Sir David Salomons (1851-1925) was a man of many and diverse interests – his home, north of Tunbridge Wells (of which he was mayor at one point) is now preserved as a museum, but during his lifetime, it was a hotbed of scientific and engineering research. Salomons was fascinated by electricity, and the house was one of the first to be equipped with electric lighting. Salomons had his own generator on the premises, and his workshops were equipped with thousands of machine tools; he was also the holder of patents relating to electric lighting, as well as various instruments and other electrical devices. Unsurprisingly, he was also interested in automobiles and aeronautics.
He was also obsessed with horology, and particularly, with the work of Abraham Louis Breguet, of whom he famously wrote, “To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a genius in your pocket.” (Which always makes me want to follow up with, “and the heart of a saint in a jar of formaldehyde under the bed,” but perhaps this is not the time to be irreverent). Over the course of his lifetime, he amassed the single greatest collection of Breguet clocks and watches anyone has ever assembled, which included many of Breguet’s most famous works, such as the “Duc de Praslin” watch, which he donated to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, in 1924; it is the second most complicated watch Breguet ever made. It is, however, much less well known than the single most famous watch Salomons ever owned, which is of course Breguet no. 160, better known as the “Marie Antoinette” grand complication. Salomons produced a complete, self-published catalog of his collection in 1921, which has gone on to become a classic of the literature on Breguet (albeit very difficult to consult in person for many years; only 1,000 volumes of the original were printed, and it did not go back into print until 2015).
The Salomons collection eventually found a home in perhaps an unlikely seeming place: the L. A. Mayer Museum For Islamic Art, in Jerusalem. The Museum was founded by Salomons’ daughter Vera; the Museum says, of its founder, “Vera Salomons herself saw art as a bridge between people, and a way of drawing them together. Her decision to establish a museum, particularly in Jerusalem, which would showcase Islamic art in all its splendor, was intended to lessen the hostility between Jews and Arabs and build a bridge between their cultures. The fund she left for the museum ensures its continued existence, without public funding.”
Most horological enthusiasts will be aware that more than half of the Salomons Breguet collection was stolen from the Museum in 1983, and for many years, its whereabouts remained a mystery. But the watches were eventually recovered in 2006 (the full story is on Wired), and it can today still be seen at the Museum. (One of my most vivid memories was getting a very unexpected phone call from none other than Nicholas G. Hayek, on a Sunday morning, no less, prior to the collection’s recovery; he somehow had gotten wind of my interest in the collection and gave me a very interesting earful – one of the first things, by the way, that he told me to do was talk to Joe Thompson, now my colleague here at HODINKEE, of course).
Seeing the Salomons collection is probably the single greatest horological pilgrimage I’ve never made, and I wish I had made it before this year just to see it all together, because three remarkable pieces from the collection will be offered at auction by the Museum, through Sotheby’s, on October 26, as part of two sales featuring a variety of objects from the Museum including watches, art, and other objets de vertu. The Museum is not publicly funded (Vera Salomons established its endowment from her own personal wealth), and the Chairman of the Museum’s board of directors, Herbert Winter, remarked, “The decision to let go of certain pieces in our collection is one that has unfolded over the course of several years, through thoughtful discussion with all of our key stakeholders, namely our board, our director, and our curators. Together, we have been careful to select for sale works which, for the most part, are either duplicated in the collection or were held in storage. Their sale will not only secure the future of the museum, but will allow us to maintain and display our wonderful collection in an appropriate manner, and – importantly – it will allow us to expand on the educational community projects which align so closely both with our founding mission and with our future vision.”
It is certainly unusual to encounter any complicated Breguet, from the period of his floruit, at auction, but to have three such timepieces come under the hammer at the same time can, I think, fairly be called, if not unprecedented in a literal sense, certainly an extremely rare event. The three watches are No. 20-148, made for the same Duc de Praslin who owned the highly complicated no. 92 now in the Musée des Arts et Métiers; No. 1806, which was made for Caroline Bonaparte, the Princess Murat, who was a regular Breguet client and Napoleon’s sister; and finally, and most spectacularly, No. 2788. No. 2788 is a resonance watch with two balances – one of only a tiny handful made by Breguet known to exist; only two others are known – and it was made for the Prince Regent, later George IV, of England.
The Caroline Bonaparte No. 1806
Caroline Bonaparte was one of Breguet’s most enthusiastic and frequent clients – she is perhaps better known to modern Breguet clients as Caroline Murat, the Queen Of Naples during the reign of her husband Joachim Murat. The watch was purchased in 1806, but Caroline seems to have given it, at some point, to one Auguste-Charles-Joseph le Comte de Flahaut, Joachim Murat’s aide-de-camp. The catalog entry from Sotheby’s for this watch notes, “Given Charles Joseph’s close relationship to the Murats, it seems likely that the present watch was purchased as a gift for him by Caroline. Furthermore, Caroline became Comte Flahaut’s lover in 1804 and bearing in mind the fact that the watch has a concealed inner cuvette which at one time contained a portrait miniature, it is interesting to speculate that it was perhaps Caroline’s portrait that the watch contained. In any event the watch was later returned to Breguet by Comte Flahaut in 1814 and re-sold by Breguet in 1815. It seems probable that the portrait miniature was removed at that point, if not for privacy reasons then at least for the fact that it would have been of little relevance to a new, unrelated owner.”
This large (62mm) watch has a ruby cylinder escapement (Breguet’s cylinder escapements were of extremely high quality and capable of keeping a very close rate) and is a quarter repeater, operated by the push-piece in the bow of the watch. (A quarter repeater chimes on demand, ringing the hours and the nearest quarter-hours; the quarter repeater preceded the minute repeater, and today, the complication is essentially never encountered in a new watch). The watch also has a calendar with year indication, and a thermometer.
Breguet was most interested in thermometers; the catalog essay notes, “Breguet devoted considerable time to the development of the thermometer applying the feature both to his watches and, in isolation, to rings or fobs. In this watch the fan-form sector for thermometer acts not only as a useful display, but also has the added advantage of enhancing the dial’s balance and symmetry. As the temperature rises and falls, a bi-metallic strip mounted around the outer edge of the movement expands and contracts. The strip is connected to a rack and pinion which moves back and forth as the strip changes its shape, thereby causing the thermometer’s hand to traverse the dial scale.” The property of bimetallic strips to change dimensionally as temperature changes also is the basis for the temperature compensated bimetallic balance. Interestingly, Breguet did not fit this watch with such a balance, which has a plain brass three-armed balance instead. Caroline Murat’s famous oval wristwatch, which according to Breguet was delivered in 1812, was also a repeating watch with thermometer.
The estimate from Sotheby’s is £200,000-300,000.
The Duc De Praslin No. 20-148
Like so many of Breguet’s clients for complicated watches, the Duc de Praslin was a major historical figure and a powerful and influential individual. Born in Paris in 1756, Antoine Caesar was promoted to the rank of Field Marshal in 1791, which is also the year that he received this watch. He and his wife were both arrested (unsurprisingly) during the Reign of Terror, but their children’s tutor (Joseph François Baudelaire, father of the famous poet Charles) intervened on their behalf. The Duc de Praslin would go on to become a member of the Senate under Napoleon, and became Commander of the Legion d’Honneur in 1804 before passing away in 1808. A great admirer of Breguet’s, he also commissioned Breguet No. 92, the second most complicated watch Breguet ever made.
No. 20-148 is not only a complex watch, but it is also one that was designed to be as accurate as the best horological technology of the day could make it. It is fitted with an Earnshaw chronometer detent escapement, with a compensating balance. It also has separate day and date indications, a power-reserve indication, and a thermometer. It is also a perpetuelle – a self-winding watch, wound via a platinum weight. Breguet’s perpetuelle watches were very efficient; in The Art Of Breguet, the late George Daniels notes that “a brisk walk of less than half a mile will fully wind the mainsprings.” The watch is also a minute repeater, with the chimes activated via the push-piece in the bow. At 59mm, it is slightly smaller than No. 1806.
Complicated watches from Breguet are generally notable for the refinement with which the display of information is handled, and No. 20-148 is no exception, with the sectors for the thermometer and power reserve giving the dial a wonderful symmetry, reinforced by the manner in which the sub-dial for the running seconds and day of the week indication mirrors the design of the larger dial for the time and date. An interesting feature of the watch is that there is no indication for the 31st day of the month, which means that the date must be manually re-set at the end of eight months out of twelve.
The estimate for this watch is £250,000-350,000.
The Prince Regent’s No. 2788.
The catalog entry for this watch states that the Prince Regent, later King George IV, “had a fractious relationship with his father, King George II, however they clearly shared a passion for horology and during their lifetimes, an array of unusual and important watches and clocks entered the Royal Collection.” George III was also a Breguet client and actually received one of the earliest tourbillon watches from Breguet during the Napoleonic wars – a most impressive and very splendid timepiece, certainly fit for a king. The Prince Regent also purchased several Breguet watches for himself, including No. 83 (a ten-minute repeater with ruby cylinder and which also repeated the date, which is extremely unusual) and which later would end up in the Salomons collection. He also purchased one of Breguet’s rare sympathique clocks.
Now, if you are interested in the pursuit of precision, and in how it was achieved in bygone days, starting with just brass, steel, and jeweled bearings, this watch is the stuff that dreams are made of. It is actually the simplest watch out of the three – it does not boast so much as an hour strike; it knows not of the date nor the day of the week; the temperature is of no concern to it, and it does not condescend to show you the state of wind of the mainspring. Instead, it is only and purely devoted to a single phenomenon: that of resonance.
The phenomenon of resonance between two oscillators is simply the property of two harmonic oscillators, with the same natural frequency, to begin to beat in time with each other if they are mechanically coupled. Breguet was one of the first horologists to successfully experiment with this phenomenon in a watch (it had by his time already been widely recognized as a phenomenon in pendulum clocks). The rationale for a resonance timepiece is straightforward; two oscillators in resonance will have better rate stability than one beating in isolation. The problem, however, is that the coupling forces are extremely weak, and the watch must be made with great care and precision itself. Moreover, the two balances must be adjusted so that their rates are as close to each other as possible, or they will not achieve resonance; Breguet found it necessary to adjust his resonance watches balances to run at less than 20 seconds a day apart. This particular resonance watch, one of only three known to exist, has two mainspring barrels and two completely separate going trains leading to two separate balances.
Breguet himself found it difficult to believe that the effect could be real in a watch, for all that it had been clearly observed in pendulums. At first, he suspected that the effect was due to aerodynamic turbulence coupling the balances, and he therefore placed the balances of this watch inside steel shrouds, both to rule out such an effect and to prevent it from interfering with the rates of either balance if, in fact, it was occurring. Subsequently, he tried his resonance watches in a vacuum chamber and was pleased and pleasantly surprised to find that the coupling effect was not, in fact, due to turbulence, but was rather being transmitted, implausible as it sounds, to the movement plate by the tugging force on the balance springs at the end of each beat of each balance. Daniels notes, in The Art Of Breguet, that although Breguet usually preferred to have regulators on his spiral balance springs, that he had to dispense with them in his resonance watches, as they diminished the already tiny amount of energy transmitted to the plate via the balance spring and balance cock.
Each balance is fitted with compensation and timing weights, and this watch has retained the original aerodynamic shrouds around the balances. To keep the balance diameter as large as possible, the weights are placed, unusually, on the inside of the balances. Each balance has Breguet’s pare-chute antishock system, and there are pushers in the case adjacent to each balance, to stop each one (an early example of a stop-seconds feature and one which would have aided in synchronizing the two running seconds hands). One train drives the center seconds hand while the other drives the sub-seconds hand.
From a collecting perspective, this is the sort of thing which comes along very seldom – the estimate given by Sotheby’s is £400,000-600,000, but given what the watch represents historically and culturally, as well as in the history of science, I think this is apt to be exceeded, perhaps by a considerable amount.
While the sale of any watches from the Salomons collection seems a pity, the selection of these watches seems to have been done very carefully and with a view to maintaining, as much as possible, the core strengths of the collection; Sotheby’s says they worked very closely with the Mayer Museum to ensure that as much as possible, this integrity was maintained. Sotheby’s chairman for watches, Daryn Schnipper, says, “These watches put on full display Breguet’s mechanical genius, and represent his extensive clientele, drawing from European royalty and aristocracy. However, in choosing them, we have been extremely careful to select only the watches whose dispersal would not disturb the core of this magnificent collection. The selection was made via a collaborative process led by the curatorial team and management of the museum, in discussion with Sotheby’s specialists. The guiding principle behind the selection was to ensure the integrity of the museum’s collection remain intact. As a result, the vast majority of works selected for sale were either duplicates and/or in storage. We focused primarily on the two aspects of the collection where the most extensive works are comprised: the Breguet and the automata collections. We then selected a handful of Breguet watches we feel are well-represented in the collection by duplicates or pieces with similar characteristics.” If the sale on October 26 produces the expected results, it will enable the Museum to continue to make the vast majority of the Salomons collection available to the public. Certainly, the Marie Antoinette isn’t going anywhere.
Thanks to Sotheby’s for their extensive notes on each of these lots; the auction catalog is not yet online but we’ll update our coverage as soon as it becomes available. For more information about the auction, see the announcement from Sotheby’s.