The last emperor of China and the $1mn watch
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It hasn’t been serviced in 86 years and its dial has been shamelessly scratched, but that probably won’t prevent this ultra-rare Ref 96 Quantième Lune moonphase watch, by Patek Philippe, from fetching more than $1mn when it crosses the block at Phillips later this year.
Part of its worth is accounted for by the fact that it is one of only three similar models known to exist. But equally significant is its provenance. It originally belonged to Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the last emperor of China.
Unseen in public since it was sold by a Parisian Patek Philippe retailer in the late 1930s, the watch was sent to Phillips in 2019. Its life in between has been remarkable. At the surrender of Japan in 1945 Puyi (who became the 11th and final emperor of the Qing dynasty in 1908 at the age of two) was captured by the Soviets and imprisoned in Chita as a prisoner of war, then a Khabarovsk detention camp, as a result of having served for more than a decade as Japan’s “puppet ruler” of the state of Manchukuo. Along with his nephew and brother-in-law, Puyi remained incarcerated for five years, during which time he developed a friendship with Russian translator Georgy Permyakov. The friendship grew so deep that, when Puyi was extradited back to China in 1950 to face war crimes charges, he gave Permyakov the watch as a parting gift.
According to Phillips senior watch consultant Aurel Bacs, Permyakov kept the watch until his death in 2005, at which point it passed to his estate – from which the current owner acquired it around three years ago in circumstances not revealed. “There are certain watches that need very particular research,” says Bacs, “and the more we learned the deeper we wanted to dig. That research has taken us almost three years and I truly believe no auction house has ever spent more time and energy confirming the provenance of a single timepiece.”
Beyond the usual checks with the Patek Philippe archive, the research also took in carbon-14 dating and calligraphic testing of a hand-inscribed Japanese fan that Puyi gave to Permyakov when they were reunited during his Tokyo trial in 1946. The only previous clue that the watch had survived came in 2002 when it was mentioned in a South China Morning Post interview with Permyakov, which was illustrated with a photograph of it on his desk at his home in the east Russian city of Khabarovsk.
The watch retains its original leather strap and, Bacs believes, has never been serviced since its completion at the Patek Philippe workshops more than 85 years ago. The poor condition of its dial is accounted for by the fact that, according to a Chinese museum curator called Wang Wen Feng, Pu Yi commanded his longtime servant Big Li to determine if it was made from platinum by removing some of its silver paint; only ordering Big Li to stop when it became apparent that only base metal lay beneath.
Of the two other examples, one is in the Patek Philippe Museum and the other was sold in 1996 to a private collector. This watch will go on show at Phillips on 18 March to mark the opening of the firm’s new Asia HQ in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District. It will be exhibited along with the Japanese fan handpainted by Puyi, his personal notebook and other objects given by him to Permyakov in 1950.
An auction date and an official pre-sale estimate for the watch have yet to be set. For further information, see phillips.com