Swellboy on… the auction of a rare private Cartier collection

A hoard of extraordinary personal pieces belonging to the late Cartier scholar Eric Nussbaum goes under the hammer this month

From left: Cartier gold and sapphire Tank, estimate SFr8,000-SFr12,000 (about £6,250-£9,375). Cartier steel watch on leather strap, about £3,900-£5,470. Cartier gold, platinum, steel and diamond watch on fabric strap, about £6,250-£9,375
From left: Cartier gold and sapphire Tank, estimate SFr8,000-SFr12,000 (about £6,250-£9,375). Cartier steel watch on leather strap, about £3,900-£5,470. Cartier gold, platinum, steel and diamond watch on fabric strap, about £6,250-£9,375

On Wednesday May 17, Christie’s Geneva will auction the pick of the collection of Eric Nussbaum, a great scholar of the work of Cartier and the founding director of the Cartier Collection.

Alas, I do not recall ever meeting Nussbaum – he died in 2003 – but I feel as if I know him through his work and I am grateful to him for assembling the Cartier Collection: more than 1,600 museum-quality items, including jewels, timepieces and everyday objects such as Jean Cocteau’s academician’s sword and a solid-gold model of a lunar landing module.

From left: Lavabre for Cartier gold, enamel, diamond and sapphire cigarette case, about £15,625-£23,435. Cartier gold cupcake cufflinks, £1,560-£2,345
From left: Lavabre for Cartier gold, enamel, diamond and sapphire cigarette case, about £15,625-£23,435. Cartier gold cupcake cufflinks, £1,560-£2,345

These days his work is continued by Pascale Lepeu, and under her direction the collection never seems to sleep. Instead, rather like The Rolling Stones, it resembles a super group that is perpetually on tour, appearing in museums around the world, dazzling visitors with its mixture of precious metals, rare gemstones and superb artistry. Since its debut appearance in 1989 at the Petit Palais in Paris, the Cartier Collection has “played” all the great venues: the Grand Palais, British Museum, Met, Kremlin, Forbidden City and Madrid’s Thyssen, among many others.

However, while the Cartier Collection impresses with its sheer quality and quantity, the Nussbaum collection is that of a true amateur, in the old sense of one who is motivated purely by love of a subject. Clearly not a man of unlimited means able to wake up one morning and decide to become a “collector”, hire an advisor and throw money at a subject to assemble an accumulation of valuable objects to impress his rich friends, Nussbaum formed his collection the old-fashioned way – acquiring objects that spoke to him personally. For him, the painstaking research, learning and time spent tracking these treasures down was part of the pleasure, rather than an inconvenience best overcome by getting someone else to do it.

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Looking at the objects for sale – which include a whimsical pair of cupcake-shaped cufflinks, a cigarette case decorated with Indian-style enamelwork, a jade, gold and enamel pencil, an Egyptian revival compact and an art deco ivory, ruby and jade cigarette holder – I am reminded of Balzac’s Cousin Pons, who assembled a collection of objects for his private pleasure rather than public display.

Of course, there are a few watches in the sale. As always, what surprises me is how conservative – relatively speaking – the estimates are for such rare pieces. The emphasis these days is on rare complications, as the sale of a Patek 1518 for around $11m last year confirms. But a vintage Cartier should be judged for its elegance rather than its complexity, and I happen to believe that, from an aesthetic point of view, some of the most beautiful watches of the 20th century were made by or for Cartier. What is more, the nature of the production – made by hand in small batches, often singly – means that if you put a pre-1970s Cartier on your wrist, you are unlikely to encounter anyone else wearing the same thing. During the half century between 1919 and 1969, Cartier Paris made a total of 23,658 wristwatches. By modern standards this is a microscopic number, fewer than 500 a year, and when it is considered that a fair few of these were unique pieces, they should be more valuable than they are.

Cartier ivory, ruby and jade cigarette holder, about £6,250-£9,375
Cartier ivory, ruby and jade cigarette holder, about £6,250-£9,375

In the past, a Cartier watch was an everyday work of art that you strapped to your wrist and that made you feel a bit better about life when you looked at it over the course of the day. And that is what makes the Nussbaum collection so interesting: it transforms everything – from smoking a cigarette to jotting down a telephone number to fastening one’s cuffs to telling the time – into an act of art appreciation.

Even more interestingly, according to Christie’s valuations I should be able to purchase a watch owned by one of the legendary Cartier scholars of the past century for about the price of the strap and folding buckle of a new Cartier. This, in the centenary year of the Cartier Tank, one of the five most recognisable wristwatch designs ever to adorn the end of the human arm.

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