From left Henry Graves Jr. and the collector’s gold Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch — thought to be the first minute repeating wristwatch ever made by Patek Philippe. Reprinted

Henry Graves Jr.: one of the most important watch collectors of all time

As a split-seconds chronograph ref. 1436 from the collection of Henry Graves Jr. comes to auction, we profile the one-time influential patron of the leading luxury watch manufacturer Patek Philippe

Henry Graves Jr. is best known for owning what was, for 56 years between 1933 and 1989, the most complicated watch the world had ever seen.

Originating from a bid to outdo fellow watch collector James Ward Packard, the automobile manufacturer from Ohio, the watch cost Graves CHF60,000 (US$15,000) — nearly five times more than the sum offered by his rival — and took eight years to design and manufacture.

On 19 January 1933, Graves emerged the winner, taking delivery of the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, a pocket watch with 24 functions including a celestial chart that displayed the stars in the Milky Way above his Manhattan home at 834 Fifth Avenue.

The Henry Graves Jr. Patek Philippe Supercomplication. Photo Courtesy Denis Balibouse

The Henry Graves Jr. Patek Philippe Supercomplication. Photo: Courtesy Denis Balibouse

The watch has since been re-sold three times, first to the now-defunct Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois, then for an auction record of $11,002,500 in New York (to the late Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani of Qatar), and finally in 2014 for CHF23.2 million (US$24 million) in Geneva, re-setting the record for the most expensive timepiece ever auctioned.

There’s more to the Henry Graves Jr. story than the Supercomplication, however. In fact, he is thought to have ordered some 30 unique watches from Patek Philippe, and today he is remembered as one of the most important watch collectors of all time.

Henry Graves Jr., American aristocracy

Henry Graves Jr. was born on 11 March 1868 in Orange, New Jersey, the son of a prominent financier.

Based in New York City, Graves and his wife Florence also had properties in Irvington on the Hudson River and on Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, where they spent their holidays with their four children.

Henry Graves Jr. and Patek Philippe

The river and lake afforded Graves the opportunity to indulge in one of his greatest passions — boating. He also collected Old Master prints, Albrecht Dürer’s Adam and Eve  among them.

More than anything else, however, he loved watches, particularly those made by Patek Philippe, the Swiss horology giant celebrated the world over for the precision and style of its luxury watches, its illustrious clients and sky-high prices. (Of the top 10 watches sold at auction, eight were made by Patek Philippe, using the most brilliant craftsmen, mathematicians and astronomers.)

In return, Graves’ patronage of the company was so significant that it would help to keep it afloat after the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

Of the 30 watches Graves commissioned from Patek Philippe between 1922 and 1951, 15 are known to have survived, most of them now at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.

The HGJ PP minute repeater

One of Graves’ earliest orders for Patek Philippe was a yellow-gold tonneau-shaped minute-repeating wristwatch, which he acquired on 16 June 1928 — after crossing the Atlantic on RMS Olympic, sister ship to the Titanic — while signing off the final drawings for the Supercomplication.

Engraved on the case back with the Graves family crest and motto Esse Quam Videri  (‘To be rather than to seem’), the yellow-gold model sold for CHF4,575,000 on 11 November 2019 at Christie’s in Geneva.

The Graves family motto, Esse Quam Videri, which translates as ‘To be rather than to seem’

The Graves family motto, Esse Quam Videri, which translates as ‘To be rather than to seem’

Not only was this Graves’ first Patek Philippe wristwatch, it is also thought to have been the first minute-repeating wristwatch made by Patek Philippe. (Wristwatches were still a relatively new invention at the time, and of the only three dozen minute repeaters made by the company in the 1920s and 1930s, Graves owned three, including a platinum cushion-shaped minute-repeating wristwatch with Breguet numerals that sold for CHF1,205,000 in 2014 at Christie’s in Geneva.)

Almost 4cm long, the gold watch was also huge, even by today’s standards, while the sound of the minute-repeating mechanism was enhanced by the relative softness and malleability of the metal, in comparison to platinum. More to the point, Graves is known to have actually worn it.

‘For watch collectors, owning a piece from Henry Graves Jr.’s collection is the ultimate grail,’ says Alex Bigler, Head of Watches for Christie’s Asia Pacific. 

The HGJ PP pocket watch no. 198’311

Five years later, Graves commissioned a pocket watch from Patek Philippe, the platinum open-face one-minute tourbillon no. 198'311, which was subsequently entered in the Geneva Astronomical Observatory Timing Contest of 1933 and awarded first prize with a record 872.2 points.

Delivered on 29 July 1935, it, too, was engraved on the case back with the Graves coat-of-arms and motto, and presented in a wooden box inlaid with a mother-of-pearl shield that replicated the family crest.

When it was offered at Christie’s in Geneva on 17 November 2008, the 198’311 was one of three known Patek Philippe tourbillon watches made for Graves — including no. 198’427, which sold on 18 May 2004 at Christie’s in Geneva for CHF2,252,000 — and the only known and confirmed watch made for the collector that was not housed or held in Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva. It sold for CHF843,000.

The HGJ PP split-seconds chronograph ref. 1436

In 1946, 13 years after purchasing the Supercomplication, Graves ordered another immensely complex watch, an 18K gold split-seconds chronograph wristwatch with Breguet numerals, which he acquired one year later.

The split-seconds chronograph is considered one of the three most challenging complications in watchmaking, and ref.1436 is highly coveted by collectors as Patek Philippe’s first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch produced in series. It was introduced to the market in 1938 and discontinued in 1971, and only 140 examples of the reference were made.

‘One of the brightest stars of an exceptional private watch collection, with the strongest provenance’ – Alex Bigler

The ref. 1436 offered at auction in November features gold Breguet numerals, which are often considered the most attractive dial variation, and thought to be the least common for this reference, with most examples featuring baton numerals or a combination of baton and Arabic. To date, just over a dozen ref. 1436 models have surfaced featuring a Breguet dial, including this one that last appeared at auction over a decade ago.

‘We are extremely honoured to offer this world-class trophy watch to our international clients, collectors and all admirers of Patek Philippe,’ says Bigler. ‘It is seen as one of the brightest stars of an exceptional private watch collection, with the strongest provenance and desirability.’

A phenomenal ref. 2497 watch owned by HGJ’s grandson

After Graves died in 1953 at the age of 85, his collection passed to his daughter and thence to her son, Reginald H. Fullerton Jr., who complemented his grandfather’s collection with another significant reference.

Regarded as the prototype for reference 2497, this watch is also of historical importance in the wider context of the development of the complicated wristwatches of Patek Philippe’s ‘golden age’ in the 1950s. Mr Fullerton Jr., the grandson of the firm’s most famous client, Henry Graves Jr., purchased it new from the Patek Philippe Salon in Geneva. The provenance is therefore considered irreproachable in the world of Patek Philippe.

The Reginald H. Fullerton Jr. ref. 2497 was the very watch that was displayed on the Patek Philippe stand at the Basel Fair in 1953, to promote the new model. Fast forward to 27 November 2021, when it will be presented for the second time only at auction, with an estimate of HK$13,200,000-23,500,000 (US$1,700,000-3,000,000).