Hiding and/or obscuring the case numbers of watches at auction is unacceptable. Not only am I totally allergic to this practice, it is also the general consensus among reputable vintage watch experts it should not be done. Personally, I would go one step further and ask the same from private dealers who are still doing this to keep themselves out of all kinds of trouble. In late 2020, this ‘malpractice’ metastasized into Christie’s Hong Kong. Some say it all started to prevent watch brands from figuring out the identities of flippers, others believe the reason is a much darker one. Whatever the rationale, the story you are about to read will show you how a Patek Philippe Ref. 2481 was presented as something historically important and unique when in reality it is nothing but a watch with a later replacement dial of questionable provenance. Since the watch was sold in Christie’s transition phase from not writing down the serials (but still visible in certain pictures) to totally obscuring everything, it was possible to google the case number and learn the same watch had been auctioned five years earlier by Antiquorum for – brace yourself – TEN TIMES LESS the amount of money (USD 200,000 vs. CHF 17,500). Oh, and Patek Philippe themselves did their part too by issuing a highly controversial “Extract from the Archives’.
Patek Philippe Ref. 2481, case number 689392
Patek Philippe introduced Ref. 2481 in 1950. With a diameter of 37 mm, it was one of the largest wristwatches ever made by Patek Philippe. Accordingly, the watch was nicknamed “King Size’. Ref. 2481 was available with the standard silvered dial and a variety of cloisonné enamel dials, depicting portraits of famous personalities, landscapes or continents, often made to special order.
The story of the present watch begins with its production in 1955. With case number 389392, it sits right in the middle of a special batch made for King Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia who ascended to the throne in November 1953. From a logical point of view, the watch in question should have the appearance of the example seen on the left-hand side of the following picture but instead, it is the one depicted on the right-hand side. As you can see, there is no portrait, just a ‘Patek Philippe Genève’ logo.
A total of 150 wristwatches were manufactured over a period of two/three years following a special order from watchmaker Abdul Rahman Serour of Red Sea Trading (Patek Philippe’s Saudi Arabian agent) on behalf of the King. In addition to wristwatches, Patek Philippe also produced 200 pocket watches (Ref. 600/1) with an almost identical dial.
A set consisting of wrist and pocket watch was presented to American president Dwight D. Eisenhower during an official visit of the Saudi King to the United States in 1957.
That set resides now in the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene, Kansas.
2015 – ANTIQUORUM
In November 2015, the present watch made its first recorded public appearance at Antiquorum. The watch community knows how critical I am of Antiquorum but in this particular case, the auction house was incredibly open about the true nature of this watch.
According to the auction house, the dial is a later replacement and if you know how to read between the lines, they even suggested the dial is fake (not made by Patek Philippe):
“Born with an enamel dial with a portrait, the dial has obviously been exchanged at some point so an extract cannot be ordered for this watch.”
Fetching only CHF 17,500 including buyer’s premium, the watch was clearly not met with great interest from the watch collecting community.
2020 – Christie’s Hong Kong
In November 2020, the very same watch materialized at Christie’s Hong Kong but this time it was glorified as one of the rarest and most exclusive examples of Ref. 2481:
“The present watch is not only an extraordinary and unique piece in the history and evolution of reference 2481…”
Nowhere in Christie’s description it was mentioned the dial could be a later replacement. Instead, the ruby hour markers were described as confirmed by the ‘Extract from the Archives’. As a result, the watch fetched slighty over USD 200,000 including buyer’s premium. Under normal circumstances and featuring the original portrait dial, this type of watch would be worth between USD 40,000 and USD 50,000 at auction.
I was able to get my hands on a copy of the extract and the ruby hour markers are indeed mentioned – but only those which is weird. According to Christie’s the dial is made of enamel but enamel is nowhere mentioned in Patek Philippe’s extract.
Did Antiquorum perhaps wrongly assume the dial was a later replacement and lose a lot of money in process? Highly unlikely and here is why. Ref. 2481 watches with the Saudi King’s portrait were produced in three different batches. A larger first group and two smaller ones. A total of 150 pieces were made. In addition to wristwatches, Patek Philippe also produced Ref. 600/1 pocket watches with the king’s portrait. Two batches of 100 pieces each were made.
|Series||Year||Reference||Case number Range||Quantity (est.)|
|1st wristwatch batch||1955||2481||689321 – 689417||100|
|1st pocket watch batch||1955||600/1||689419 – 689512||100|
|2nd pocket watch batch||1956||600/1||694629 – 694716||100|
|2nd wristwatch batch||1956||2481||696389 – 696393||25|
|3rd wristwatch batch||1956||2481||2600008 – 2600021||25|
As the following list shows, the watch in question with case number 689392 is deeply embedded in the first Saudi batch. Up and down the ladder are either examples featuring the portrait or watches that were originally born with the portrait dial (confirmed by the archives) but had the dials swapped.
|Case number||Mov. Number||Reference||Dial|
|689389||704951||2481||Cloisonné ‘Lighthouse’ (in 1996 same dial as 689399 in 1998)|
|689390||704869||2481||Ruby hour-markers (orig. born with King Portrait)|
|689399||704954||2481||Cloisonné ‘Lighthouse’ (orig. born with King Portrait)|
|689406||n.a.||2481||Silvered dial (orig. born with King Portrait)|
The known case number range of the first batch extends from 689321 to 689417 which suggests a total of 100 pieces. Right after the wristwatch batch, there is a corresponding Ref. 600/1 pocket watch batch featuring almost identical enamel dials with ruby hour markers and the king’s portrait. The first publicly known case number is 689419 (only two numbers away from 689417), the last is 689512. It can be assumed this batch consisted of 100 pieces as well. A second batch consisting of at least 87 pocket watches can be found in the case number range 694629 – 694716.
Let’s take a closer look at case number 689390 which is only two numbers away from our watch and was auctioned by Antiquorum Hong Kong on October 08, 2017. As you can see in the picture below, the dial of this watch is also a ruby-set dial without portrait. It is not the same dial as the watch in question but you get the idea. The portrait of a Saudi King is not everybody’s cup of tea and was often replaced. If you look at the extract in the picture below, it clearly states the original dial case number 689390 (movement 704869) was born with.
Auction link: Lot 259 – Patek Philippe Ref. 2481, 689390 (Antiquorum)
Coming back to the watch in question, if we compare the ‘Patek Philippe Genève’ logo with other enamel dials from the same period and in close case number proximity (first and second generation) we can easily see differences. The most obvious one being the awkwardly ‘wide’ K of Patek but also the higher crossbar on the H and the two Es of Genève.
Another important detail is that enamel dials always have at least one enamel layer on the back as well. This is known as ‘contre-émail’ (counter enameling) which balances the tension caused by the enamel layers applied on the front. Without ‘contre-émail’, the dial would bend and possibly break. Let’ s have a look at some Patek Philippe enamel dials from that era to give you an idea what the back looks like. The dial below belongs to a Ref. 2526 with case number 685318 from 1954. See how there is an enamel layer on the back?
Next the dial of a Ref. 2526 with case number 698273 from 1957. Again, ‘contre-émail’ on the back.
One more? Here is a Ref. 2526 with case number 2603321 from 1958. Same thing as above. The ‘contre-émail’ is clearly visible on the back of the dial.
Now let’s have a closer look at the back of the dial in question provided by Christie’s. Not sure what we are exactly looking at here but it sure does not look like the ‘contre-émail’ seen on the back of other Patek Philippe enamel dials. It is interesting to note that all of the above dial pictures were found on the website of Christie’s. They should know better. The question is also, why did they only show a close-up of the numbers ’93 672′ and not the whole back as usual?
Speaking of numbers, they are dial maker marks. All of these dials were manufactured by Stern Frères S.A. (Stern Brothers), a renowned dial maker from Geneva who historically had a very special relationship to Patek Philippe. During the ‘Great Depression’, Patek Philippe got into financial trouble and as a result, the Stern brothers Charles and Jean jumped in to save the brand from insolvency. The brothers acquired the brand in 1932. Today’s Patek Philippe president Thierry Stern is the great-grandson of Charles Stern.
A closer look at the numbers, more specifically the typeface, shows the figures were stamped with a different set of punches than the dials seen above. The following comparison tells the story. The stamp on the left, belonging to the present watch, features a completely different typeface than the stamps found on Stern Frères dial from the 1940/50s era. The difference can best be seen by comparing the numbers 9, 6 and 7.
Stern Frères S.A. manufactured dials for a variety of Swiss watch brands. For organizational purposes, the dials were marked with special codes which identified the client (watch brand) and the dial type/reference/consecutive number. 93 was Stern’s client number for Patek Philippe. Stern made also dials for Rolex. Their client number was 103. The picture below shows the back of the famous ‘Chimera’ cloisonné enamel dial of a Rolex Ref. 8651 from 1952. As you can see, the typeface used for the stamps is exactly the same as on Patek Philippe dials from that era. What is also perfectly visible is the ‘contre-émail’ layer which is necessary to keep the dial from bending.
So here we have a dial that looks nothing like the known enamel examples from the era, neither in style nor in the way it was produced. I suspect it is not even real enamel. As mentioned earlier, Antiquorum implied the dial is fake. It can be assumed that back in 2015 the auction house brought the watch to Patek Philippe in Geneva to obtain an ‘Extract from the Archives’ but the Genevean watchmaker refused due to the questionable dial.
Everybody knows how utterly critical I am of Antiquorum, especially of the current management which took over the reins in 2017, but in this case the auction house was quite honest. The only better solution would have been to reject the watch altogether. I am of the opinion that watches featuring fake parts have no place in the auction world. But that is me.
Christie’s Hong Kong was able to sell this watch thanks to the extract confirming the ruby hour markers – and only the ruby hour markers. And this is the point where a lot of questions arise. If Antiquorum could not get an extract in 2015, how did Christie’s manage to get one in 2020? Having been issued so close to the auction, which took place on November 28, 2020, the watch must have already been with Christie’s for quite some time. It is almost certain the extract was solicited by Christie’s. We know the watch belongs to the Saudi batch, so how is it possible that the extract does not state the original dial but only parts of it? Normally it would say:
Type of dial: Enamel, painted portrait of the King of Saudi Arabia, ruby hour-markers
Instead it says:
Type of dial: Ruby hour-markers
The Patek Philippe logo with the wide K is similar to Ref. 3428 enamel dials from the 1960s, although way too perfect and lacking the usual imperfections. If the dial was a later replacement made by Patek Philippe, for instance on special request of an important customer, the extract would state so in the remarks. But there is no remark. The whole situation is extremely awkward to say the least, and it sure looks like Lucy… I mean Patek Philippe “got some splaining to do”.
Rumour has it that in the early days of modern watch collecting (1980/90s) certain people within Patek Philippe could be bribed to accommodate special requests from dealers as to what kind of dial, etc. was to be stated in the extracts. This situation created apparently so much chaos in the archives, thenceforth Patek Philippe is forced to perpetuate those lies in order to keep the whole thing under the rug. I found a Ref. 2481 from the Saudi batch where the dial was swapped for an amazing Cloisonné dial (see table above). In 1996, the watch was sold at Antiquorum with its original king portrait dial but in 1998 – always at Aniquorum and this time of course without disclosing the case number – the same piece had suddenly a Cloisonné dial which according to the description was confirmed by the ‘Extract from the Archives’. Interestinlgy, in 1996 the very same Cloisonné dial was in a different Ref. 2481 from the Saudi batch only ten numbers away, always confirmed by the Patel Philippe archives. Wait, what? It certainly seems there could be some truth to the aforementioned rumours.
Situations like this show why it is so important for auction houses to always publish the case numbers of their lots instead of hiding/obscuring them like Christie’s Hong Kong is doing since 2021 (see picture below).
Some watches may have been tinkered around with to increase their value as the recent Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263 ‘Oyster Sotto’ scandal from Christie’s Hong Kong has beautifully illustrated. Other watches may be stolen goods or even outright fakes. Forget about auction house specialists being the experts they pretend to be. With few exceptions, they are just sales personnel, plain and simple. Instead of withdrawing the ‘Oyster Sotto’ after it became crystal clear the watch was made-up, Christie’s Hong Kong lowered the starting price in what seemed to be an attempt to lure some gullible outsider into buying that thing. What Christie’s Hong Kong has started is a total disservice to the international watch community that should not be accepted. After years of steadily growing transparency, it is a major step backwards and created a very bad precedent. We can only hope other auction houses do not follow suit.
Thank you for your interest.