Wright Brothers thigh watch, manufactured on special order by V&C.
Antiquorum listing of V&C Aviator's Degree Watch; one of three.
A scant six months after the momentous Quarter Millennium sale, Antiquorum offered another rare and important Vacheron & Constantin; the so-called King George V Aviator’s Watch. Riding a wave of enthusiasm, it sold for an astonishing CHF 225,000. Unavoidably, this watch was also became known by its more notorious association as the Hermann Goering watch.
Antiquorum photo of the King George V Aviator's Watch.
The impressive 1925 wrist chronograph would have been horologically important on its own merits. According to Antiquorum’s notes, the 17-ligne, 24 jewel “monopoussoir” caliber featured a Guillaume balance for utmost accuracy. The movement was housed in a large 45mm pink gold case which measured only 12mm thick. As a special order piece, it was believed to be unique.
Antiquorum further stated the watch was presented by King George V to commemorate a milestone of aviation; the first flight over the North Pole. Its recipient was the American naval pilot and polar explorer, Richard Evelyn Byrd. Quoting from the catalog; “It subsequently became the property of Hermann Goering, as attested by the Vacheron Constantin Archives.”
Even from the beginning, the watch was associated with controversy. Just as there had been a race to reach the North Pole by land, there occurred a race to fly over it. In 1925 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made an unsuccessful attempt using Dornier flying boats. Already famous as the first to navigate the Northwest Passage by sea and the first to reach the South Pole by land (just ahead of the British explorer Scott who perished), Amundsen’s intented to try again the following year using an airship.
Scott looks dejected at Amundsen's abandoned tent at the South Pole. Herbert Ponting photo.
Richard Byrd had applied to join Amundsen’s maiden flight but was turned down. Byrd set about organizing an American expedition and recruited such notable funders as John D. Rockefeller and Edsel Ford. He also secured advance payments from the newspapers in return for promised dispatches. Byrd purchased a Fokker tri-motor airplane and left for Spitzbergen in April of 1926, where Amundsen was nearly ready.
Byrd's Fokker Tri-Motor as featured in National Geographic.
On May 9th, Byrd and a navigator took off for the Pole. They returned in 15 hours and 30 minutes, claiming victory. Three days later, Amundsen’s airship Norge crossed the Pole and he immediately disputed Byrd’s achievement. It was alleged that Byrd’s time to the Pole and back was wildly optimistic and contrary to the wind and weather patterns of the day. Also noted were several erased entries in Byrd’s navigation log book and engine problems in the maintenance log. This controversy added to the lingering debate over Robert Peary’s disputed 1909 land expedition to the North Pole. Henceforth, more stringent verifications were demanded for all exploratory “firsts”.
Amundsen's Norge may have been the first to the North Pole, by land or air!
As it was, Byrd received the Medal of Honor from the President. His fame was now sufficient to secure funding for an attempt to fly over the South Pole in 1929 using a Ford tri-motor. This time Byrd’s evidence was incontrovertible! His North Pole flight, however, remains in doubt to this day.
Sometime during the next two decades, according to Antiquorum, ownership of the watch passed into the hands of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, WWI flying ace and Chief of the German Air Force. This is not the only documented example of Goering’s fascination with aviation watches. The archives of A. Lange & Söhne revealed a 55mm pilot’s watch sold by Wempe to Goering in 1942.
When Goering surrendered to American troops in May of 1945, an extensive inventory was made of his personal property…all sixteen suitcases! Included were the following items:
1 desk watch
1 travelling clock by Movado
1 square watch by Cartier, set with diamonds
1 watch fob, platinum, onyx stones, diamond, inlaid insignia
1 small watch set with artificial diamonds
1 wrist watch
Although sentenced by the War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremburg to death by hanging, Goering managed to secure enough poison to cheat the gallows. One of the more plausible theories is that he gave a watch to the guard in exchange for retrieving a jar of cream from his belongings. Within the jar was hidden a cyanide capsule. Was the King George V watch among his possessions? You would think not, if the American inventory was accurate. Yet, would they have recognized the name of Vacheron & Constantin as readily as Cartier or Movado? How many would today?
Goering in the dock at Nuremberg.
Other possibilities exist. Byrd and Goering met in 1938 when Byrd visited Hamburg in response to Goering’s invitation to join a propaganda expedition to Antarctica. The purpose was to claim territory for a New Swabia and Byrd eventually declined.
Did Goering admire Byrd’s impressive chronograph and subsequently receive it as a gesture of goodwill? Was Byrd, like Charles Lindbergh, an admirer of German achievements? Lindbergh was feted vigorously by Goering during this period; hosted at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 then presented the Cross of the German Eagle in 1938. It was very much a strategy to keep America neutral during the conflict in Europe and Byrd would have been another prestigious name in the campaign.
All of this is speculation; the facts are far more interesting! While Byrd did race across the Pole in 1926 and Goering did collect or plunder many fine things, neither ever set eyes on this watch. The provenance turned out to be fictitious and the movement was suspected of being re-cased. To quote a knowledgeable source; “its history is shady”. Thankfully, the deception was discovered and the lot was withdrawn or refused. Those who have been victimized on eBay can take some comfort in knowing that even the specialty auction houses fall victim to trickery.
So now you know the real story of the Hermann Goering watch.