If there is one sub-sect of vintage watches that I believe is about to experience a renaissance of sorts, it’s vintage Audemars Piguet. For years, I have admired the subtle elegance and incredible design found in early 20th century AP’s. I believe them to be some of the most beautiful watches ever made, and based on our visit inside the vault of AP last summer, you guys agreed.
There is simply so much to love in this category, and yet we simply don’t hear much about it. Sure, there are way, way fewer vintage AP watches out there than any Patek, as we’ve mentioned, and that just makes them that much more appealing. This season, there are several fantastic vintage AP’s coming up for sale, and because this manufacture is one of the few who has a publicly available historical expert, we thought it would be great to get brand historian Michael Friedman’s own take on the vintage AP’s coming up this weekend and next week in Geneva. That is what you’ll find below, and we hope you enjoy this veteran watch expert’s opinion on the upcoming sales.
The Top Vintage AP’s To Look At This Auction Season
By Michael Friedman
For collectors and enthusiasts of vintage watches, the May and November auctions in Geneva are a time of concentrated immersion and occasional intensity unlike any other moments or events in the calendar year. Many of the world’s most experienced collectors, advisors and dealers converge for a few days and evenings of focused analysis, passionate bidding, and speculative debate.
The first Geneva auctions I attended were in November of 1999, when I had just made the move from curator of the National Watch & Clock Museum to the Department Head of Watches for Christie’s New York. This was a few years into a career that now spans two decades. I’ve had the rare opportunity to be part of the action from the perspective of the auction house, the perspective of an advisor and collector, and since November of 2013, as the Historian of Audemars Piguet.
Those HODINKEE readers who follow auctions, as well as Ben’s passionate and detailed coverage of vintage Audemars Piguet, are well aware of the extreme rarity and inherent quality of historic watches from the independent Le Brassus manufacturer. Audemars Piguet has never left the hands of the founding families and never stopped producing watches, even during global crises, including WW I, the Great Depression and WW II, as well as during industry upheaval like the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s and ’80s. The company focused on complications since the founding of the firm in 1875. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Audemars Piguet produced fewer watches than the vast majority of other iconic Swiss manufacturers. This rarity is reflected in the auction catalogs, as most auctions have a total of fewer than 15 Audemars Piguet watches, only a handful of which were made prior to 1980. Consequently, rare vintage AP watches with complications that are in exceptional condition have been known to galvanize vintage and antique watch collectors. Another fact that is intriguing to vintage Audemars Piguet collectors is that reference numbers with strict model specifications were only introduced by the company after 1950, rendering all watches made prior to that time as unique. You may find two Audemars Piguet watches made prior to 1950 that share many details, but there will always be some variation in case and dial design from one to the next.
May 2015 is a particularly strong season for vintage Audemars Piguet watches. I have selected a few examples from the upcoming sales that reflect the historical roots, inherent rarity, uncompromising quality, and unique design codes that inform and energize Audemars Piguet collectors and occasionally generate curiosity from collectors of other brands.
May 10: Phillips “The Geneva Watch Auction: ONE”
Lot 174: 18K White Gold Wristwatch, Reference 5093
Dubbed the “Disco Volante,” or flying saucer, by Italian collectors, reference 5093 is an ideal demonstration of the unconventional cases and dials that Audemars Piguet crafted during the 1950s. The enlarged, engine-turned bezel and highly stylized three-tone dial reflect the design language of a company that had already diverged from its peers and competitors decades prior. Until one has explored vintage Audemars Piguet, there is often the perception that the company’s modernist and architectural-driven designs began with the iconic Royal Oak in 1972, however, avant-garde tendencies had long been reflected in the brand’s output. This example is one of the most well-preserved, original-condition reference 5093s that I have seen. The watch utilizes the impressive ultra-thin caliber 2003 hand-wound movement. Audemars Piguet introduced caliber 2003 in November of 1953 with movement number 60000. The movement remained in production for half of a century. I have provided HODINKEE with an archival photograph of reference 5093 as it is a nearly identical version to Phillips lot 174. There is a yellow-gold example on exhibition at the Audemars Piguet Museum and another example has recently been on exhibition at the Espace Horloger de la Vallée de Joux.
Lot 176 & 177: 18K Yellow Gold Chronographs, 1942 And 1933
Between 1930 and 1950, Audemars Piguet produced a very limited number of chronograph wristwatches – a total of approximately 300 examples were made during this 20 year period and sold between 1934 and 1961, including those with calendar and phases of the moon. They epitomize Audemars Piguet’s tremendous creative diversity with varying dimensions, stylized case and lug designs, beautiful dial finishes, and exceptional column-wheel-chronograph movements. Phillips Auction House has not one, but two examples from this elusive category, including a very early single-button-chronograph version.
Lot 176 was made in 1942 and features a beautifully oxidized 18K yellow-gold case and original, unrestored dial. The oval-shaped pushers, referred to as navettes internally (olive-shaped), are a defining characteristic of many vintage Audemars Piguet chronograph wristwatches. The tachymeter scale is in blue, which is how they were often designed during this 20-year run. Note the applied-gold, oversized Arabic 12 o’clock numeral and engine-turned subsidiary dials. Audemars Piguet chronograph wristwatches made during this era utilized highly-finished Valjoux 13 ligne caliber movements. The hand finishing of these movements is absolutely incredible – as soon as the loupe reaches your eye and the movement comes into focus, you will go down the rabbit hole. Examples with three subsidiary dials were given the 13VZAH designation.
Lot 177 was made in 1933 and is the ninth chronograph wristwatch ever produced by Audemars Piguet, according to the Archives. It is one of very few single-button-chronograph wristwatches with enamel dial to have appeared at auction over the past two decades and the enamel remains intact with no hairlines 82 years after it was produced. This example, which has never appeared at auction before, is also powered by an exceptionally well-finished Valjoux 13 ligne caliber and includes the classic Audemars Piguet oval-shaped pusher. An example in stainless steel is on exhibition at the Audemars Piguet Museum.
May 11: Christie’s “Important Watches” In Geneva
Christie’s lot 204 is an absolutely mind-blowing, oversized 38 mm minute-repeating wristwatch produced in 1951. This is the kind of model that enriches the history of an entire category, much like the 40 mm Audemars Piguet chronograph, reference 5522, that Christie’s Geneva sold in November of 2010. According to our ongoing research in the Archives, Audemars Piguet produced three examples of reference 5528. One of the three examples had been previously restored at Audemars Piguet, however it featured a smaller caliber movement and larger bezel compared to Christie’s Lot 204. This is another interesting fact regarding early Audemars Piguet reference numbers – even after they were introduced in the early 1950s, models would often continue to have minor variations in case and/or dial details.
The origins of this Christie’s lot 204 stretch all the way back to the year 1885, only 10 years after Jules Audemars and Edward Piguet founded the company. Both complications and miniaturization were a focal point for the founders. The 14 ligne movement is one of the 82 miniature minute-repeating movements made prior to 1900 and it was originally cased as a women’s minute repeating pendant watch (47 movements were between 8 ligne and 12 ligne and 35 movements were 13 ligne or 14 ligne). It returned to the workshop in 1904 and was sold in its second form, an Art Deco case in 1921, before reaching its final form in 1951 – the oversized and well balanced 38 mm 18K yellow-gold case. The Archives detail every step of the journey that this watch took and Christie’s published the entire history in the catalog, including photographs from the Archives. It is important to highlight that in 1900, according to Audemars Piguet ledgers, the miniature minute repeating pendant watch with 8 ligne movement was so labor intensive that it cost more than a standard size grand complication pocket watch.
This exceptionally large minute-repeating wristwatch has been on our radar at Audemars Piguet for about 18 months, as the watch was entirely and meticulously serviced by Angelo Manzoni at our Restoration Workshop, which is under the leadership of Francisco Pasandin. Angelo and Francisco are not only among the great living restorers and conservators of vintage and antique watches, but they are also wonderful, passionate individuals who inform and inspire colleagues and the public on a daily basis.
Angelo and Francisco maintain a highly organized inventory of vintage parts at the Restoration Workshop, providing them with the inspiration and specifications needed to restore even the most complicated and rare movements. When a component is beyond repair, a new part is made from raw materials utilizing traditional procedures and often original tools. Extra parts are made and added to the vintage stock archive for use by future generations of watchmakers. Respect for the originality and integrity of all timepieces serviced at the Restoration Workshop is always maintained and is reflected in the extensive conservation and preservation efforts, as demonstrated by the outcome of the 1951 38 mm minute repeater, reference 5528 – lot 204 at the upcoming Christie’s May 11th auction.
Christie’s lot 240 is also one that must be mentioned. It is a reference 5402 A Series, often referred to as the Jumbo. So much has been written and published on this truly iconic model that I won’t rehash the legacy of the Royal Oak, but in short, it was designed by the incomparable Gerald Genta and introduced in 1972, creating an entirely new category of luxury stainless-steel sport watches. It showcased impeccable and complex case finishing to a new generation, it utilizes the celebrated 2121 caliber movement – which is still in production – and it introduced the alpha-numeric case numbering system that still exists at Audemars Piguet.
Lot 240 is reference 5402ST, A 674. The watch is in overall very well preserved condition with the original dial and bracelet. The bracelet is stamped Gay Frères – the celebrated Geneva jewelry maker that produced the early examples, and is stamped I.72. The watch has been minimally polished as lines and edges are very well retained. It should be noted that the original crown and hands were replaced at some point in the watch’s history.
On a personal and very HODINKEE-related aside, it was Ben Clymer who initially inspired me to acquire an A series 5402 back in 2011. At the time, I had several Audemars Piguet watches, but none that were produced later than 1960. Four years later, and A 90 receives more consistent wrist-time than anything else in my personal collection. As Ben highlighted a few years back, it is not only a visually impactful and iconic wristwatch, but it also wears so damn well on the wrist.
May 13: Sotheby’s “Important Watches” In Geneva
The 1920s was an incredible decade for Audemars Piguet. Minute-repeating wristwatches, high jewelry women’s watches, our earliest moon-phase wristwatches, our first jump-hour wristwatches, and our earliest skeletonized watches were all being produced. In addition, stunning complicated pocket watches with contemporary aesthetics for the time period were also being made. Sotheby’s Lot 186 is an absolutely beautiful example of the latter category: it is an 18K white-gold, open-faced, minute-repeating perpetual calendar pocket watch that was retailed by A L’Emeraude in 1928 and sold to the renowned pianist Alfred Cortot. Sotheby’s has a wonderfully well-researched catalog note on the vast accomplishments of Cortot and his contributions to musical performance, education, and preservation.
The Archives confirm that the movement is caliber 18SMQV, and the dial is made of gold with applied white-gold Arabic numerals. While pocket watches from various leading companies from the late 19th century often share similar design codes, Audemars Piguet watches from the 1910s on begin to diverge from the traditional approaches often taken by our peers. While classical and traditional watches always have and will likely always continue to be made, the threads of unconventionality and differentiation that Audemars Piguet is known for today in much of the current collection were already coming into focus nearly a century ago as demonstrated by the various case styles, pendants, bows, bezel sizes, dial fonts, and numerals that were utilized. Even without the name Audemars Piguet on the dial, experienced pocket watch collectors and enthusiasts would look at Sotheby’s lot 186 and intuitively know that it is likely an Audemars Piguet watch.
I’d like to thank Ben and the entire HODINKEE team for inviting me to share some perspective, insight, and opinions on several of the Audemars Piguet watches that are hitting the auction block in Geneva very soon. If any of you have questions or research inquiries pertaining to Audemars Piguet watches in your collection, please do not hesitate to contact us.
We encourage all Audemars Piguet and watch history enthusiasts to make the visit to our factory and Museum in Le Brassus – an experience that HODINKEE has covered in detail. For those of you that attend Audemars Piguet events around the world, you may have noticed Museum watches making more frequent appearances. Together with Audemars Piguet Museum Director Sebastian Vivas, we are doing all we can to share highlights from the Museum collection at our global events.