‘It was a match made in heaven,’ says John Reardon, International Head of Christie’s Watch Department, of a timepiece owned by the baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. ‘He was the superstar of American sport and this was a superstar of watches.’ The Patek Philippe Reference 130 offered on 7 December in New York was owned by DiMaggio for more than 50 years.
This 18 carat gold chronograph wristwatch immediately attracts attention for its applied gold Breuget numerals, beautifully set against the silvered dial. ‘The fact that these numerals were Arabic, rather than Roman, shows that the piece was specifically made for American tastes,’ explains Reardon. ‘The likes of Howard Hughes and [aviation pioneer] William Boeing were especially fond of them, and they helped start a trend on this side of the Atlantic, whereas in Europe watches still tended to bear Roman numerals.’
Over the course of its 178-year existence, Patek Philippe has developed a reputation for excellence, and the Reference 130 is regarded as one of its landmark models. For the record, it also counts as the first chronograph to be given a reference number.
A few dozen with this dial configuration were made in the middle of the 20th century, but few are as well-preserved today as the 1947 example coming to Christie’s Evening of Exceptional Watches auction. It even boasts what appears to still be the original strap that was worn around DiMaggio’s wrist.
Details of the original purchase are something of a mystery, specifically whether the baseball player nicknamed ‘Joltin’ Joe’ bought the watch himself or — as some suggest — received it as a gift from the owners of the New York Yankees, the team for which he starred.
‘What we do know,’ confirms Reardon, ‘is that it was acquired, new, in 1948, and remained in DiMaggio’s possession until his death in March 1999 [aged 84]. This watch represented style and elegance — and confirmed to anyone who saw him wearing it that, outside the baseball stadium as much as inside it, he was the best of the best.’
The eighth child of Sicilian immigrants, DiMaggio was born in California in 1914. Rejecting a career alongside his father as a fisherman, he went on to have Major League (ML) success with the Yankees in the late 1930s and early 1940s as a hitter. In 1941 he set an ML record for a 56-game hit streak — a record that still stands today.
‘At the time he received or acquired the watch, DiMaggio was at the height of his career. Not long afterwards he met and married Marilyn Monroe’ — John Reardon
Once the United States joined the Allied side in the Second World War, DiMaggio volunteered for service, spending three years as a sergeant in the Army Air Corps. Returning to the Yankees in 1946 as a war hero, he soon won the MVP (Most Valuable Player) award for the third time in his career. He retired in 1951, having won a hugely impressive nine World Series titles in just 13 full seasons of Major League baseball.
‘At the time he received or acquired the watch, he was at the height of his career,’ says Reardon. ‘Not long afterwards, he met and married Marilyn Monroe — and it’s easy to imagine DiMaggio going out for an elegant dinner with her in New York, say, or Los Angeles, and wearing this watch on his wrist. The Patek Philippe 130 was, after all, synonymous with good taste and the finer things in life.’
Earlier this year, the piece was one of the highlights of The Art of Watches, Grand Exhibition in New York, a show of the finest watches ever made by Patek Philippe. Spread over 10 rooms and 13,000 square feet, the exhibition was held at Cipriani 42nd Street in midtown Manhattan. The ‘Di Maggio 130’ proved such a hit that its owner subsequently decided to bring it to the market. (It was last offered for sale in 2006, as part of a public auction of DiMaggio’s personal belongings.)
‘The DiMaggio connection is clearly very important,’ says Reardon, ‘but this is a stunning piece in its own right, which is the main reason he possessed it in the first place. The Patek 130 is an absolute icon of vintage production.’