The Unsolved Puzzle of the Marie-Antoinette Watch

The Unsolved Puzzle of the Marie-Antoinette Watch

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The watch, stolen in 1983 could well fetch the highest price of any time piece in history, if found.

It all started with an unhappy marriage. Marie-Antoinette was barely 15, when she married the future King Louis XVI in 1770. She was beautiful, fun-loving and vivacious while he was fat, homely, inert and sullen. She made the best of things, creating for herself a life apart from Louis, a life of partygoing, flirting, gambling and spending huge sums of money on personal adornment.

Marie-Antoinette

Her passion for jewellery is legendary, of course she liked watches. At the time the Queen was getting to know more about watchmaKing, a brilliant watch maker A.-L. Breguet was maKing a name for himself with a new horological innovation, the self winding watches. An early adopter, she immediately ordered for herself, in 1782, a Breguet self winding watch – the perpétuelle.

The year after the Queen ordered her perpétuelle, Breguet received another request to make a watch for Marie-Antoinette, a watch far grander than the first. The mystery of who was the person behind the gift is still unknown, but it was ordered through an officer of her guard. The order specified that the watch should have every function invented till date and that money was no criterion.

Nothing could have made the Queen happier. She craved for expensive adornments and the watch fitted the bill perfectly.

The watch was indeed a master of complexity. It had a perpetual calendar i.e. one that adjusts automatically for 30 and 31 day months and for February in both leap and non leap years. It had a repeater that chimed out the hours, quarter hours and minutes. It also showed the equation of time i.e. the difference, which varies day to day, between the time indicated by the sun, called true solar time, and mean time, the time as shown by watches. The watch also had a power reserve indicator, thermometer, a chronograph (although it is different from today’s chronographs, which have a return- to- zero feature) and was fitted with a special type of lever escapement.

In addition, the watch was equipped with a perpétuelle and pare-chute shock absorbing device. The movement’s plates and wheels were made of gold and the case back and dial were of transparent rock crystal to show off the movement.

Unfortunately, the Queen never saw the watch. It took 44 years for Breguet to get the watch ready in 1827. Much of the work was done by Breguet’s master watch maker Michael Weber after the death of A.-L. Breguet in 1823. If Marie-Antoinette hadn’t been executed, in 1793, she would have been 72 years old when she finally got her watch.

There is no record of sale of the watch, but a certain Marquis de La Groye of Provins brought the watch to the Breguet firm in 1838 to be fixed and for some reason never picked it up – yet another riddle in the journey of the lost beauty.

The watch ultimately came to be known as Marie-Antoinette and was sold to Sir Spencer Brunton for 600 pounds in 1887 by the Breguet family. Finally, after few more rounds of sale, the watch became the property of Sir David Lionel Salomons. Salomons was a true lover of Breguet watches and owned 100 watches in his collection. After his death in 1925, the watch collection was inherited by his daughter, Vera Salomons. In 1964-65, she sold 61 pieces of her father’s collection in three auctions at Christie’s. Several others, including the Marie-Antoinette was donated to a museum in Jerusalem which she founded, the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. One Sabbath night in April 1983, there was a burglary which took away most of the Salomon’s collection, including the most precious of them all, the Marie-Antoinette. It was valued at $4 million at the time of theft.

There has been no trace of the watch till date. There have been many theories on the reasons of the burglary but nothing led to any solution to the problem. And no one wants the watch back more than Nicholas G. Hayek, Chairman of the Swatch Group and CEO of Breguet. He has even toyed with the idea of offering a large reward for information leading to the recovery of the watch. However, he knew it would be futile for two reasons: one, whoever has the watch is extremely rich and wouldn’t get swayed by monetary reward and two, the fear of getting caught.

What would it be worth, if found? Jean Claude Sabrier, who worked for time piece auctioneer Antiquorum for 12 years believes Marie-Antoinette would bring the highest price of any time piece in history, even more than the $ 11 million (approx. 50 crores) fetched by Patek Philippe’s Graves watch at a Sotheby’s sale in 1999. Our advice to all watch lovers: Start saving money, Marie-Antoinette is sleeping somewhere peacefully to wake up one day.