Stolen Marie Antoinette watch tells a story

By SAMANTHA CRITCHELL AP Fashion Writer Published:

NEW YORK (AP) Many fashion brands can boast Hollywood royalty as clients, but few have loyal royal fans the way Breguet does.

In 1783 a man believed to be one of Marie Antoinettes lovers ordered a watch for the French queen that had every complication known to watchmakers at the time, which, notes current Breguet president Nicholas Hayek, also means just about every mechanical complication known to watchmakers now. It had a perpetual calendar that adjusted for leap years, a repeater that chimed out the hours, quarter hours and minutes, and it tracked both solar time and mean time. It had a thermometer and a power-reserve indicator.

The watch actually wasnt finished until 44 years later, 10 years after Marie Antoinettes death and four years after A.L. Breguets. His trusted assistants carried on, and eventually the watch had a new owner: Marquis de Garoye of Paris, according to a 2004 issue of WatchTime devoted entirely to Breguet and the companys rich history.

It changed hands again a few more times until it was bought by Sir David Lionel Salomons. He bequeathed the watch to his daughter, who left it to the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem. It was displayed there until 1983 when burglars struck the museum and took much of the Salomons collection. The most expensive piece of the collection was the Marie Antoinette watch. It has never been recovered.

I would have put up a $10 million reward, says Hayek, but we had the same issue with the Omega (watch) that was the first on the moon. The insurance company says its their watch, I said its our watch and the astronaut said its his watch. If we find the Marie Antoinette, the museum, the insurance company and Breguet will all say Its my watch.

(Omega and Breguet are both part of the Swatch Group.)

Hayek isnt sure if the thieves knew the value of the watch or if the watch still exists. This is a watch that should be treated well. You have to change the oil inside and have the inside checked out to make sure everything inside works.

The Marie Antoinette was one of the oldest watches in the world still ticking when it was stolen, but Breguet has a 230-year-old pocketwatch in its archives as well as several 200-year-old watches.

A watchs provenance can add significantly to its value, says Ed Faber, president of New Yorks Aaron Faber Gallery. He notes the recent sale of an Omega watch that John F. Kennedy wore at his 1961 inauguration for $420,000. Without the history that came with it, the watch itself was probably worth $1,000, Faber estimates.

Since watches became portable in the 14th century, theyve been the very special prizes of wealthy people who all try to outdo each other on the pedigree and complexity of their watches.

Twentieth-century industrialist Henry Graves had an ongoing watch competition with friends Henry Ford and Henry Frick; Graves commissioned Patek Philippe to make the most expensive watch in the world, according to Faber. Maybe he paid $30,000, which was a kings ransom. It sold at Sothebys for $11 million a few years ago.

Few important watches over the past 500 years ended up in the trash because they were in poor condition or didnt work anymore. Its more likely they were passed through families, sold at auction or stolen, Faber says.

A watch is one of the few things that survives time. Its different that art because a watch is associated with personality. Its also transgender. Men can own and collect them. Watches are intimate. Theyre worn on the wrist and this creates an aura and legend of the watch itself, he says.

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