Patek Philippe's first-ever automatic watch fetches over US$700,000 in Hong Kong, a new auction record

Patek Philippe's reference 2526 needs no introduction and is arguably one of the greatest time-only watches of all time. The first automatic watch ever introduced by the prestigious Maison, it was designed to be extraordinary from the outset – new movement, exemplary finishing, and fitted with enamel dials of the highest quality.

During this Hong Kong auction week, an 18-karat yellow gold 2526 crossed the block at Sotheby's. This 36 mm timepiece, however, is not just any reference 2526 – it is the first example ever made, with movement number 760000. Engraved on its case back are the words, "The First Self Winding Patek Philippe Made Especially For J.B. Champion," one of the brand's most important clients. 

Estimated between HK$3 and 6 million, the historical timepiece eventually changed hands for HK$5.7 million (around US$732,690) on 7 April, becoming the most expensive reference 2526 ever sold at auction.

Lot 2224 | Patek Philippe | Reference 2526, Yellow gold wristwatch with enamel dial and bracelet
Made in 1952 and sold to J.B. Champion in June 1953
Size: 36 mm diameter, bracelet circumference approximately 170 mm
Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,500,000
Sold: HK$5,715,000 (around US$732,690)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Important Watches I
Date: 7 April 2024

When the reference 2526 was made in 1952 and introduced in Basel in 1953, it was Patek Philippe's first self-winding watch. It is a time-only watch, with the finely crafted calibre 12-600 AT ticking away inside. The dial was chosen to be made of luxurious enamel as Patek Philippe wanted a medium that was not susceptible to oxidation and moisture damage.

Research has shown that only 3,000 watches were made by the time they ceased production in 1960. Many of the watches are believed to be still in the hands of private collectors or lost, as only 459 reference 2526 watches have ever re-surfaced, including 320 in yellow gold, 95 in pink gold, 21 in white gold, and 23 platinum. 

Those included two examples from the Andy Warhol collection: one cased in pink gold double-signed Serpico Y Laino, which sold for US$101,600 at Sotheby's New York in 2023, and one cased in yellow gold with Breguet numerals​​​​.

Another pink gold example, with a black enamel dial, set the previous auction record for the reference at HK$5.25 million (US$679,474) when it was sold at Christie's Hong Kong in 2021.

The Andy Warhol reference 2526 | Sold: US$101,600, Sotheby's New York, 2023

An 18k pink gold reference 2526 with black enamel dial Ref. 2526 | Sold: HK$5,250,000, Christie's Hong Kong, 2021

The present 2526 was saved specifically for Texas-born criminal defence attorney J.B. Champion (1917-1975), arguably Patek Philippe's most important collector of this period.

His mid-century collection has fascinated modern-day collectors, but regrettably, there exists no published list of all the watches he owned. It has been believed that he had somewhere between 10 to 20 wristwatches and pocket watches, all from Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. He purchased most of his watches from Linz Bros in Texas and the Henri Stern Agency in New York. 

This wristwatch was delivered to Champion in the summer of 1953, some months after the Basel Fair, since the Henri Stern Agency would like to gauge the reference's popularity. And the model ultimately proved timeless, enchanting generations of timepiece collectors with its simplistic elegance.  

The screw-down case, bracelet, clasp, enamel dial, and 36mm case size lend the watch modern wearability without overshadowing the vintage charm and bonafide. Since it is the earliest model and the earliest movements were fitted with a bi-metallic compensation balance instead of a gyromax balance, it stands out not just for its good looks but for the uncommon structure within.

Details of the present lot

The back of the present lot

The watch is accompanied by a letter from Werner Sonn, the president of the Henri Stern Agency at the time, confirming the elite provenance of the timepiece

The timepiece came with a letter from Werner Sonn, the president of the Henri Stern Agency at the time, confirming its provenance and the fact that it is the Maison's first self-winding wristwatch.

It made its first appearance on the market at Antiquorum in Geneva in 1991, when it fetched CHF 32,200. Later, it was again sold by Antiquorum in New York in 1998, for US$57,500. 

Now, more than two decades after its auction debut, Champion's reference 2526 remains in good and original condition – except that the current owner has swapped the braided "C" bracelet, as seen on Antiquorum's auction catalogue, for an "A" bracelet. 

The present watch first appeared on the market at Antiquorum in 1991 when it was paired with a braided "C" bracelet


J.B. Champion's Patek Philippe reference 2458 with "Bulletin de Marcé" movement | Sold: CHF 3.8 million, Christie's Geneva, 2012

J.B. Champion's Patek Philippe reference 824 with "Bulletin de Marcé" movement | Sold: CHF 50,000, Phillips Geneva, 2015

Over the last thirty years, only three of J.B. Champion's watches, all made for him, have appeared on the market. 

In addition to the present one, there was a platinum observatory watch reference 2458, notable for chronometer movement 861115 which received the "Bulletin de Marché” and twice stamped Geneva seal. It was sold at Christie's Geneva in 2012 for a jaw-dropping CHF 3.8 million, then an auction record for a wristwatch without a complication.

The last was a reference 824 gold pocketwatch with another "Bulletin de Marché” movement, which fetched CHF 7,768 at Christie's Geneva in 2004 and later CHF 50,000 at Phillips Geneva in 2015