This summer, Sotheby’s kicks off a series of landmark sales stemming from a single watch collection that will have horologists and watch aficionados in their element. Masterworks of Time, which takes place over the course of five global sales in 2019 and 2020 (the first in London, on July 2), features an astounding 800-plus timepieces, estimated to realise £11m-£20m, amassed over 50 years by a single collector and spanning 500 years from the Renaissance to the present day. The seller remains anonymous but bidders will immediately sense someone who collected with an uncompromising eye for history, condition and excellence.
“This is a collection put together by someone who wanted to tell the story of time through watches; someone who knew his subject, trusted his eye and had a real sense of what was groundbreaking – both in terms of technology and artistry,” says Daryn Schnipper, chairwoman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “He covered all the bases and left no stone unturned.”
The star lot from the first sale will be a 1982 Space Traveller I pocket watch by the late and legendary English watchmaker George Daniels. Hailed as the 20th century’s greatest horologist, Daniels worked solo on the Isle of Man, handmaking only 23 pocket watches in his lifetime, one of which was the Space Traveller I – complete with solar and sidereal time, equation of time, moon phases and Daniel’s signature independent double-wheel escapement.
Inspired by the 1969 moon landing, he described the Space Traveller I as “the watch you would need on your package tour to Mars”. With an estimate of £700,000-£1m, it’s set to cause a sensation – not least because the watch hasn’t been seen in public since 1988, when it first hammered down at Sotheby’s for CHF220,000, about £175,000.
The collector of the treasures in the upcoming sale was, like Daniels, fascinated by astronomy, so a supremely rare c1778 astronomical pocket watch by George Margetts is also crossing the block. Few of the London watchmaker’s works survive, and this fine 58mm example (£130,000-£220,000) in gold and white enamel features an astronomical dial swirling with zodiac signs that displays the mean time, age of the moon and tide dials, as well as referencing major ports in London. Meanwhile, Jean Le Maire’s c1680 astronomical watch (£10,000-£15,000) comes in a gorgeous shagreen case and notably features a straight-line balance spring which, in its day, broke from the norm of spiral springs.
Also showcasing technological breakthroughs is an oversized, 1812 Abraham-Louis Breguet six-minute tourbillon (£250,000-£400,000) with a Peto Cross Beat escapement, which was made for the Scottish soldier and astronomer Thomas Makdougall Brisbane Bart.
Other pieces will be coveted for their sheer artistry and mindboggling craftsmanship. A Joehan Cremsdorff gold- and diamond-set pocket watch (c1650, £700,000-£1m) is a case in point: painted in the difficult and rare Blois-school style – enamel painting on enamel – the watch incorporates three techniques: champlevé, en relief and peinture en camaieu. This masterfully executed, rich museum-quality piece will be closely watched on sale day – not least because when it last appeared in 1986, it broke the record for the most expensive pocket watch ever sold at auction (CHF1.8m), about £793,000.
Also not to be missed are stunning London-made 18th- and 19th-century pocket watches destined for the Chinese imperial court. There’s William Anthony’s delightful oval pocket watch (£70,000-£100,000) in enamel, split pearl and diamonds, or Ilbery’s open-faced pocket watch (£35,000-£55,000) painted with a scene of a Chinese junk.
Rounding out the chinoiserie theme is a bejewelled art deco Vacheron Constantin clock (£250,000-£400,000) in the form of a Chinese temple portico that is fully crafted from hard stones: rock crystal, coral, mother-of-pearl and black onyx. Dragons and flaming pearls are inlaid on its striking octagonal dial, bordered by a bezel of diamond-set numerals.