pride and provenance
The story behind a watch or antique jewel, lived by a colourful cast, can yield as much value as its features and carat weight, says Melissa Pearce
The story behind a watch or antique jewel, lived by a colourful cast, can yield as much value as its features and carat weight
More and more men are aspiring to buy a piece of jewellery that has a unique and notable history, whether that means something once worn by a Hollywood star, acclaimed sportsman, head of state or royalty, or an item of historical significance that has survived centuries of turmoil or social change. Few factors can stoke the value of a vintage watch like its once having adorned a bona fide celebrity, especially one from a period before fame hinged on Internet acreage. The Omega Ultra Thin worn by John F Kennedy when he took the oath of office as President of the US, for instance, went for US$420,000 on auction in 2005. It now belongs to the Omega Museum in Bienne, Switzerland, which purchased it.
Even some of the most unassuming watches worn by great leaders can generate buzz, such as another watch owned by Kennedy that predates his political ascendancy. In 2013, his gold-plated Bulova watch was offered by US auction house RR Auction in a sale of Jfk-related items to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his assassination. The watch, which was last in the possession of a Kennedy staffer who received it after his death, is not particularly smart. In fact, the watch was open-faced at auction as Kennedy had cracked the watch crystal more than once and its scratched dial featured a broken-off blued steel hour hand. None of these were of consequence to the very
respectable $25,428 that was reached for it.
Collectors can only dream of Barack Obama’s TAG Heuer, Jorg Gray and Vulcain Cricket (the classic American timekeeper that has been relied on by at least four presidents) appearing at an auction one day.
Less well-known as a horological connoisseur was James Dean. The cult star was fond of vintage pocket watches and at Antiquorum Hong Kong’s Important Modern & Vintage Timepieces auction in June 2013, his pocket watch created a flurry of attention across the globe, with an estimated price of around $5,000 superseded by more than eight times to reach around $42,000 as paid by a private phone bidder based in Europe.
The keyless pocket watch was made by Standard USA and features an Americanmade Elgin movement that dates to around 1889. Dean, who bought the watch in 1951 in New York, is said to have considered it his good luck charm, even insisting to the chagrin of director Elia Kazan that it dangle from his belt loop, during the filming of East of Eden.
More recently, astronaut Dave Scott’s Apollo 15 lunar surface-worn watch sold through RR Auction for $1.6 million. A Bulova chronograph, it is the only privately owned timepiece to have been worn on the moon, as Nasa’s standard issue Omega Speedmasters are considered government property. Scott’s own personal watch, the Bulova, was worn during his third and final moonwalk of the mission, after discovering that the crystal of his Omega had popped off. It was with this watch that he saluted the American flag against the majestic background of Hadley Delta.
In the case of Sean Connery, it seems, a distinguished stone trumps any offer to learn the wiles of a dashing secret agent. The former 007 sold two jewellery pieces last year through Sotheby’s Geneva — a 15.20-ct fancy pear-shaped orange-pink diamond briolette pendant, which achieved a record bid of US$4 million and a 5.18-ct diamond ring, also with a pear-shaped stone, for $249,300.
Christopher Becker, director of AntiquesArt-design, a Sydney-based dealer specialising in modernist Scandinavian silver jewellery including Georg Jensen, defines provenance as “whence something came: Not necessarily who made it but who commissioned it and owned it. And not just its original owner, but its successive owners to the current date”.
The parameters of collectability seem sound enough, but it is the more recent history of an item that can be the hardest to confirm.
“Word of mouth, hearsay or family legend does not constitute provenance,” explains Becker. “You can often ascertain, from the makers’ marks, engraved inscriptions, patterns or records about the item, who made it and sometimes as a result, who it was intended for, but it is much more difficult to prove its journey from point of creation to the current time. With the word ‘provenance’ comes the burden of proof.”
Sometimes a craftsman is as worthy of biographical attention as their captain-ofindustry client. Take the case of Alexander Calder (1898-1976), one of America’s greatest sculptors, known particularly for his mobiles, who also handcrafted one-of-a-kind jewellery for his family and friends.
A suite of very modern, hammered silver wire Calder pieces once in the possession of Nelson Rockefeller, vice-president of the US under Gerald Ford and the only son of the founder of the Standard Oil Company, once
the largest oil refiner in the world, is currently offered by New York fine jewellery dealer Siegelson. A curious inclusion is a silver cape clasp circa 1936. Coat clasps, more common at the turn of the 20th century, would be sewn onto a coat or cloak on either side, with the clasp in the middle.
To stumble upon a gem from both a gilded period of history and a celebrated jeweller assures a collector is in good stead, especially if investment is the primary goal and they have a sizeable budget.
More often than not, it is an illustrious gemstone with a tale that sets a world record at auction. The Hope Spinel is suitably steeped in history and intrigue and when the huge rose-hued gem came up for sale by Bonhams London for the first time in nearly a century in September 2015, all eyes were on the 50.13-ct octagonal-cut stone, set in a 19th-century silver and gold brooch.
The size of a small plum, the Hope Spinel, which can be traced to ancient mines in Tajikistan, was one of over 700 gemstones that once formed one of the world’s greatest private gem collections. In 1917, it commanded £1,060 — the equivalent of £80,000 today — at a Christie’s sale, but in September, it far exceeded Bonhams’ £150,000 to £200,000 estimate to set a world record price of £962,500 (roughly $30,000 per carat).
The Hope Spinel’s provenance is equally fascinating. It was purchased in the early 1800s by Henry Philip Hope, a Dutchman from a dynasty of rich merchant bankers, who to escape political upheaval, settled in London with his elder brother, where they used their tremendous wealth to form significant art collections. Among the treasures of his collection were the Hope Blue Diamond (once owned by Sun King Louis XIV and valued at $200 million-$250 million), the Hope Pearl (then the largest baroque natural pearl known) and an emerald from the turban of Indian ruler Tipu Sultan.
Hope never married and gifted his collection to a nephew to avoid death duties, but the collection stoked a protracted inheritance feud, with the Hope Spinel and several of the most valuable gems eventually separated from the collection. In 1917, the Spinel was bought by a dealer before it went into the collection of Lady Mount Stephen, a close friend of Queen Mary. The most recent custodian of the gem, a direct descendant of the aristocrat, apparently had always simply known it as “Aunt Gian’s Hope Spinel”.
Cornering provenance can be an elusive task. Any documentation that supports a maker’s mark is crucial and if it also reveals an item’s purpose and their maker’s career, surety builds.
Serious buyers might consider a Fabergé Imperial presentation men’s ring on sale by Romanov Russia for $125,000, which comes with a copy of its original award certificate, signed by the head of the Cabinet Chamberlain of His Majesty’s Court with an ink seal of the Cabinet of Empress Maria Feodorovna. The finely crafted heavy ring, in 14k gold with bluish grey guilloche enamel and brilliant- and rose-cut diamonds, was given to its recipient by the Empress in 1915.
An item might also come with documentation of registration of a work in the archives of an artist’s or jewellery house’s foundation, condition reports, photocopies and photographs of the identity wearing it, newspaper articles, or letters of authenticity from previous owners, relatives and academics.
Scott’s Bulova chronograph wristwatch, for instance, came up for sale with a detailed five-page letter, in which the Commander of Apollo 15 wrote: “Among the decisions I made, the monitoring of time was perhaps most important.”
However, time is not always so generous when it comes to supplying the unerring evidence of an item’s life to the present day. But sometimes just the trace of a faint backstory weaves enough of a spell for the buyer.
James Dean considered his gold 19th- century Elgin pocket watch a lucky charm. He even insisted he be able to wear it on the set of East of Eden
James Dean gifted the Elgin pocket watch to his friend Tillie Starriett. The letter, written by Starriett, explains how the watch came to her possession
Clockwise from left: Astronaut Dave Scott wore the Bulova ( far left), which sold for US$ 1.6 million, to the moon; The Hope Spinel set a world record price of £ 962,500; The Fabergé Imperial presentation men’s ring; Sean Connery’s Fancy orangy pink diamond briolette pendant went for US$ 4 million