets that can be stored in the side of the box

The question tablets are inserted one at a time into a slot on the top right of the box. Then the question-and-answer mechanism is activated via a slide, starting the musical tune. As in a minute repeater, the slide winds up a mainspring that powers the music box and automaton.

While the music plays, the magician waves his wand and consults his books. And as the tune reaches its end, the magician points his wand towards the board on top of the tree in front of him, on which the answer to the question pops into view.

The tiny frame on the left tree will flip and show the answer to the riddle

Despite being some two centuries old, the six questions and answers contained in the box are relevant today. For instance, “A thing’s scarce” results in the answer “Wisdom”. And “What’s destroy’d by pleasure” matches with “Time”.

That said, the final riddle, “The confident of a woman recently married”, which results in “A husband” is certainly a line that would be ripe for cancellation today.

For a tiny music box, the light and cheerful tune is surprisingly complex, with simultaneous treble and bass notes. If you want to check out the tune and automaton in action, Sotheby’s posted a clip of the box in action on their Instagram account.

The box is also a functional snuff box – below the automaton is a tiny compartment

Even the base of the box is finely enamelled

Last sold at Sotheby’s London in 1964, this box has remained in a private collection for the last six decades, so its reappearance at auction is no doubt exciting. It is just one of the five magician box known, and the most complicated of them. It is arguably comparable to the finest singing bird-pistol automatons, a pair of which remain the most valuable automaton ever sold, having sold for almost US$6 million in 2011.

It has an estimate of HK$20-40 million, or around US$2.57-5.14 million. Full lot details here.


Lot 2230: Nécessaire with watch, music box, and automaton

While the snuff box is of grand dimensions, this object packs more mechanical functions into even smaller dimensions.

This is a nécessaire, or etui de voyage, a perfume or cosmetics case of the 19th century. But this is an ultra-elaborate example of a nécessaire, incorporating a small watch, music box, and simple automaton, as well as compartments for personal care instruments and perfume. In fact, this is one of the two largest nécessaires known, with the oversized example being part of the collection started by Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf that’s now owned by the watchmaker.

Like the magician box above, this nécessaire is finely ornamented in the style of items made for the Chinese market in the 19th century. In fact, this is even more densely decorated than the snuff box, with several rows of beaded pearls and five miniature enamel paintings.

The nécessaire can be opened from both its top and bottom, with the top compartment carrying the matched set of personal care instruments, while the base contains the watch and automaton.

The top lid (left) and twin bottom lids

Including a scissors and cuticle stick, the six instruments within the nécessaire are original to it, and decorated in enamel to match the case.

But the most intriguing aspect is within the base, which is sectored into two halves, each containing a mechanical device.

Lifting the hinged lid on one side reveals the automaton, which consists of a dog happily jumping while its owner plays a lute – see it in action here. On the other side is a tiny clock with classical, Breguet-style numerals on a brushed chapter ring, set against a fully engraved dial.

Above the time sits its regulator index, comprising a tiny hand surrounded by an engraved scale, which allows the owner to adjust the timekeeping of the movement

Notably, the clock is regulated by a cylinder escapement, an early form of escapement invented in 1695. It has the escape wheel impulsing the balance directly, unlike the Swiss lever escapement invented in 1755 that’s ubiquitous today.

Interestingly, the current owner of the nécessaire acquired it from the Asprey Private Collection, the accumulation of watches and objects owned by the now defunct but once legendary London jeweller that most famously supplied watches to the Sultans of Brunei and Oman.

The nécessaire has an estimate of HK$6.5-9.5 million, or around US$835,000-1.22 million. Full lot details here.


Preview and Auction

The preview exhibition is open daily from October 7-12 at the New Wing of the Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre (HKCEC).

The auction starts at 2:00 pm (GMT+8) on October 13, 2021 taking place at Sotheby’s offices in Pacific Place.

5/F, One Pacific Place
88 Queensway
Admiralty
Hong Kong
China

For the full catalogue, as well as registration and online bidding, visit Sothebys.com.


This was brought to you in collaboration with Sotheby’s.

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Watches & Wonders Will Return to Geneva in 2022

The gang gets back together.

After two years of digital fairs – and several sold-out physical fairs in China – Watches & Wonders is finally happening in Geneva. First announced for 2020 as the successor to the long-running SIHH, which for two decades was the luxury-watch fair in Geneva, Watches & Wonders (W&W) 2022 will take place from March 30 to April 5 at Palexpo, with 39 brands in attendance.

All of the major names that spurred the demise of Baselworld will exhibit at W&W 2022, namely Rolex, Patek Philippe, Chanel, Chopard and Tudor.

They’ll be joined by most of the brands owned by Richemont, the Swiss luxury group that was historically the anchor of SIHH, the event that preceded W&W. Amongst the Richemont brands are A. Lange & Söhne, Cartier, IWC, and Vacheron Constantin.

Another luxury group represented at the fair is LVMH, which has all three of its watch brands – Hublot, TAG Heuer, and Zenith – taking part. Bulgari, however, is notably absent, perhaps because there are already two Richemont-owned jewellers present.

One of the significant newcomers is Grand Seiko, which only just announced its participation in the fair. Seiko was a longtime mainstay of Baselworld, so it’s not surprising that its top-of-the-line brand is returning to Switzerland to exhibit its newest watches.

The gang returns, except for the independents

As was the case with SIHH in the past, W&W 2022 will include the Carré des Horlogers, a square dedicated to independent watchmakers. In years past the carré counted brands like Urwerk, Voutilainen, and Elegante by F.P. Journe amongst its exhibitors.

The Carré des Horlogers at SIHH 2019

But the brands in the carré next year are a mixed bag, though fortunately the lineup is led by respected names like H. Moser & Cie., Ressence, and Ferdinand Berthoud.

The independents bring the total count of brands taking part in W&W 2022 to 39, slightly more than the historical average for SIHH, which was around 35.

Journe at the Carré des Horlogers in 2019

And Voutilainen

W&W 2022 will take place from March 30 to April 5, 2022 at Palexpo, the exhibition hall near Geneva airport that’s the traditional home of the Geneva watch fair.

The participating brands: A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, Cartier, Chanel, Chopard, Grand Seiko, Hermès, Hublot, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Montblanc, Oris, Panerai, Parmigiani, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Roger Dubuis, Rolex, TAG Heuer, Tudor, Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin, Van Cleef & Arpels, and Zenith

And independents in the Carré des Horlogers: Angelus, Armin Strom, Arnold & Son, Cyrus, Czapek, Ferdinand Berthoud, Grönefeld, H. Moser & Cie., Laurent Ferrier, Louis Moinet, Rebellion, Ressence, Rudis Sylva, Speake-Marin, and Trilobe


 

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T3 Special Watches Introduces the Dague

With a vintage movement with bi-metallic balance.

Founded by a pair of Italian watch collectors, one of whom is vintage-watch dealer Andrea Marzari, T3 Special Watches is a young and unusual brand. T3 originated in the pair’s other hobby – both are motorcycle enthusiasts. They attempted to create a watch suited for long rides, but that ultimately proved fruitless.

Instead, the two pivoted and conceived a vintage-inspired watch with an original design, and powered by a refinished Longines pocket watch movement from the early 2oth century, the Dague. The motivation behind the watch was simple – they wanted a watch that appealed to their taste in both design and mechanics, while being stylish and robust enough for everyday wear.

After a year of riding their motorcycles with the prototypes, the duo debuted the first-generation Dague in 2018. Now the model has been refreshed with lacquer dials in eight vibrant colours ranging from turquoise to orange. Think of it as “Stella” dial meets a Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 96, while powered by a vintage pocket watch movement.

In lightweight titanium

Initial thoughts

The Dague is unusual for its mix of modern and vintage features. And it is not just vintage inspired – the movements are bona fide antiques, being based on Longines calibres from the 1920s and 1930s that were originally made for pocket watches.

The use of vintage movements sets T3 apart from most micro-brands that rely on modern movements from makers such as ETA. That said, the use of refurbished vintage calibre is not unique, though it’s primarily practiced by high-end independent watchmakers such as Kari Voutilainen and Atelier de Chronométrie. Those watches all share exquisite finishing, which naturally means a massive price tag, and are almost always accompanied by a traditional design.

T3, on the other hand, offers a watch that’s decidedly contemporary in look – with obvious Italian flair – but an old-school movement. And it comes at a relatively affordable price, with the base model featuring a galvanic dial starting at around US$13,000.

That said, it’s still a lot of money for the inaugural wristwatch of a startup, though it isn’t unseasonable, given the substantial modifications and finishing of the movement.

And a galvanic dial in metallic blue – the original version that debuted in 2018

Modern look

At 41.4 mm wide and 11 mm tall, the Dague is well-sized for a sporty watch, albeit one that evokes a 1930s gentleman’s watch like the Calatrava ref. 96.

The watch sits flat and light on the wrist, thanks to the titanium case. And the large case size work well with the colourful dials, a formula that has long been popular in Italy.

Indeed the highlight of the range are the candy-coloured dials. They are lacquered, but as a final step heated at low temperature over three days, giving the lacquer a glazed finish that’s reminiscent of enamel.

Up close the dial reveals a few surprises.

First is a “sandwich” construction, meaning that the upper, coloured dial disc has cut outs for the hour markers that reveal the lower disc that is galvanised and polished for a metallic, mirrored effect. The two dial discs are fixed together with three pins visible in between the hour numerals. And the pins are done the old-fashioned way: made on a lathe and then polished by hand.

The opening at nine for the small seconds is also part of the lower dial disc

Vintage heart

Because the movements are almost a century old, a significant amount of time is expended on restoring and finishing each one – 60 hours according to the brand. The process includes replacing parts prone to wear, such as the rubies and mainspring, and refinishing the components. For instance, the base plate is sand-blasted, while the bridges are straight grained with hand-polished bevels and countersinks.

That said, some signs of age are intentionally left on the movements in a nod to their history. Amongst them the black-polished steel parts of the regulator index, which retain some of the wear picked up over time.

More significantly, the base plate and bridges are resized by shaving down their outer edges – from 39 mm to 37.8 mm – giving the movement the smallest possible diameter. That’s necessary in order to fit the movement into the 41.4 mm case. With the original calibre being pocket-watch sized, the movement in its original diameter would have resulted in a 45 mm wristwatch.

The “finger” bridges is outright vintage, and is especially charming against modern construction that usually relies on a single, large bridge

Notably, the bi-metallic balance wheel and blued-steel Breguet overcoil hairspring are retained. With a brass outer layer and steel inner layer, a bi-metallic balance is particularly unusual and anachronistic, having been developed to compensate for temperature’s influence on balance spring.

It’s also worth pointing out that the screws on the rim are functional, since all regulation and poising was done by hand in the 1920s and 1930s when the movement was first made. In contrast, in modern movements such screws are purely decorative, as the balance is usually poised with a laser that removes mass from its underside.

A turquoise lacquered dial


Key facts and price

T3 Special Watches Dague

Diameter: 41.4 mm
Height: 11 mm
Material: Titanium
Water resistance: 50 m

Movement: Based on vintage Longines cal. 18.89M and cal. 17.89M
Functions: Hours, minutes, and seconds
Winding: Hand-wind
Frequency: 18,000 beats per hour (2.5 Hz)
Power reserve: 36 hours

Strap: Aligator leather strap

Limited edition: 50 pieces in total
Availability: 
Directly from T3 Special Watches
Price: 
CHF11,800 (galvanic dial); CHF13,800 (lacquer dial)

For more, visit t3specialwatches.ch.


 

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