24 complications, 2 auctions, and 1 Unpaid Bill

For $24 Million, a Complex and Storied Patek


November 11, 2014 Watches By
Graves-Supercomp-Gear-Patrol-Lead-Full
Scroll over the points to see the breakdowns.

The horological world has been abuzz for months, because the Graves SuperComplication — the most complicated watch Patek Philippe has ever made without the aid of a computer — is going on the auction block again at Sotheby’s in Geneva, Switzerland this November 11.

Last time the SuperComplication was on sale, in 1999, Patek Philippe tried to buy it for their Geneva museum, but lost out to an anonymous bidder who just wouldn’t leave it alone. When the gavel fell, said bidder was $11 million poorer, and Patek was still short one of their most storied pieces ever.

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The story? Well, two early 20th Century industrialists, James Ward Packard (of Packard automobile fame) and Henry Graves, Jr., a New York financier of some note and ability, entered a gentleman’s competition to see who could commission the most complicated watch from Patek Philippe. Ultimately, Graves commissioned the 18-karat gold SuperComplication in 1925. He wanted “the most complicated watch”, he said, “and in any case, certainly more complicated than that of Mr. Packard.” He paid about $15,000 — the equivalent of roughly $200,000 today. The watch has 24 complications. For context, consider that most watches have one or two functions beyond time-telling, maybe a date and a chronograph if you’re lucky. It took three years of R&D effort before production of the SuperComplication was even begun. It was finished in December of 1932, and was delivered to Graves in early 1933 — then auctioned in ’99.

But there’s a twist. Turns out the winner of the 1999 auction, who turned out to be the late (as of Monday) Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, wasn’t $11 million poorer after all. He took possession of the watch and never paid the bill. (He did that with 11 dealers and auction houses over the years.) In 2012, it finally caught up with him. He was in debt to the tune of about $83 million, $42 million to Sotheby’s alone, when they called in their marker. Rather than pay up, he surrendered 240 objets d’art to Sotheby’s to be auctioned to cover his debts. Among them, the Graves SuperComplication.

Thus, Patek Philippe has another shot on Tuesday. And so do you. Time to tap the trust fund. The cognoscenti are saying a good estimate for the SuperComplication is $16 to $17 million. Maybe the Patek Philippe Museum will have more luck this time around – as long as you don’t interfere. Just make sure you can back up that itchy bidding finger.

Update: A yet-anonymous buyer won the Graves SuperComplication for $24 million.