There are any number of factors that can drive impressive (or irrationally excessive, depending on you who are) results for a watch up for auction. Condition and originality usually trump everything else, but a watch with an interesting history apart from both can do very well also, as witness the otherwise not especially remarkable pocket watches owned by Einstein and Gandhi. Two pocket watches up for auction at Christie’s on June 13 come with interesting pasts, and each with connections to some very interesting people.
The first of these is a pocket watch that was owned by the founder of Tiffany & Co., Charles Lewis Tiffany. He founded the company that still bears his name in 1837, and he was the owner of this pocket watch, which was made by Arnold and Charles Frodsham, and which is hallmarked 1858. The connection to Charles Lewis Tiffany would be extremely interesting on its own, but what really closes the deal is the fact that it was handed down within the Tiffany extended family, right up to today, with the names of each successive owner engraved up to 1997.
After Charles L. Tiffany, the watch was owned by Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose oldest daughter married Professor Graham Lusk, a prominent physiologist and nutritionist, in 1899. (One of their sons, William T. Lust, was with Tiffany & Co. from 1925 onward, becoming President in 1955). The watch has been consigned by the Lusk family and the chain of custody and provenance seem to be, well, good as gold. The estimate for Lot 35 is $50,000-100,000.
The second watch is connected to a single person, rather than a family, but what a guy he was – he was born in 1858 as Sholem Naumovich Rabinovitz, but you probably know him better as the writer Shalom Aleichem, whose stories about Tevye the Dairyman became the Tony Award-winning Broadway smash hit Fiddler On The Roof. Aleichem was born in what’s now central Ukraine, but which was then part of the Russian Empire, and he emigrated with his family in 1905, setting up one household in Geneva and another in New York. He became so well known, and well loved, that his funeral in New York drew 100,000 mourners.
The watch is pretty spectacular just taken as a watch: It’s a minute repeater and grande sonnerie, made by Zenith (with the movement, according to the lot notes, probably provided by César Racine in Le Locle). The watch is engraved on the inside of the case, “To Our Beloved, Poet of the People, Schalom Allichem, To Commemorate the 10th Zionist Congress, From David Wissotzky, Moscow, Basel, 1911.” Wissotzky was a tea magnate, based in Russia, whose company was at one point the largest tea manufacturer and importer in the world, before it was nationalized after the October Revolution (a branch of the company is still in existence in Israel).
An interesting feature of this watch is the very early radium dial – radiolumiscent paint was invented in 1908, so when this watch was produced, the technology was only a few years old. The radium paint has left, as sometimes happens, distinctive radium “burns” on the dial.
Radium has a half-life of about 1,600 years, so although the dial and hands probably don’t glow any longer, this is due to burn-out of the zinc sulfide component of the paint, not loss of radioactivity of the radium; the dial’s likely still as hot as opening night tickets to Fiddler On The Roof were in 1964. It’s a watch that really does have everything, from both a technical and an historical perspective, and the estimate reflects that – $300,000-500,000 for Lot 39 in the upcoming sale. It’s connected to some fascinating worlds, including literature and the theater, and as whomever paid $17 million for the Paul Newman Daytona can tell you, there’s no business like show business.
Both of these watches are part of Christie’s An Evening Of Exceptional Watches, taking place on June 13 at 6:00 PM in New York City. You can see the full catalog here.
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