The Last Emperor's Patek Philippe wristwatch could sell for more than US$3m at Phillips Hong Kong in May

In March, Phillips unveiled an ultra-rare Patek Philippe Reference 96 Quantieme Lune wristwatch that once belonged to Aisin-Gioro Puyi – the last Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1906-1967) – to mark the opening of its new state-of-the-art Asia headquarters in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District.

Less than a month later, the house officially announced that the imperial watch will be offered for sale on 23 May in Hong Kong, carrying an estimate in excess of HK$25 million (US$3 million).

Its exceptional provenance aside, the timepiece itself is a legendary reference that encapsulates Patek Philippe's heritage. Produced in the 1930s, it is the first Calatrava reference that the Maison made, featuring triple date and moon phase. While only seven examples of such complication were previously known, the present one is fresh-to-market and is the eighth example to resurface. 

Phillips’ new Asia headquarters in Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District officially opens

Aisin-Gioro Puyi

Patek Philippe & Co, Ref. 96QL
Estimate: In Excess of HK$25,000,000 (US$3 million)

While Aisin-Gioro Puyi has been a household name in China, his turbulent life was made famous in the West through renowned Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 The Last Emperor  – an epic biographical drama that won the Oscar for Best Picture. 

Renowned as the final emperor of imperial China, Puyi was crowned in 1908 just before his third birthday by decree of the Empress Dowager Cixi. After living a few years of childhood in a regime of virtual seclusion in the palace, he had to abdicate the throne in 1912 during the Chinese Revolution. Despite the abdication, he was given the privilege of retaining his title and staying in the palace until 1924, when he was expelled during a coup.

Hoping to regain the throne as Emperor of China, Puyi accepted the Japanese offer in 1934 and became a puppet emperor of the Japanese state of Manchuria. When the Japanese forces surrendered in 1945, he was captured at the airport by the Soviet Red Army, being incarcerated as a prisoner of war in a Khabarovsk detention camp for five years.

During his time in the Soviet Union, Puyi developed a close friendship with his interpreter and tutor, Georgy Permyakov. According to a first-hand account by the Emperor's nephew, it was at this time that he gifted the watch to his friend, the interpreter. In 1950, Puyi was extradited back to China, before eventually being granted amnesty several years later and becoming a citizen of New China.

Although there are no traces of when Puyi bought the timepiece, it is known that it was sold at a Parisian retailer in 1937. After Permyakov received the gift, he kept it in his collection until his death in 2005; and the legacy was sold to an European collector in 2019.  

The dial design of Patek Philippe Reference 96 features triple date and moon phrase

The back of the present wristwatch

Beyond the royal provenance, the wristwatch alone is incredibly rare and is horologically important to Patek Philippe. Today, a Patek Philippe Reference 96 is a timepiece icon considered by many to be the blueprint for the ultimate dress watch. Yet, unlike the classic time-only Reference 96, the present one, which features a moon phase and triple-date calendar, was a game-changer at the time – it was a huge challenge for watchmakers to insert complications in such small and slim cases back in the 1930s.

Measuring 30mm in diameter, the wristwatch has an ébauche created by Victorin Piguet, the movement supplier that's best known for developing highly sophisticated pieces and intricate astronomical complications. It was produced during the downfall of the global economy in 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression, and therefore was never cased. With the unveiling of the Reference 96 as a novelty in 1932, the movement was further upgraded by the manufacturer and fitted into this present modernist platinum case with Bauhaus influences.

In addition to the present one, only seven Reference 96 with complete calendar were known, of which five are in platinum and two in yellow gold. Underscoring the rarity of the present piece, only two examples with the exact dial configuration – which includes an enamel Arbaic "Roulette" configuration – have ever surfaced. 

Both cased in platinum bearing consecutive movements numbers, one was sold in 1996 to a private collector; the other was purchased by Patek Phillipe for US$2 million in 2002 at Sotheby's and now become part of Patek Phillipe Museum collection.

Other artefacts once owned by Aisin-Gioro Puyi to be offered at Phillips' on 23 May:

Manuscript Notebook and Confucius’s Analects | Estimate: In Excess of HK$200,000 (US$25,000)

The book bears witness to the attachment that Puyi held for the traditional values and teachings of Confucius, the famed Chinese philosopher and politician of the Spring and Autumn period (770 to 481 BCE) who was and still is hailed as the paragon of Chinese sages.

It provides a never-before-seen glimpse into the mind of Puyi. For the five years that Puyi was in the Soviet Union, he penned miscellaneous notes on the books and magazines he read, with focus mainly on customs and daily life in China.

The Red Fan | Estimate: In Excess of HK$100,000 (US$12,000)

A gift to his interpreter in Tokyo, the fan is inscribed with a poem composed and penned in Chinese by Puyi himself, consisting of four lines of five syllables each, the English translation herewith:

It is not dawn yet at the courtyard,
the moonlight seeps through the south window.
Sitting together by the lamp,
the long silent mood endures.
Dedicated to my comrade Bie’ermiankuofu (Permyakov) in Tokyo on 19 August 1946, by Aisin-Gioro Puyi.

Also accompanying the watch are fifteen watercolour paintings attributed to Puyi’s brother-in-law Runqi, depicting various aspects of Chinese culture and rural scenes.

Gobulo Runqi | Chinese Scientist | Estimate: In Excess of HK$20,000 (US$2,500)

Gobulo Runqi | The Dragon Lantern Dance | Estimate: In Excess of HK$20,000 (US$2,500)

Gobulo Runqi | Playing in the classroom (private primary school) | Estimate: In Excess of HK$20,000 (US$2,500)

Gobulo Runqi | Lunar New Year | Estimate: In Excess of HK$20,000 (US$2,500)

Gobulo Runqi | Three works:(i) Arch of chastity and filial piety; (ii) The Great Wall;(iii) Temple of Heaven, Beijing
Estimate: In Excess of HK$30,000 (US$3,800)

Gobulo Runqi, Three works:(i) The Boat Dwellers; (ii) Boats;(iii) Sailing on the Yangtze River
Estimate: In Excess of HK$30,000 (US$3,800)

Gobulo Runqi | Three works:(i) Cloudy and Rainy Weather; (ii) Watermelon stall, Noodles stall;(iii) Hairdressing, Cart
Estimate: In Excess of HK$30,000 (US$3,800)

Gobulo Runqi | Two works:(i) Jewelry store tower, The May Banner; (ii) Tea house and shops
Estimate: In Excess of HK$20,000 (US$2,500)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: The Imperial Patek Philippe Sale
Date and Time: 23 May 2023 | 7pm (Hong Kong Local Time)

International Tour:

  • 20-22 April | Singapore – The St. Regis Hotel, 29 Tanglin Rd
  • 26-28 April | London – 30 Berkeley Square
  • 6-7 May | Taipei – Bellavita, B1 Art Gallery, Bellavita, No.28, Songren Rd., Xinyi District
  • 10-14 May | Geneva – Hôtel La Réserve, 301 Route de Lausanne, Geneva
  • 18-23 May | Hong Kong – G/F, WKCDA Tower Cultural District, 8 Austin Rd W, Kowloon, Hong Kong