The Hermann Goering Vacheron & Constantin

Within the annals of Vacheron & Constantin are found many examples of instrument or tool watches. V&C was a notable participant in early aviation, where long-range navigation relied on precision timekeeping. Two well-documented V&C aviation watches are the 1903 Wright Brothers Thigh Watch and the Aviator’s Degree Watch of 1936.

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.
 

Goering's Lange.

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.
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What a fascinating article, Dean - kudos! You and Alex should join
04/19/2011 - 23:33
forces to write The Book. You two have the passion and writing skills to make it happen Anyway, a very interesting story behind such an elusive watch
That would be the ultimate pleasure Radek
04/21/2011 - 00:26
I'd have to move to Geneva for a few months of course
Re: The Hermann Goering Vacheron & Constantin
04/20/2011 - 03:04
Thank you Dean I truly enjoyed that, combining history and watches doesn't get any better-well maybe a wee dram of single malt. Ray
Single Malt...a Singular Pleasure!
04/21/2011 - 00:28
Any favorites you care to mention?
Actually two....
04/21/2011 - 17:05
The Glenrothes 17yr and a new one I found named Scapa. Scapa is make in the Orkney's by a three man team. Reasonably priced 16yr old. Google them, great scotch interesting story. Ray
Thank you very much for the interesting read Dean
04/20/2011 - 07:45

Although I am not a vintage watch collector, there are really some very beatiful pieces out there.   One thing that vintage watches have over new ones is "provenance", and some do have very interesting stories behind them that add so much value to the piece itself. Best regards, Kazumi

I agree totally Kazumi
04/21/2011 - 00:33

Just as with a contemporary watch, you can discuss the technical and artistic merits of vintage timepieces PLUS you have the history of the watch and the times it witnessed.  Of course, today's contemporary is tomorrow's classic...so wear your watches with pleasure collect lots of stories

my big question is what kind of sick mind thought that saying
04/20/2011 - 11:12
the watch belonged to Goering would make it more attractive!! Thanks for the impressive research Sherlock!
Notoriety seems to be the most enduring fame :-(
04/21/2011 - 00:37
I do wonder why we are often more interested in bad deeds?  Irks me to see the names of criminals and killers all over the newspapers, yet their victims are just forgotten .
Great research and write up, Inspector Tick-Talk!!!
04/20/2011 - 12:20
You are a vintage fan's hero.  Thanks for the hard work that was most evident in putting this article together.  The history and stories are really such a major part of my fascination with vintage. Between you, Doc, and Alex - the shared knowledge and research have been incredible on THL! BR, Dan
Many many contributors in THL
04/21/2011 - 00:40
Including yourself Dan
Great report Dean...
04/20/2011 - 18:40
We all see VC as being the manufacturer of ulta fine and elegant watches, but it is also interesting to see that they were fine aviation (somewhat "tool" watches) too. I do like the King George V Aviator's watch a lot, except for the relation that it has to Hermann Goering. To me, the association alone makes it much much less attractive. But, still a beautiful, fine, and unique piece anyways. Thanks again for the very interesting report! Best, Mike
Did you find the surprise ending? (nt)
04/21/2011 - 00:41
nt
Yes, very surprising and interesting Dean! Thank you. (nt)
04/21/2011 - 18:47
vc
amazing research. The auction market can be shaddy at times!
04/21/2011 - 11:21
nt
what provenance to sell ! you've done it again, dean ....
04/21/2011 - 14:54
very intigruing and interesting read.  you must be a great inspector when u were at it .
Amundsen the "Quiet Hero"
04/22/2011 - 06:49
Amundsen has always been a personal hero because of his courage and intelligence, yet he was so quiet about it all.  He did while others promised!  But just as public attention seems to favor the notorious characters of history, we also seem to fixate on the "noble failures" of exploration, like Shakelton and Scott.  The best selling book ever on mountaineering was Into Thin Air, a recounting of tragedy on Everest .
Great Post !
04/21/2011 - 17:22
Thanks for sharing your research Francois
Dean takes off and lands us back in time....
04/21/2011 - 23:04
Who would have thought that such an interesting piece of copy was going to land on my desk today? I take my hat off to you Dean - thank you so much! With good wishes and thanks Tony
Thanks Dean for a very interesting post.
04/22/2011 - 01:39
Read it first today. As always well done work. Göring, was married to a Swedish Lady of Title, Karin von Rosen, and spent much time in Sweden before the war. He was a great socialite of in two dimensions and a morphinist already than! That's why 'his' estate was named 'Karinhall'. Of course he like all other Nazis did wear Lange, now forgotten. BTW it's very silent around the old Nazi officer's favourite brand nowadays...? Doc
Didn't realize the Swedish connection Doc
04/22/2011 - 06:39
I found it most interesting that the old fool was so oblivious to his charade that when he gave up to the American soldiers, he arrived with a motorcade, 75 staff and truck-loads of personal luggage, including bags of narcotics.  His surrender "note" directed he be taken straight to Eisenhower.  Things went downhill for him from there...
Isn't that typical for a real 'high' man ;-)
04/23/2011 - 02:51
Being abuser from the 20s that steadily increased, plus that he was a maniac as a person, probably helps! Think of that the last idiot isn't born yet.. Mats
Re: Isn't that typical for a real 'high' man ;-)
04/26/2011 - 04:55
The fat bastard managed to avoid the hangman's noose and committed suicide. Apparantly he had some help from an American sargeant who was guarding him and who slipped him some cyanide. Too bad. A quick death was too good. What, you may ask, does my comment have to do with watches...? Well at the end of a rope he would have swung like a pendulum and even kept time...briefly...
Powerful sentiments Joseph!
04/27/2011 - 18:57
Those characters "should" serve as a reminder so we don't keep repeating the same mistakes, but it seems to be human nature to forget .  IMHO fascists are made, not born, and we should always be vigilant for the signs of eroding human rights.  As we Canadians are into a national election right now, this would be a good time to take stock of the past behaviors of our own political powers. Not really related to this topic; may I recommend a book which reviews the history of human civilizations from a geographical and biological perspective, rather than as individual nationalities; Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  One realization he comes to is that ALL governments are forms of kleptocracy, just differing in the degree of tolerance by the populace for the avarice of their leaders.  Those that have a high degree of consent between what those in power take from the public and what the public is willing to give in exchange for "peace, order and good government"; we call democracies.  Those that have a high degree of disagreement between the two; we call dictatorships.  Of course, there are many shades in between...
Re: Powerful sentiments Joseph!
04/28/2011 - 18:40
Hi Dean, Thanks for the recommendation. I have that book and have even read it Your comments, though, reminded me of the old joke: What's the difference between capatalism and communism? Well, under capatilism, man exploits man; but under communism, its the other way round! Joseph
Re: Re: Powerful sentiments Joseph!
04/28/2011 - 18:47
Sorry, "capitalism" JB