Henry Graves, Jr.
I have a new hero…and a new mystery!
Hamish did us a tremendous favor last July by introducing a new book, “A Grand Complication” by Stacy Perman (2013, Atria Books), and I promptly ordered my copy. To borrow from the description on the end flap; A Grand Complication is the fascinating story of the thrilling duel between two of the most intriguing men of the early twentieth century. Above all, it is a sweeping chronicle of innovation, the desire for beauty, and the lengths people will go to possess it. Those two men were Americans; industrialist James Ward Packard and financier Henry Graves, Jr., and it is the latter gentleman to whom I dedicate my opening line.
Ms. Perman has a solid reputation for popular writing, having worked for Business Week and Time, as well as exposé, with her bestseller “In-N-Out Burger” targeting the fast food industry. At this point, however, I must admit that I have not yet finished the book. I suspect many of you share my guilty habit and, upon receipt of a new manuscript of horological interest, you too immediately scan the index for mention of Vacheron Constantin. Typically, this practice is followed by selective reading and the inevitable distraction of what may be described as tangential enquiries. This is one such adventure.
What raised my enthusiasm for Mr. Graves was the means of his seduction from exclusive patronage of Messrs. Patek, Philippe & Cie into the embrace of la maison Vacheron et Constantin. Although Ward and Graves were famous for their predilections for ultra-complicated timepieces, Henry Graves, Jr., had a side interest in precision chronometers that may have been equally as compelling. So it was, according to Perman, that Graves, having secured a Patek Philippe watch that had been awarded a First Prize from the Geneva Observatory in 1925, had his satisfaction disturbed the following year upon reading that a tourbillon chronometer had been awarded a record score at Geneva. The winner was from the house of Vacheron & Constantin and Mr. Graves had to have it.
Enquiries were made, several letters were exchanged, and finally a meeting was arranged on July 13, 1928, at a hotel in Paris, where Charles Constantin himself handed the timepiece directly into the hands of Henry Graves, Jr., following an exchange of $1,000. The bespoke gold case (recall that trials watches were housed in simple brass and wood cases for competition) displayed a unique attribution upon the cuvette, as directed by the proud owner: Awarded First First Prize (866 Points) Geneva Astronomical Observatory Timing Contest 1927-28, No. 401562, Henry Graves Jr., New York, by Vacheron & Constantin, Geneva, Switzerland.
Suitably impressed with the quality of the timepiece and the gracious manner of the Manufacture, Graves later wrote to the maison to request that he be immediately informed should they ever make another chronometer which produced a better score.
Henry Graves, Jr., continued to add to his collection of Observatory chronometers apace with his complicated timepieces. This particular watch, his first Vacheron & Constantin, presents the first mystery gleaned from Perman’s book, for, having returned to New York with Mr. Graves, it faded into obscurity and the current whereabouts are unknown.
In fact, the relationship between Graves and Vacheron & Constantin would have remained unknown but for the discovery of the aforementioned correspondence with Graves in the archives of Vacheron Constantin. While Perman relates this history in her book, there was an earlier disclosure of the Graves letters by Nick Foulkes, author of the familiar book “High Society”, in the Financial Times Online that was shared with the Lounge in April of 2007. Here is a partial quote: Penned during the summer and autumn of 1928, a sheaf of yellowing letters written by Graves to Vacheron have lain unseen in Vacheron's archives for eight decades. That text actually appears to have been extracted from another article by Foulkes for QP Magazine titled The Ambassadors, where he reveals the discovery was related during lunch with Vacheron Constantin’s newly minted CEO Charlie Torres in 2006. This timeline is interesting for Henry Graves, Jr. and Vacheron Constantin were about to share the spotlight again.
You see, Ms. Perman encouraged another tangential enquiry with an entry on pg. 276 regarding a Vacheron & Constantin gold Observatory timepiece with 10 complications that may, or may not, have been owned by Henry Graves, Jr.
10 Complications and Just as Many Questions
Perman identifies the first auction appearance of this Vacheron & Constantin watch with 10 complications in 2002 at Sotheby’s in New York. Here I will refer directly to the October 22, 2002, catalog description:
Property from the Estate of Esmond Bradley Martin: Extraordinary Watches
Lot 39; Vacheron Constantin (Switzerland). A unique massive gold openface tourbillon split second chronograph watch with register, up-and-down indicator, perpetual calendar and moon ages and phases. Date: ca. 1934
18k, nickel lever movement, one-minute tourbillon, polished steel three-armed carriage with polished steel two-armed bridge, 28 jewels, guillaume balance, 8 adjustments, glazed and gold cuvettes, silvered matte dial, Breguet numerals, four subsidiary dials indicating day, date, No. 415946. Diameter 6.6 cm.
Sold: $295,500 USD with Buyer’s Premium
Perman attempts to follow the trail of the watch following Sotheby’s, filling in the gaps with gossip, but only succeeded in leaving this reader confused: Within weeks the timepiece was flipped among dealers, according to one watch expert, with the price doubling at each sale, before it was finally sold for a reported $2 million to Vacheron Constantin. Almost immediately there were questions about this odd turn of events; chief among them was why the price for this watch had jumped so remarkably high in such a short time. According to this watch expert, a story soon spread that the pocket watch had been part of Henry Graves, Jr.’s collection, which only led to more questions.
Certainly the news that Vacheron Constantin had discovered a previously unknown Graves watch elicited a great deal of excitement. It was the Graves provenance, according to one of the biggest watch dealers in the world, that brought about the astonishing price tag just weeks later. For Vacheron Constantin it was a horological triumph; one of the most important watch collectors of the twentieth century had patronized this august watchmaker.
As speculation mounted, there were rumblings that specialists were called in to authenticate the watch, only to have the piece quietly withdrawn and the matter dropped.
Apparently some light was shed by Vacheron Constantin themselves, and again I’ll quote directly from Perman:
When asked if the watch had indeed been one of Henry Graves, Jr.’s, a representative for the maison offered the following reply: “This piece was destined for Henry Graves, Jr., but Vacheron Constantin finally kept it for communication/promotion purposes. The watch was sold to a private collector in the 50s.” The maison also noted that this particular pocket watch, now part of a private collection, did not contain Graves’s famous coat of arms.
Perman concludes her chronology at this point, “with the matter seemingly unresolved”, and the watch receded for several years.
I was to discover its next public appearance in Antiquorum’s VOX Magazine Summer 2006 issue as an upcoming lot for sale in Geneva, now with that important attribution. Once again I will rely directly upon the published description:
VOX Summer 2006 magazine, highlights of upcoming auction: Important Collectors’ Wristwatches, PocketWatches & Clocks, Geneva, November 11 & 12
For Henry Graves Jr. – Watch with 10 Complications
Vacheron & Constantin, Geneve, No. 415946, exceptionally fine, highly important and unique, large, astronomic, 18K gold keyless pocket watch with one-minute tourbillon regulator by James Pellaton, split-seconds chronograph, register, perpetual calendar, moon phases, lunar calendar and power reserve indication. Made in 1932 and delivered to Henry Graves Jr. in 1934 after winning First Prize at the Geneva Observatory trials. Diam. 66 mm.
Estimate: SFr. 1,800,000 – 2,200,000 ($ 1,450,000 – 1,800,000)
Notes: One of the four most complicated pocket watches made by Vacheron & Constantin during the 20th Century and the only one of those watches fitted with a tourbillon regulator.
Henry Graves Jr. (1868-1953) commissioned this watch from Vacheron & Constantin and it was completed in 1932. One of the terms of Graves’s order was that the watch be submitted for observatory testing with the chronograph running during the trial. Before its delivery to Graves in 1934 it was submitted for testing to the Geneva Observatory where it won first prize. This was an exceptional feat for a watch fitted with a chronograph, as the operation of the chronograph adversely affects timekeeping – thus this watch is one of the highest precision complicated pocket watches with a chronograph ever made, and a triumph for Vacheron & Constantin.
Mysteriously, the watch was withdrawn from the auction and a check of Antiquorum’s database confirms it did not appear in the results and is not present in their online catalog for that sale or any other. Nevertheless, the piece was featured occasionally here in The Hour Lounge during 2007 and 2008, described as the “10 Complications Graves watch”.
I found the language used to describe the timepiece lacking in precision; “for Henry Graves”, “commissioned by Henry Graves” and “delivered to Henry Graves” did not affirm that the watch resided in his collection alongside the other great horological treasures. Perman also relates a curious attribution from the Sotheby’s auction: The grande complication had earned first prize at the Geneva Observatory in 1934 and five years later was presented at the Swiss National Exhibition in Zurich. One may then wonder who had possession of the watch in 1939 to present it at a Swiss exhibition.
A de facto change of provenance seems to have occurred since 2008. The superb article from July, 2010; "Massive Attack: Vacheron Constantin's Most Complicated Timepieces", rightfully accords the watch its due horological prominence but does not mention a Graves connection. While the article labels the watch with 9 complications (lunar calendar not credited), the appearance and serial number match the 10 Complications watch.
Another article from September of 2011; "Quantum Leap: History of Vacheron Constantin Calendar Watches, Part 1", also omits Graves when describing the watch: A gorgeous grand complications featuring a split seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar with leap year indication and moonphase, tourbillon and power reserve indicator. Made in 1932 this piece is the only multi complication pocket watch by Vacheron Constantin featuring a tourbillon. Its regulation was entrusted to Edmond Olivier who was not only a master watchmaker but a true artist in regulation of movements sent for Observatory trials. One of the particularities of this piece results from the fact that watch’s accuracy is not adversely affected when the chronograph is functioning. In 1934 it obtained 1st prize at the Geneva Observatory trials and in 1939 it was presented at the National Swiss Exhibition in Zurich.
This completes the second mystery; was the watch received by Graves but returned to Vacheron & Constantin soon afterwards, to be sold on to a private collector and arrive at Sotheby’s in 2002 via a different lineage? If so, why did Graves give it up?
Having reviewed the results of the Geneva trials for 1934, perhaps I can suggest an answer. Although neither Sotheby’s or Antiquorum revealed the Observatory score, we may recall from “Quantum Leap” that Edmond Olivier was credited with adjusting the movement of this complicated watch which obtained a First Prize. Vacheron & Constantin did indeed capture the highest score and 1er Prix for the Concours de séries entre Fabricants in competition “B”; Chronomètres de poche de grand format, with a record 823.1 points. This award, however, reflected cumulative scores and not that of individual watches or régleurs. For the Concours de pièces isolées, Vacheron & Constantin swept the top three places in competition “B”. Olivier is mentioned as adjuster, but of the 2nd place watch with 854 points, falling behind a record score obtained by Mademoiselle Hélène Jaccard of 862.5 points. This rare and talented woman also captured 3rd place for Vacheron & Constantin with 830 points.
By way of explanation: watches were submitted to either 1st or 2nd Class trials according to their expected performance. 1st Class watches which successfully completed trials were granted a Bulletin de 1ere Classe ou pour pièces compliquées. Those which scored 600 points or higher were then eligible for the Concours. These were the competition watches. As noted, watches with complications were acknowledged but did not compete in a separate Concours and just obtaining a Bulletin was considered laudable. The competition watches were grouped by scores and typically more than one watch would be granted the distinction of First, Second, Third Prize and Honorable Mention. Hence, you will see watches engraved with dual attributions of Bulletin de 1ere Classe and 1er Prix au Concours de Genève or lesser Prizes.
The top score within each category was considered informally as the First of the First Prize watches for that group; a distinction that Henry Graves, Jr. clearly coveted. As far as I am aware, it was only at his request that the unorthodox designation of “First First Prize” was engraved by the Manufacture.
So, which watch was which? If his was indeed the Olivier piece, did Graves resent having a 2nd place watch regardless of its multiple complications and his requirement to have the chronograph running during the trials (although the latter stipulation may not have affected the timepiece according to a notation in “Quantum Leap”)? In short, did an unsatisfied customer return the merchandise?
My inquisitive nature requires that I throw in a few more questions to clarify the confusing history presented by Perman following the 2002 Sotheby’s auction; what happened with the watch between 2002 and the 2006 Antiquorum auction? Were Perman’s timelines all wrong and did Vacheron Constantin purchase the 10 Complications watch just prior to the 2006 auction, as seems more likely considering the date of Torres revelations to Foulkes? If not, when did Vacheron Constantin acquire this watch and under what circumstances?
Offically, Vacheron Constantin have no comment on this watch. I don’t presume a conspiracy, as the Swiss Manufactures are famously tight-lipped by nature and there are many possible scenarios. Perman literally had carte blanche to speculate; for Vacheron Constantin to even deny hearsay is to reveal something. It may simply be they do not have ownership of the watch, in which case privacy is absolute. As we’ve seen, the official references to Graves in relation to this watch have been quietly expunged so no future confusion can occur. I can only hope those letters find their way into the public domain as a matter of historical and horological interest.
It appears that lessons were learned from this “Graves” affair if we recall a similar scenario which unfolded in June of 2011 involving another Vacheron & Constantin ultra-complication, this one delivered to Graves’ nemesis James Ward Packard in 1919 at a price of CHF 3,320 which received at auction an amazing $1.76 million. The provenance was solid, having been sold on behalf of Packard’s descendants. This time, the publicity and prestige continues to benefit Vacheron Constantin while enthusiasts appreciate the discreet acknowledgement that the maison purchased it back themselves.
The Real Deal
Talk of Observatory trials brings us back to our original subject; the “First First Prize” watch of 1927 that seduced Henry Graves, Jr. into the arms of Vacheron & Constantin. In all fairness, I should declare a personal interest, for I have a Vacheron & Constantin that was also in the trials alongside Graves’ watch. It too was adjusted by Olivier and captured a Third Prize with 742 points. One gains perspective, however, with its summary treatment in the final report: 15 troisièmes prix de 750 à 724 points.
For your enjoyment, I’ve translated the relevant Geneva Concours results as conveyed in the official publication of The Watchmaking Federation of Switzerland on 24 March 1928:
Geneva Observatory Contest of chronometers in 1927
Monday evening, March 19, at the beginning of the session of the Classe d’industrie et de commerce de la Société des arts, Professor Raoul Gautier, honorary director of the Observatory, read his report on competition chronometers for 1927. He noted that it was his 40th and final report on chronometers deposited at the observatory during his long career there, including two reports on the international competition in 1896. Next year it will be his distinguished successor, Professor Georges Tiercy who speaks for competitions of 1928.
In 1927, the Observatory chronometer service covered 170 chronometers (180 in 1926): three marine chronometers and 167 pocket or deck chronometers, including two filed as 2nd class and 165 submitted for the trials of 1st class, interested in the contest, at least the 146 who received bulletins (19 failures), and not even all: in fact, from this number is deducted two pieces foreign to the canton of Geneva and twenty-five pieces that were filed two sometimes even three times during the year. Class competitions are therefore directed in 1927 to 119 chronometers (123 in 1926, 114 in 1925 and 115 in 1924).
For the fourth time, these competitions were divided into two sets of parallel competitions: one “A” contest for pocket chronometers to the size of 43mm, the other “B” contest for the deck chronometers larger than 43mm.
Calculations are also on the same formula dating back to 1908, corresponding to an unattainable maximum 1000 points. But, given the different dimensions of competitors’ chronometers, the requirements for the awards are more severe for pieces subject to competition “B”.
Of the 119 timers who competed, only 42 took part in the competition “A” and 77 in competition “B”. As for manufacturers and adjusters, their participation was as follows: competition “A”, five manufacturers and eight adjusters. This is slightly less than 1926.
For competition of series, which do not participate as competitors and who made or commissioned at least five chronometers - (we take the average of the top five) - included: competition “A”, two manufacturers and three adjusters; competition “B”, three manufacturers and six adjusters.
In closing, Mr. Gautier notes that if the competitions in 1927 are compared with those of 1926, “A” contests are less interesting than those of the previous year, for either the quantity or the quality. As for competition “B”, a remarkable achievement in the contest of individual pieces, and as a set, quite comparable to the results from past years in various “B” competitions.
Here are the results as they were arrested by the office of the Class on the proposal of M. Gautier and voted at the meeting by the class itself:
I. Competition of Isolated Pieces.
Contest B: 77 deck chronometers - 5 First prizes
866 Vacheron et Constantin E. Olivier
819 Vacheron et Constantin E. Olivier
805 Patek, Philippe et Cie
801 Patek, Philippe et Cie
For the fourth time, the Société des Fabriques de Spiraux put together for 1927, available from the Geneva Observatory, as they did for Neuchâtel, the sum of one thousand francs to reward adjusters who have obtained the best results in the annual contest. As of 1924-1926, the Observatory has decided to share this sum of awards with those adjusters leading the competitions of series, but by bringing their best five settings made in all competitions of “A” and “B”.
After the experience in 1926, where they had expected 4 prizes and there were five competitors with two tie results, the Observatory had planned for three events in 1927, with 4th , 5th or 6th prize, provided that competitors averaging at least 720 points . This is the second event come true, because this year there are 5 competitors who exceed this figure. Moreover, it was anticipated that, if two competitors stood less than 2 percentage points apart, they would be considered a tie and the corresponding prizes would be added and their sum shared by halves. However, this presents this year for the first two awards (300 and 250 fr.) and the last two (150 and 100 fr.).
Here are the results that are interesting:
2 1er prix 782.6 M. E. Olivier
tied 782.4 M. Hans Wehrli
1 3e prix 774.6 M. Golay-Audemars
2 4e prix 765.2 M. Perret
tied 763.4 M. Modoux
On behalf of watch manufacturers and adjusters, Mr. Constantin also thanked very warmly Professor Gautier and gave him a plate and address of esteem and testimony of gratitude.
Esse Quam Videri
Before concluding, I’d like to take the opportunity to clear up a few loose ends arising from this enquiry. As mentioned earlier, it appears that Graves made the unique request to have “First First Prize” engraved upon the cuvette of those winning Observatory chronometers he purchased directly from the Manufacture. Here is an example of a similar Graves watch from Patek Philippe, as listed by Christie's:
While impressive in appearance, the 1933 Geneva results for the Concours de pièces isolées reveal this watch was entered in competition “C”; Chronomètres de poche, petit format, for watches less than 38mm in diameter. The piece did capture the top score in class of 872 points. However, the “C” category was subject to a less stringent scoring formula than “A” and “B” watches and eventually the entire category was eliminated. In fact, a higher score of 875 points was achieved in competition “A”; Chronomètres de bord, by an Omega as adjusted by Alfred Jaccard. Furthermore, the watch that tied the record with top points in competition “B” was a Vacheron & Constantin as adjusted by Hélène Jaccard. Clearly, it makes one wonder about the meaning of such cuvette braggadocio. Still, it must have helped to propel this watch to the astonishing price of CHF 1,143,000 at Christie’s Geneva auction in November of 2011, although, contrary to the auction notes, there is no indication it held a “precision world record”.
As far as my admiration for Henry Graves, Jr., I’m left with one slight reservation. Some have suggested the race between Packard and Graves to own the most complicated timepieces, culminating with the nexus of Perman’s book, the Graves Supercomplication, had as much to do with money, power, competition and ego as it does an appreciation of horology. Graves’ quest for the best timepieces within the realm of precision chronometry elevated him, in my eyes, above those petty although normal human characteristics. Yet I can find no mention that Graves ever acknowledged, let alone met and conversed with, the most important contributors to the success of his coveted Prize watches; the régleurs. It would indeed solidify his reputation as a connoisseur of timekeeping to find such references.
I hope this tangential enquiry has informed and amused. I suppose it’s now time to read “A Grand Complication” from the beginning; who knows what other mysteries will be revealed.
Tick Talk, 2014