With the Geneva auctions just having concluded, the spring sale season now moves to Hong Kong. The biggest event during auction week in the city will undoubtedly The Imperial Patek Philippe Sale, an evening sale that take places at Phillips on May 23.
The auction gets its name from the Patek Philippe Calatrava ref. 96QL in platinum once owned by Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last Emperor of China. Known to the market for several years but now going under the hammer for the first time, the watch might emerge as the year’s most valuable watch sold at auction – or it might not, given the mixed reputation of the final Qing Emperor. But regardless of the value, the Puyi’s Patek Philippe is an exceptionally interesting watch, both intrinsically and in terms of provenance.
Phillips pulled out all the stops in marketing The Imperial Patek Philippe Sale, no doubt an attempt to reach an audience beyond watch collectors. While the ref. 96QL is an exceedingly rare watch – and worth millions on its own – the provenance of this example is bona fide “Imperial”.
The story of the watch is ably told in a documentary produced by Phillips especially for the auction. The 17-minute film explains how the life and times of Puyi, his fascination with timepieces, and importantly, how the ref. 96QL ended up in the possession of a Russian translator.
Amongst the interviewees in the film is Russell Working, an American journalist who once profiled the Russian translator, Georgy Permyakov, who received the watch from Puyi while the former Emperor was a prisoner in the Soviet Union. Another is Wang Wenfeng, formerly a researcher at the Palace Museum of the Manchurian Regime in China, who provides the historical context.
It is Mr Wang who explains how the dial ended up in this peculiar state – the captive Emperor tasked Li Guoxiong, his valet of over three decades, to see if the dial was made of platinum.
Made in 1929 and sold in 1937 – the long wait to sell the watch was probably due to the Great Depression – the ref. 96QL was one of a handful of complicated ref. 96s made during the period.
It’s one of three examples known, all identical with a platinum case and two-tone “roulette” dial, and featuring consecutive movement numbers. One is in the Patek Philippe Museum (which acquired it in 2003 at Sotheby’s for just over CHF2.0 million), while the other sold in 1996 at Antiquorum to a private collector.
Because of its rarity and significance in Patek Philippe history, an ordinary ref. 96QL (if such a watch can be labelled ordinary) is a valuable watch. An example without special provenance would still be worth US$3.0 million or so, which is the low estimate for Puyi’s watch.
Compared to the two other known examples of the ref. 96QL, the former Emperor’s watch is perhaps the most original in terms of condition because it has never been restored. And it is immediately distinctive due to the dial, which is shows aged and obvious damaged. The dial is damaged – heavily in fact – but the state of the dial is a crucial part of its story and actually adds to the charm of the watch.
Puyi’s valet, nicknamed “Big Li”, did a good job in scraping off the plating. He was thorough and neat, and evidently performed his task with the top edge of the calendar windows as a guide, creating a tidy, semicircular portion of the dial without plating.
Examining the dial up close reveals Big Li’s work. The striations on the dial indicate he used a tool with a sharp, flat end, perhaps a screwdriver, to do the job.
The rest of the ref. 96QL is notably well preserved, surprising considering the appearance of the dial. While evidently worn, the platinum case appears to have its original edges. The bezel in particular retains its sharp top edge, a detail that is easily lost with refinishing.
In fact, I have examined one other complicated Calatrava ref. 96 contemporaneous with this ref. 96QL, but it was entirely restored right down to the refinished case. Puyi’s watch clearly has more defined lines on its case and feels more original.
Going under the hammer on May 23 at 7:00 pm Hong Kong time (GMT+8), the Calatrava ref. 96QL has an estimate in excess of HK$25 million (or US$3.0 million). For more, visit Phillips.com.