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It’s every watch collector’s dream: Find a rare timepiece at an estate sale or auction that’s flying under the radar and snap it up before everyone else notices. That’s what happened when a private collector spotted a Patek Philippe chronograph that had been owned by Joe DiMaggio on a baseball auction site not long ago. The collector, says Larry Pettinelli, president of Patek Philippe U.S., “got it for a very reasonable price.”
This summer, that watch — a Patek Philippe Ref. 130J created in 1948 and said to have been given to DiMaggio by the owners of the New York Yankees — will be one of the highlights of a museum-level show of more than 400 timepieces going on view in New York City. Mounted by Patek Philippe and featuring major historical pieces from the 178-year-old luxury maker’s museum in Geneva, The Art of Watches Grand Exhibition will run July 13-23 at Cipriani 42nd Street, in a specially built two-story space covering more than 13,000 square feet.
The DiMaggio piece, on loan from its lucky owner, will join a desk clock owned by President John F. Kennedy in a special room dedicated to well-known American owners. “Patek has been selling watches here in the U.S. since really the 1840s. Of the people that have owned Pateks are some very influential historical figures who have shaped this country,” says Pettinelli. The JFK clock, a loan from his presidential library, is a quartz piece that was presented to him in West Berlin by that city’s mayor in 1963 on the day after his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. It had been commissioned by a German retailer with a design that calls to mind a nautical instrument, a nod to Kennedy’s service in the U.S. Navy. “Historically it’s an amazing piece — it’s a triple time zone clock that shows the time in Washington, D.C., in Moscow and in Berlin.”
Other pieces that will be on view in the American room are Pateks once owned by Seabiscuit trainer Tom Smith (a pink gold Art Deco pocket watch), distiller Jack Daniels (a pocket watch) and Duke Ellington (a rare split-seconds chronograph Ref. 1563.) and General George Patton (a Five Minute Repeater given to him by his parents when he graduated West Point). This last piece sold at auction in 2015 for $137,000, presumably directly to the Patek Philippe Museum.
Patek watches famously appreciate in value and some rare ones command millions at auction; a Patek gaveled last November for $11 million, the most ever paid for a wristwatch. The famed Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch sold at auction in 2014 for $24 million. While that piece won’t be featured in the show, six other Patek watches commissioned in the early 20th century by Graves, an American banker and famed collector, will be on view, as will five Pateks (including the first to feature a celestial sky chart) commissioned by his arch-rival collector, auto manufacturer James Ward Packard.
The exhibition, which will be free to attend, will feature 10 thematic rooms. One room will be a replica of Patek Philippe’s salon on the Rue du Rhone in Geneva; it will feature a digital wall with a live feed of Lake Geneva and showcase at least three new special-edition collector’s watches created especially for the U.S. market. (Not for sale at the exhibit, they will be allocated to Patek retailers in the U.S.). Artisans from Switzerland will demonstrate skills such as enameling and gem-setting in the Rare Handcrafts Gallery. Other rooms will display Patek movements, grand complications, films on the history and the manufacturing process of the company. The two-section Museum Room will present everything from some of the earliest timepieces ever made, including clocks dating back to the 1600s, to historical Patek watches that date to the beginning of the company in 1839.
The last Patek exhibition, which took place at London’s Saatchi Gallery in 2015, drew 42,500 visitors. Pettinelli hopes the show will appeal to both timepiece lovers and those who don’t know much about watches: “It’s our opportunity to speak to people about time and the history of time.”
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