Last emperor of China’s watch sells for record $6.2m at auction

Release time:2023-05-24 Publisher:South Asia Development

A watch that was once owned by the last emperor of China’s Qing Dynasty, whose life formed the basis of the 1987 Oscar-winning film “The Last Emperor”, sold for a record 49 million Hong Kong dollars ($6.2m) at auction.

An Asian collector residing in Hong Kong and bidding by phone bought the rare Patek Philippe Reference 96 Quantieme Lune timepiece, which boasts a crown-like moon phase and once belonged to China’s last emperor Aisin-Gioro Puyi, according to London-based auction house Phillips.
The watch is one of a very small number of known Patek Philippe Reference 96 Quantieme Lune timepieces and was gifted by Puyi to his Russian interpreter when he was imprisoned by the Soviet Union, the auction house said. The storied timepiece easily beat a pre-sale estimate of $3m.

The hammer price, which excludes the buyer’s premium fee was 40 million Hong Kong dollars ($5.1m). With the buyer’s premium fee, the total price came to about $6.2m.
Thomas Perazzi, head of watches at auction house Phillips Asia, told the Reuters news agency that it was “the highest result” for any wristwatch that once belonged to an emperor.

Other watches owned by emperors and sold at auction include a Patek Philippe timepiece that belonged to the last Ethiopian emperor, Haile Selassie, which sold for $2.9m in 2017.

A Rolex watch that belonged to the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, fetched $5m at an auction in 2017.

Born in 1906, Puyi was the last emperor of China’s Qing dynasty, who began his reign at two years old and was forced to abdicate in 1912.

More than 20 years after his abdication, he was installed as the puppet leader of Japanese-occupied Manchuria – described by the South China Morning Post (SCMP) newspaper as a “puppet state set up by Japan after its invasion of modern-day northeast China”.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945, Puyi was captured at China’s Shenyang Airport by the Soviet Red Army. He was detained as a war prisoner and jailed in a detention camp in Khabarovsk, Russia, for five years.
Returning to China, he was jailed for almost 10 years and when he was released he worked at several jobs, including gardener in what is now China’s National Botanical Garden in Beijing, according to the SCMP. He died in 1967 aged 61.

The UK auction house said it had documentation that showed Puyi had brought the watch with him to the camp. Phillips said it spent three years collaborating with watch specialists, historians, journalists and scientists to research the watch’s history and verify its provenance.

Journalist Russell Working, who interviewed Puyi’s interpreter Georgy Permyakov in 2001, said Puyi gave the watch to Permyakov on his last day in the Soviet Union, shortly before he was extradited back to China.

“These were the kind of things he sometimes did to people that were very special to him,” Working said. The elderly interpreter had no idea of its value when he pulled the timepiece from his drawer, said Working, who was part of the auction house’s research team.

Perazzi told Reuters that the watch was the finest Patek made at the time.

The Ref 96 – austere compared with the usual luxury pieces on sale in auction houses – was the first “complication wristwatch” serially produced by Patek Philippe, with Perazzi saying there are currently only “three examples known” in the world.

According to the memoir of Puyi’s nephew Aisin-Gioro Yuyuan, the watch was a “personal item” of the deposed emperor, who passed it to his Russian interpreter Permyakov for safekeeping when he left the prison camp.

Permyakov’s family sold the Puyi articles several years ago to an anonymous European collector, the SCMP reported.

Another item on auction was a red paper fan, inscribed with a poem by Puyi “dedicated to my comrade Permyakov”. That fetched more than $77,800 – six times its pre-sale estimate.

Puyi’s watch, while historically significant, is far from the most expensive timepiece ever sold on the auction block.

A Patek Philippe “Grandmaster Chime” sold for $31m in 2019. It is said to be the most complex timepiece the luxury watchmaker has ever created, with 20 complications.