The men behind one of the greatest watch collections in the world
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Next year promises to bring an exceptional opportunity to see what one auctioneer has described as among the top five watch collections in the world. For its owner Patrick Getreide, this will be a proud moment, the chance to share with a wider audience a passion that has consumed him over the past 35 years. It’s a moment that was due to be taking place this week at the Design Museum, but one that has, owing to the new covid restriction, sadly been postponed.
There is much to look forward to. The collection’s highlights are many and varied. Firstly, it contains one of the very best selections of Patek Philippe Calatrava models from the early 1930s to the 21st century. Another must-see is the section of five watches once owned by the Graves family, which shed light on the tastes of the great collector Henry Graves Jr who in 1933 took delivery of the most complicated pocket watch made before the age of computer-aided design. And although the Patek Philippe Nautilus may be nearly impossible to find on the market, there will be plenty of them on show alongside superb examples of trophy timepieces such as every series of the Reference 2499, the Reference 1518, the Reference 130 and some highly sought-after enamel-dialled watches including the “Lighthouse” and “Island” pieces from the 1950s.
When you do get the chance to visit the exhibition, look out for a sleekly suited, immaculately coiffed Frenchman, and better still try to persuade him to take you on a tour of the exhibition. Just make sure that you have cleared an hour or two because once Geoffroy Ader, an independent watch adviser and auctioneer who has assisted Getreide with this exhibition, starts talking about vintage watches it is hard to make him stop. Since the beginning of the year the two men have spent months reviewing the many hundreds of pieces in the collection, and gradually whittling them down to the 160 on show.
Earlier this year I spent a few days with Getreide and Ader as they made the final edit of the watches and mocked up each display cabinet so that each watch could be seen to best advantage. What struck me was the almost telepathic connection between the two men. So familiar was each with the watches that a short string of figures and letters, say “530R” (denoting a rare chronograph) or “Gobbi” (a celebrated Milan watch retailer) is sufficient to convey meaning.
Yet it was not the most auspicious of beginnings. Fifty-year-old Ader is French auction-room aristocracy; his father and his grandfather were auctioneers at the historic Paris house Drouot, and the extent of his youthful rebellion was to say that he wanted to sell watches rather than antique furniture or fine art. He had interned at Christie’s before going to work in his early 20s for the specialist watch auctioneers Antiquorum. It was here, at his desk, that a disgruntled customer presented himself brandishing a Patek Philippe he had bought. As it was a rare waterproof model, he had worn it while swimming, only for the watch to stop and condensation to form on the inside of the glass – the watch had not been properly closed following pre-auction inspection.
“Patrick can be quite alarming when he is upset about something,” recalls Ader today with a smile, but his emollient manner and the swift, courteous way he resolved the problem impressed Getreide.
“He was only just beginning his career but he had the watch repaired and personally hand-delivered to me,” Getreide recalls. “I have never forgotten that.”
Getreide, too, was near the start of his career as a watch collector. Until meeting Ader he had tended to follow the pattern of the dilettante who bought on impulse or to commemorate major life events – his first important watch, a Cartier Tank, which will be exhibited at the Design Museum, was purchased to celebrate his horse winning a race at Longchamp. His Damascene moment came when he saw his first Patek Philippe 3970, a classic perpetual calendar chronograph made for around 20 years from 1985. “I don’t think they were too happy because after I paid the deposit, it took me six months to pay the balance,” he chuckles.
Then he met Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe and scion of the family that owns the brand. “It was at a cocktail party in Paris. No one was talking to him, so I went up and introduced myself and we started talking, and when I talk watches, I am in paradise,” he recalls. Stern invited him to Geneva and he was hooked. “My interest increased with two things: my knowledge and money. When I made more money I could buy nicer watches, more unique watches; that is when I started to build a real collection.”
Very soon, he had also built himself a small museum in the freeport in Singapore. “One of our businesses is in the Asia-Pacific region. That’s why I chose Singapore,” he says in the sort of matter-of‑fact manner in which others might describe a handily located restaurant or bar. And if it looks a little like a Patek Philippe Salon, that is because he used the same cabinetmaker to build the display cases. Patrick Getreide is not a man to do things by halves.
“We worked together in Singapore,” says Getreide of how he came to collaborate with Ader. His friend remembers it well. In particular, his attention to detail. “Patrick had built beautiful showcases for each family: first Patek Philippe, then the Rolex section, and the independent watchmakers,” Ader recalls.
While the majority of the watches on display at the Design Museum are Patek Philippe, there is an exhibition within an exhibition treating two of the hottest areas for collectors: steel Rolex sports watches and independent watchmakers. “Patrick chose the name OAK for this unique collection combining vintage and modern watches, because it is strong.”
“But mostly because it is an acronym for One of A Kind,” interjects Getreide. His collaborator nods. “Patrick based this collection on rarity, quality and provenance,” he adds.
“Condition is crucial. It must be in very good condition, preferably new old stock,” emphasises Getreide. “There are many watches I didn’t buy because they were damaged, restored or over-polished. It’s difficult because sometimes I want to buy something that may be very important, but I don’t because it doesn’t obey my rules.”
That said, he is primarily an emotional collector. He devours each new auction catalogue with the eagerness of a ravenous gastronome in a three-Michelin-star restaurant – and there are times when he cannot control his appetites. “There are a few families of watches that I love very much.” One of them is the 1579, a two-subdial chronograph introduced by Patek Philippe in 1943. “When I bought the steel one and the platinum one, I broke the world records for those two watches,” he says. “I wanted them very badly. I couldn’t stop, I had to have them. With the others already in the collection, they formed a complete family, which is extremely rare to see in one collection.”
And as Getreide’s knowledge has deepened, so has his passion for watches. “I used to collect paintings, but nothing gave me the pleasure and emotion that I have found as a watch collector,” he admits. And so over time works by Picasso and Bacon have been sent to auction to be replaced with perpetual calendars, Heures Universelles, chronographs and grand complications.
“The most difficult thing was to decide what not to exhibit. In the end there were a lot of nice watches that we didn’t take. But I think it’s good,” says Getreide, likening his marathon Zoom sessions with Ader to backgammon. “If you play backgammon, you think, you attack, you defend, and that is how we chose. It was time-consuming but it’s not difficult. I may be crazy, but I am not stubborn. When he gives me a good reason, there is no problem.”
Ader also relishes the process. “I like his enthusiasm, his generosity, and also the way he wants to share his passion with others,” he says, adding: “This is the first time I have heard of a private collector showing his watches in a major museum.”
And it’s a collaboration that will likely continue in the future. “He is easy to work with,” says Getreide. “Many people that are in the business don’t tell you what they think, and they are not very reliable. He’s reliable. He is honest.” He pauses for a while before paying Ader what must be the ultimate compliment a collector can give. “He has a lot of charisma, which is helpful because he speaks more eloquently about my collection than I do.”
This article has been changed to reflect that fact that Just after it went live on FT.com it was announced that the exhibition would be rescheduled to open in either May or September 2022