On Nov. 14, Sotheby’s Geneva expects to fetch a record $17 million for what it calls the Holy Grail of watches—the Henry Graves Supercomplication, considered the most complicated watch ever made completely by the human hand.
The Supercomplication set an auction record for a timepiece when Sotheby’s sold it in 1999 for $11 million. That record holds to this day. The bidder was anonymous, and it was not clear who owned it in recent years, although a 2010 Bloomberg article says that a member of the royal family of Qatar returned it to Sotheby’s to help cover his debts to the auction house. (Sotheby’s declined comment, saying the consigner of the watch requested confidentiality.) Now the auctioner will offer it again in a sale that coincides with Patek Phillipe’s 175th anniversary.
Described by Sotheby’s as “the world’s most famous watch,” the story behind the Supercomplication is almost as legendary as the timepiece itself: In 1933, New York City banker and watch collector Henry Graves Jr. commissioned Patek Phillipe to produce the most complicated watch in the world, as part of a “gentleman’s duel” with fellow watch collector James Ward Packard, according to Stacy Perman, author of A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch.
The 18k gold end product took three years of research to create and then another five to produce. It has a total of 24 horological complications (features other than time), including a perpetual calendar, moon phases, sidereal time, power reserve, and a chart for the sky above Graves’ New York City apartment.
“It is considered the Mona Lisa of timepieces among watch collectors,” says Perman. “It is beautiful on two levels: It represents the apex of technology, and it is also aesthetically beautiful. It is a real marriage of art and technology.”
It took so long to produce because of the technology behind it, including 900 individual parts.
“Every function, every feature, had to work independently and work together,” she says. “The tiniest error impacts everything. It is a real triumph of physics and micro-engineering and mathematics. It’s like extremely complicated three-dimensional chess.”
It was considered the most complicated watch in the world until 1989, when the Patek Philippe Calibre 89, with 33 complications, finally surpassed it. However, that was built by technicians backed by computers, Perman notes, and some still consider the Supercomplication the highest acheivement in the field.
As to whether the watch will set another auction record, Perman thinks it has a “good shot.”
“When it was sold at auction the first time, nobody knew what to expect,” she says. “There was no comparison in price or provenance. Today, there are a lot more billionaires in emerging markets. I think it will be a wild card. It depends on how excited people get. No one thought it would come back on the market, so who knows what will happen.”