Historic watch owned by last Chinese emperor auctioned for $6mn

Mr Puyi's watch, while historically significant, is far from the most expensive timepiece ever sold on the auction block

By
Web Desk
The Patek Philippe Ref 96 Quantieme Lune timepiece once owned by Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the Chinese Qing dynasty’s last emperor (R), is seen on display in Hong Kong on May 23, 2023, ahead of its auction in the territory on the same day.—AFP
The Patek Philippe Ref 96 Quantieme Lune timepiece once owned by Aisin-Gioro Puyi, the Chinese Qing dynasty’s last emperor (R), is seen on display in Hong Kong on May 23, 2023, ahead of its auction in the territory on the same day.—AFP 

In a notable auction held in Hong Kong, a Patek Philippe wristwatch that once belonged to China's final emperor, Aisin-Gioro Puyi, was sold for over $6 million. 

The timepiece, known as the Ref 96 Quantieme Lune, features a distinctive moon phase resembling a crown and carries historical significance as it was worn by the last monarch of the Chinese Qing dynasty.

Puyi, who ascended to the throne at the tender age of two in 1908, gained global recognition through Bernardo Bertolucci's critically acclaimed film "The Last Emperor." However, his legacy remains complex. After being forced to abdicate, he later became a puppet leader in Japanese-occupied Manchuria until his capture in 1945 following Japan's defeat, leading to his internment in a Soviet prison camp.

British auction house Phillips provided documentation confirming that Puyi brought the watch with him to the camp. Initially expected to fetch around $3 million, the bidding for the timepiece became heated and concluded after approximately five minutes, with a final sale price of HK$40 million ($5.1 million). Accounting for the buyer's premium fee, the total amount reached approximately $6.2 million.

Thomas Perazzi, Phillips' head of watches in Asia, expressed his enthusiasm for the groundbreaking sale, which set various records, including "the highest result of any Patek Philippe reference 96 ever sold," as stated in a press release. The Ref 96, known for its understated design compared to typical luxury pieces, marked the first serially produced "complication wristwatch" by Patek Philippe. Currently, only three examples of this watch are known to exist worldwide.

According to the memoir of Puyi's nephew, Aisin-Gioro Yuyuan, the watch held personal significance for the deposed emperor, who entrusted it to his Russian interpreter, Georgy Permyakov, for safekeeping upon leaving the prison camp. Russell Working, a journalist who interviewed Permyakov over two decades ago, revealed that the elderly interpreter had no idea of the watch's value when he retrieved it from his drawer. Working, part of the auction house's research team, likened the emergence of the watch after all these years to stumble upon a treasure chest washed up on a beach.

Additionally, a red paper fan inscribed with a poem by Puyi dedicated to Permyakov was also included in the auction. Surpassing its pre-sale estimate sixfold, the fan fetched over $77,800.

While Mr Puyi's watch holds significant historical value, it falls short of being the most expensive timepiece ever sold at auction. In 2019, a Patek Philippe "Grandmaster Chime" commanded a staggering $31 million. Regarded as the most intricate watch ever created by the luxury watchmaker, it boasts 20 complications.