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‘My highlight of 2017’ — Jacqueline Kennedy’s Cartier Tank watch

John Reardon, International Head of Watches, reflects on the emotive links to the past that a timepiece can offer — a connection sought by the bidders who pushed this iconic lot to six times its low estimate when it was sold in New York in June

‘In the world of auctions, you never know what adventure is about to begin when the telephone rings,’ says John Reardon, Head of Christie’s watch department. ‘This one began with a client claiming to own a Cartier Tank watch that once belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Despite my initial scepticism, when I saw it first-hand I was convinced.’

The watch had been presented to the First Lady by her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw ‘Stas’ Radziwill, in 1963. The gift commemorated a 50-mile hike the pair had completed with friends in Palm Beach as part of an initiative set up by her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to get American citizens to become more active. On the reverse it bears an inscription in Stas’s handwriting that reads ‘Stas to Jackie, 23 Feb. 1963. 2.05am to 9.35pm’, detailing the time taken to complete the trek (including requested steak, champagne and cigarette breaks) — a respectable 19 hours and 30 minutes.

Cartier. A fine and historically important 18k gold square-shaped wristwatch, belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Signed Cartier, Tank model, movement no. 2117860, case no. 44374, manufactured in 1962, accompanied by an original painting by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Sold for $379,500 on 21 June 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Cartier. A fine and historically important 18k gold square-shaped wristwatch, belonging to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Signed Cartier, Tank model, movement no. 2'117'860, case no. 44374, manufactured in 1962, accompanied by an original painting by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Sold for $379,500 on 21 June 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore the watch for decades — it can be seen on her wrist in many of her most famous photographs. Along with the watch the lot also included a painting she made of Stas and John F. Kennedy’s friend Chuck Spalding, with a similar handwritten dedication.

‘It was a great pleasure to share the story of this watch with others,’ Reardon says. ‘Whether in Hong Kong or Geneva, people remember the Kennedy family with fondness and respect.’

‘It was difficult to say goodbye to such an iconic piece — a poignant reminder of an era when style, grace and subtlety ruled the day’

The watch was the grand finale of a 250-lot sale on 21 June in New York. ‘There were almost a dozen telephone bidders anxious for the chance to own this piece of horological history,’ explains Reardon. 'One by one they relinquished as the price soared past the $60,000-$120,000 estimate, until the hammer fell and the watch sold for a staggering $379,500.’ A typical Cartier Tank watch from the era today costs in the region of $6,000 to $10,000.

‘At the end of the day, it was difficult to say goodbye to such an iconic piece, especially when it’s a poignant reminder of an era when style, grace and subtlety ruled the day,’ says Reardon. ‘It was an era that had Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at its core.’