A Chinese collector snaps up the last emperor of China's Patek Philippe watch at US$6.2m

The anticipation was palpable when Phillips Hong Kong revealed earlier this year that it will auction off a Patek Philippe Ref. 96 that once graced the wrist of China's last emperor, Puyi. Its historic significance caused a stir in the watch industry and beyond, with many wondering about how much it could sell for in today's market.

The eagerly awaited moment finally arrived today (23 May), as the watch hit the block at Phillips' new Aisa headquarters in Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District. In a packed saleroom full of audience, the lot went to an Asian collector residing in Hong Kong for HK$48.9 million (around US$6.26 million) with fees.

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. 

Lot 3 | Patek Philippe | Ref. 96QL, A platinum triple date wristwatch with small seconds, moon phases, roulette-dial, enamel Arabic numerals, pink gold Feuille hands
Manufactured in 1937
Diameter: 30mm
Estimate: In excess of HK$25,000,000 (US$3 million)
Hammer Price: HK$40,000,000
Sold: HK$48,850,000 (around US$6.26 million)

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: The Imperial Patek Philippe Sale
Date: 23 May 2023

The evening's auctioneer, Thomas Perazzi, Phillips Asia's Head of Watches, started the bidding at HK$18 million and saw six collectors vie for the lot through telephones. 

As the hammer was about to come down at HK$31 million after seven bids, a determined bidder represented by Gertrude Wong (Co-Head of Sale, Specialist, Watches) suddenly jumped it to HK$40 million in a single bid, not bothering with the HK$3 million increments.

Seeing no further paddle raised, the auctioneer tried to coax a higher bid, saying, "Perhaps it's a good strategy to raise the gavel up," but still to no avail. After a few more minutes of patient waiting, the watch went to Wong's client with paddle number 1015, selling for HK$48.85 million (around US$6.26 million) with fees.

The lot was hammered at HK$40 million

Gertrude Wong won the lot for her client with paddle number 1015

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. 

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.

The last Emperor of the Qing dynasty, Aisin-Gioro Puyi

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 Permyakov. 

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. 

Georgy Permyakov sitting behind Aisin-Gioro Puyi at The Tokyo Trials

Georgy Permyakov

Beyond the royal provenance, the wristwatch alone is incredibly rare and is horologically important to Patek Philippe. 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: one was purchased by Patek Phillipe for US$2 million in 2002 at Sotheby's; another was sold in 1996 to a private collector.

Advertisement of the Patek Philippe Ref. 96QL when it was launched in 1937

To establish the provenance of the present lot, Phillips undertook a three-year investigation into its origins, with mainly three parties confirming its backstory: an analysis established by London laboratory ArtDiscovery, two journalists that had interviewed Permyakov, and a formerly researcher of the Palace Museum of the Manchurian Regime.

After Phillips had been consigned with the artefacts, these lots were sent to ArtDiscovery, a laboratory that uses radiocarbon dating and microscopic examination to confirm the age of the fan, notebook, watercolours, and other objects. The lab also conducted a literary and stylistic analysis, looking for the hand of Puyi and his brother-in-law in the writing and paintings, which confirmed the provenance.

Lot 1 | Aisin-Gioro Puyi | The Red Fan
Created in 1946
19 x 33.2 cm
Estimate: In excess of HK$100,000 (US$12,000)
Hammer Price: HK$480,000
Sold: HK$609,600 (around US$78,153)

Lot 2 | Aisin-Gioro Puyi | Manuscript Notebook, Ink and colour on paper
Executed in circa 1950
Manuscript Notebook: 20.5 x 17 cm; Confucius’s Analects: 10.3 x 7 cm
Estimate: In excess of HK$200,000 (US$25,000)
Hammer Price: HK$750,000
Sold: HK$952,000 (around US$122,051)

Next, Phillips found the husbandwife team of journalists, Russell and Nonna Working, who had travelled all way to Russia and interviewed Permyakov for an article published in the South China Morning Post in May 2001. 

According to Phillips, the couple still have the original negatives of Russell’s photos of Puyi’s notebook, the fan, and the watch arrayed together on Permyakov’s desk, which evidenced that the mementos had belonged to Permyakov.

A photo showing Permyakov’s desk, with Puyi's notebook, the fan, and the watch arrayed together

While researching Chinese sources, Phillips also looked into the writings of Mr. Wang Wenfeng, formerly researcher of the Palace Museum of the Manchurian Regime,  the only institute specialising in Puyi’s studies.

Having devoted his scholarly life to Puyi since 1982, Wang found through the memoirs by Puyi's family that the emperor had given his interpreter the watch, mentioning Permyakov by name.

He had also interviewed many members of Puyi's family, and one conversation with Puyi's personal attendant, Li Guoxiong, solved the mystery of the dial.

One day in their Soviet prison camp, Puyi asked Li to remove the surface of the watch dial to check if it was made of platinum, the servant recalled. When he saw that the surface was not platinum, Puyi told Li to stop.