A unique Cartier jade “Water Clock” sells for 7 times its estimate for US$2m at Phillips Hong Kong

On May 24th Phillips Hong Kong held the first day of its two-day XVIII Watch Auction. However, fine watches were not the only luxury items up for auction, as two unique Cartier clocks integrated into rare Chinese antiques made their way to the sale. These unique blends of Eastern antiques with Western watchmaking surpassed expectations fetching prices well beyond original estimates.

The first of these two antiques, and by far the top-selling lot of the day, is a one-of-a-kind “water clock” built into a Ming or Qing era jade basin, and whose time-telling mechanic is based on the ancient Chinese “south-pointing fish” compass. After a bidding war that lasted nearly half an hour the clock’s final price, with fees, soared to HK$15 million (around US$2 million), more than seven times its original estimation.

The other Cartier clock-antique hybrid, a jade screen from the Qing Dynasty, sold for roughly five times its estimate at US$373,957 including commission. Both clocks were made in the late 1920s and were last seen in public in 1990, having both been in the same private collection.

The auctioning of the rare Cartier “water clock”, whose sale far surpassed estimations

Lot 933 | Cartier | A unique, historically important and exquisite marble, silver, lapis lazuli, nephrite, coral, mother-of-pearl, enamel and jade “water clock” with original presentation box

Manufactured circa 1929
Diameter of Jade Bowl: approximately 20cm
Diameter of Base: approximately 22cm
Overall Height of Clock including Chimera: approximately 18cm
Case Number: 1934 and 1820

  • Christie’s New York Three Magnificent Art Deco Clocks, April 25, 1990, lot 341

Estimate: in excess of HK$2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,970,000 (around US$2 million)

Auctioneer Thomas Perazzi (Phillips’ Head of Watches in Asia) started bidding for the Cartier jade “water clock” at its pre-sale estimate of HK$2 million. This kicked off a bidding war with bidders in-person and on the telephone constantly driving up the price. In written bids alone the price had already hit HK$3.5 million. However, the bidding atmosphere would continue in intensity, even after surpassing the HK$10 million mark.

Nearing the end of the bidding war it would come down to the telephone bidders represented by Pansy Ku (Phillips’ International Director of Business Development for the Watches Department) Meiling Lee (Head of Modern and Contemporary Art in Asia). In the end, the auctioneer hammered down the price of HK$12 million, with Pansy Ku winning her client, with the paddle number “2004” the lot. Meiling Lee’s client became the underbidder (the runner-up).

Pansy Ku here won the bid for her client on the phone, while Meiling Lee and her client became the underbidder in this contest

This one-of-a-kind jade “water clock” features a unique time-keeping device and stunning jewelry. The blending of these elements led Cartier to describe this as one of their most precious pieces, and former Christie’s jewelry expert Hans Nadelhoffer to describe it as “the version most refined."

At its core it features a jade basin used for cleaning calligraphy brushes. Such jade wash basins were popular amongst China’s poets and artists as their luxurious styling outweighed any practical usefulness the material might give.

It further features a unique creature from Chinese folklore whose emotive facial expression sets it apart from various other similar wash basins with these auspicious creatures. Most other creatures featured on jade basins or washers lack such facial vividness further adding to the uniqueness of this piece.

The auspicious animal comes from Chinese folklore often representing food fortune. While it may have lost meaning to modern society, as a motif it has lasted well over two thousand years as a symbol of China. Cartier’s designers have tastefully added gems and enamel to the mythological creature seamlessly blending design tastes. 

A similar jade wash basin with an auspicious animal from the Qing Court | National Palace Museum in Taipei

Further added to the piece are fine jewels some of which are used on the rim of the basin to tell the time. It also sits on a wonderfully made marble base specially built with a concealed magnetic system used to operate the ingenious time system.

Inspired by the “south-pointing fish” compass of dynastic China, the hidden system drags the fish past the jewels on the rim of the basin, telling the time. This ingenious system highlights the deep mechanical integration and the thoughtfulness put into creating this clock blending not just Chinese and French design tastes but the systems that enable the clock’s function.

This piece has been highly praised by Cartier and those familiar with the brand’s history. It was praised by the company as some of their master watchmaker Maurice Couët’s best work. Having last been seen in the 1990s those who wished to know more about the clock were relegated to Cartier’s archival pictures of it. It’s dominating performance and Phillip’s sale is sure to be added to the work’s illustrious mythology.

Lot 934 | Cartier | A unique jade panel and yellow gold table clock set with emeralds, pearls, rubies and sapphires, carved landscape after Dong Bang Da’s landscape painting with Imperial poem written by Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong, 8 day movement by European Watch & Clock Co. Inc and engraved wooden stand
Manufactured circa 1930
Jade Screen: Height 14.5cm, Length 17.5cm
Jade Screen with Carved Wood Frame: Height 17.5cm, Length 20cm
Case Number: 31034 and 31358

  • Christie's St. Moritz, February 21 1990, lot 292

Estimate: in excess of HK$500,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,300,000
Sold: HK$2,921,000 (around US$374,000)

Another jade piece on offer was a unique jade screen table clock carved with a Chinese classical landscape. It was won by Paul Boutros (Phillip’s Head of Watches in the Americas) on behalf of his client with the paddle number “2069.” The hammer price was US$294,452, roughly 4.5 times more than the estimated price.

The jade screen is a beautiful design with the etching being that of a Dong Bangda (1699-1769) landscape painting. Dong Bangda was a famous painter of the era whose achievements in the world of art earned him a valuable position in the Qing government. Samples of his work have sold well in the past with Bamboo Grove in Light Drizzle selling for over US$ 5.01 million.

Dong Bangda | Bamboo Grove in Light Drizzle | Sold: over US$5.01 million, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2023

The painting that forms the base of this jade screen, Part 2: Flying Spring on the Stone Wall, is yet to be found, but it does indeed bear strong similarities to other Dong Bangda works of art found elsewhere. The landscape composition and overall style support the fact that it is indeed a work of Dong Bangda, as seen with the painting below bearing similarities.

A Dong Bangda painting depicting a man rowing a boat by the cliffside | National Palace Museum in Taipei

Also etched into the painting is a poem by the Qianlong Emperor. The concept of writing poems about pieces of art that the emperor of China appreciated was a long-standing tradition in the dynastic era and seemingly practiced here as well in the case of the screen. The poem reads:

                    Fu Ping Water Curtain Cave, the road is far away before you can see it.

                    The towering height of the stone wall, and waterfalls hanging after the rain.

To have a poem written about a piece of art was a great honour for the artist and could be seen as a mark of distinction on the work.

Tastefully added to the piece would be an array of gems and gold. Seemingly careful not to disrupt or distract from the preexisting essence of the jade screen, the Cartier designers in the 1920s, were careful only to add these jewels to further accentuate things like leaves or branches already etched into the work.

These fine jewels would be joined by a clock in the top left corner encircled by five-clawed dragons. This selection of a dragon was not random as it has for centuries represented imperial China. The five-clawed dragon in particular was a symbol to be exclusively used by the Ming and Qing emperors, the latter of which the Qianlong emperor ruled.

The research done by Cartier into Chinese culture, especially during the dynastic era shines in this clock. The tasteful blending of Eastern and Western design sensibilities is owed to how well Cartier understood the symbology of the Qing dynasty and the beauty of the Dong Bangda landscape.

Lot 862 | Patek Phillipe | Reference 767 | A yellow gold minute repeating perpetual calendar double-split chronograph open-faced keyless pocket watch with “modern” style case, leap year indicator, applied Arabic numerals, French calendar, moon phases and presentation box
Made in: 1950 and sold in July 1952
Diameter: 50mm
Movement Number: 861'184
Case Number: 669'816
Estimate: HK$3,200,000 - 6,400,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,130,000 (around US$1.3 million)

The second strongest lot of the sale was a Patek Phillipe golden pocket watch with minute repeating, perpetual calendar, and double-split chronograph features. It sold for just around HK$10.1 million (around US$1.3 million). Bidding started around HK$3 million with at least five different bidders attracted by the golden watch. Bidders from around the world including those from Switzerland and Turkey joined in on the action.

Bidding initially stopped roughly around HK$7.5 million before the auctioneer; Aurel Bacs (Senior Watch Consultant) lowered the next bidding increment from HK$500,000 to US$250,000. This reignited the bidding war until Thomas Perazzi (Phillip’s Head of Watches in Asia) won the watch for his client on the telephone with the paddle number “2079.”

Thomas Perazzi won the bid for his client on the phone

Patek Phillipe is known for commercializing the pocket watch around the mid-1800s. These early watches used to require keys to manually wind up until technological advancements made keys obsolete.

Patek Phillipe would also become renowned for making complex watches with multiple functions, including the No. 47'721 pink gold pocket watch, now at the Patek Phillipe Museum in Geneva. The minute repeater, perpetual calendar and chronograph became staples in Patek Phillipe watches.

With the turn to the 20th century, the Swiss brand began to focus more on the wristwatch side of the business. This was until the post-war period when they began remaking the high-complexity style pocket watches with modern processes and technology. The reference model 767 sold at the auction is a creation of this era.

An up-close image of the sold watch showcasing its detailed features including five hands in the centre, an hour, minute, chronograph, and two split hands

This series of watches found their origins in watch movements built in the 1920s and then placed in the gold cases in the 1950s. This series of watches was unique with each being slightly different. Some used Arabic and baton indexes, while others used lunar phases to sit at 12 o’clock.

To the knowledge of Phillips’ only seven of the references, 767 watches have ever been seen publicly. Each appearance highlights not just its rarity but the exquisite nature each of these watches has been built in. This watch in particular is the only known one with five hands mounted in the centre: hours, minutes, seconds, and two chronograph hands.

The watch itself being a double split chronograph is also incredibly special, as unlike a split chronograph which uses its two hands to time a single event with two different timing targets, this watch can hit three targets. This is made possible by superimposing three chronograph hands and having switches with multiple functions.

This watch in particular has a few more rare highlights, with it being the only known reference 767 with the calendar in French, it possibly being a custom model. Following some research the watch seemed to have spent some time in the hands of Seth G. Atwood an American industrialist and watch collector who founded the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois. In short, this truly is a museum-worthy piece whose history and quality were appreciated by bidders this Spring.

Lot 883 | Patek Phillipe | Reference 3700/1 | An exceedingly rare, historically important white gold wristwatch with “Royal Khanjar” dial, Gay Frères bracelet, date, Extract from the Archives and presentation box, retailed by Asprey, made as a personal gift from His Majesty the Sultan of Oman
Made in: 1978
Size: 42mm in diameter, 190mm bracelet length
Movement No: 1'306'579
Case No: 540'643
Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,200,000
Sold: HK$9,144,000 (around US$1.17 million)


The third best-selling lot of the day was another Patek Phillipe, specifically the Nautilus, the brand’s most popular sports watch. The reference 3700/1 in particular is a Nautilus “jumbo” made in 1978 and selling for over HK$9.1 million (around US$1.2 million) with commission.

Bidding started at HK$3 million and attracted four separate bidders into the competition. After a total of sixteen bids, Aurel Bacs won the watch for his client with the paddle number “2062.”  

The Nautilus is the brand’s most popular sports watch, having been first launched in 1976 by the late Swiss watchmaker Gérald Genta. The watch is made from stainless steel with a rounded case shaped to be like a ship’s porthole, and featuring grooved dials. When it first launched it was described by Patek Phillipe as the world’s most expensive stainless-steel watch.

However, what sets apart this watch is that it features the royal emblem of the Sultanate of Oman, the Janbiya Bo Sayfain. A Janbiya short sword sits between two swords just below the centre of the watch, along with a crown sitting over it. It is an incredibly rare configuration with it being only one of two ever seen in an auction. 

A close-up of the watch where the Royal Omani emblem is clearly viewable

These watches were commissioned by Sultan Qaboos Bin Said Al Said the ruler of Oman from 1970 to 2020. The Sultan had watches commissioned with both Patek Phillipe and Rolex to be awarded to members of the British Special Air Service (SAS) who served in the Dhofar War (1963-1976) and put down the insurgency in Oman’s south.

The thirteen-year-long war had heavy British involvement in their former protectorate and saw the British aid in the overthrow of the former Sultan Said bin Taimur in favour of his son, the future Sultan Qaboos. The role of the SAS soldiers with their expertise in counter-insurgency and the coup that overthrew his father allowed Sultan Qaboos to begin the modernization of Oman.

It was during this modernization when the Sultan Qaboos began forming a relationship with the Patek Phillipe. This personal relationship was rare amongst the royals of the world and was part of the Sultan’s more Western views, a byproduct of his education in Britain and service in the British Army. As such these watches symbolize a deep appreciation for the SAS and a reflection of his relationship with European luxury.

There were only a limited number of these Omani-styled watches, with of the ones known to market four done in stainless steel, four done in yellow gold, and three done in white gold. Of the three white gold ones, this is only one of two known watches with the Janbiya Bo Sayfain emblem, which all listed watches have, as well as the crown sitting on top of it, rapidly raising its rarity and historical value. 

This specific watch first appeared in 2016, and was sold by Phillips Geneva for roughly US$640,000. As such it has appreciated considerably since its previous sale six years ago.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 895 | Patek Phillipe | Reference 1463 | An extremely attractive, rare and well-preserved pink gold chronograph wristwatch with Gay Frères bracelet, Certificate of Origin and presentation box
Made in: 1970
Size: 35mm in diameter, 200mm bracelet length 
Movement No: 869'244
Case No: 2'615'216
Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,600,000
Sold: HK$3,302,000 (around US$423,000)

Lot 851 | Patek Phillipe | Reference 5271/ 12P-001 | An extremely rare and desirable platinum and ruby baguette-set perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases, leap year, day and night indication and additional solid caseback, single-sealed
Made in: 2015
Size: 41mm in diameter
Movement No: 5'957'992
Case No: 6'152'960
Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,600,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,000,000
Sold: HK$2,540,000 (around US$325,000)

Lot 890 | Patek Phillipe | Reference 5004P-033 | An extremely rare and desirable platinum and ruby baguette-set perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases, leap year, day and night indication and additional solid caseback, single-sealed
Made in: 2006
Size: 36.5mm in diameter
Movement No: 3'275'015
Case No: 4'238'916
Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,600,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,200,000
Sold: HK$2,794,000 (around US$358,000)

Lot 828 | Audemars Piguet | Reference 26611PT.OO.1220PT.01 | An exceptional, a rare limited edition platinum perpetual calendar wristwatch with salmon grande tapisserie dial, moon phases, leap year indication, bracelet, warranty and presentation box, one of a limited edition of 20 pieces, made to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Indonesia’s authorized dealer ‘The Time Place’
Made in: 2019
Size: 41mm in diameter, 195mm bracelet length
Case No: UG6235X
Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,900,000
Sold: HK$2,413,000 (around US$309,000)

Lot 820 | FP Journe | Vagabondage III A limited edition semi-skeletonized platinum tortue-shaped wristwatch with digital jump hours and seconds, power reserve indication, certificate and presentation box, numbered 37 of a limited edition of 69 pieces
Made in: 2017
Size: 45mm length x 37.7mm width
Case No: 37/69-VIII
Estimate: HK$780,000 - 1,560,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,650,000
Sold: HK$2,095,000 (around US$268,000)

Lot 822 | A. Lange & Söhne | Reference 142.055 | A limited edition honey gold wristwatch with semi-transparent dial, digital time display, power reserve indication, guarantee and presentation box, numbered 133 of a limited edition of 200 pieces
Made in: 2023
Size: 41.9mm in diameter
Movement No: 155'421
Case No: 254'633 and 133/200
Estimate: HK$780,000-1,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$ 1,550,000
Sold: HK$1,968,500 (around US$ 252,000)

Lot 819 | FP Journe | Chronomètre Bleu limited edition tantalum semi-skeletonized wristwatch with small seconds, certificate and presentation box, numbered 71 of a limited edition of 99 pieces made for the opening of the 10th F. P. Journe Boutique in Beirut
Made in: 2020
Size: 38mm diameter
Case No: 71/99 Byblos
Estimate: HK$470,000 - 800,000
Hammer Price: HK$1,500,000
Sold: HK$1,905,000 (around US$244,000) 

Lot 879 | Audemars Piguet | Reference 25810OR | A limited edition pink gold perpetual calendar wristwatch with moon phases, leap year, weekly indication, bracelet, certificate and presentation box, a limited edition of 120 pieces made to commemorate Audemars Piguet's 120th anniversary
Made in: 1995
Size: 39mm in diameter, 190mm bracelet length
Movement No: 437'935
Case No: D68'754
Estimate: HK$560,000 - 1,120,000

Hammer Price: HK$1,500,000
Sold: HK$1,905,000 (around US$244,000) 

Auction Details:

Auction House: Phillips Hong Kong
Sale: The Hong Kong Watch Auction: XVIII 24-25 May 2024 (Part One)
Date and Time: 24 May 2024, 02:00pm (Hong Kong Local Time) 
Lots: 133 (day 1)