Christie’s Geneva Auction on 16 May | Watch No. 217: A Breguet masterpiece

Owned by one of Napoleon’s most brilliant generals and then the founder of the world’s first news agency, the story of Breguet No. 217 — one of only two watches of its kind from the very rare perpétuelle series — is extraordinary

Regarded as one of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s masterpieces, the reappearance of this exceptional perpétuelle watch after decades in an important private collection provides devotees with the opportunity to obtain one of the most complicated and desirable watches ever made. Its remarkable provenance includes one of Napoleon’s generals — later a rival — and Charles-Louis Havas, the founder of Agence France-Presse (AFP), the world’s first news agency.

In addition to being from the self-winding or perpétuelle series, a great rarity in itself, Breguet No. 217 has the extra complications of both day and month calendar, power reserve and, most unusually and importantly, an equation of time indication. The equation of time in astronomy is the quantity that needs to be added or subtracted to switch from real time given by the sun, to the mean time: our time, which arbitrarily divides a day into 24 hours.

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Breguet et Fils, Paris, No. 217, Self-Winding Quarter Repeating Pocketwatch with Equation of Time, Day, Month and Power Reserve. Estimate: $600,000-1,200,000 / CHF600,000-1,200,000. This watch is offered in the Rare Watches auction on 16 May at Christie’s Geneva

Within Breguet’s total production between 1790 and 1830, only 15 watches with equation of time were made. Of these 15, only two are known to have been from the perpétuelle series — No. 217, and the legendary ultra-complicated watch No. 160, known as the ‘Marie Antoinette’ and now in the L. A. Mayer Museum in Jerusalem.

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A copy of the Breguet Certificate No. 2385 dated 10 March 1896

Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) was born in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, but it was in Paris that he spent most of his career. His early breakthroughs included the development of the successful self-winding perpétuelle watches, the introduction of the gongs for repeating watches and the first shock-protection for balance pivots. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were among the early enthusiasts for his watchmaking.

During the French Revolution, Breguet took refuge in Switzerland. When he returned to Paris, it was with the ideas that led to the Breguet balance-spring, his first carriage clock (sold to Bonaparte), the ‘sympathique’ clock and its dependent watch, the tact watch, and finally the tourbillon, patented in 1801.

He became the watchmaker to the scientific, military, financial and diplomatic elites of the age. For his most celebrated clients Breguet designed exceptional timepieces, including the world’s very first wristwatch, conceived in 1810 for Caroline Murat, queen of Naples.

A detail of the movement under the dial on Breguet No. 217
A detail of the movement under the dial on Breguet No. 217

No. 217 was first sold in 1800 to Jean Victor Marie Moreau, who paid 3,600 francs for the watch. Moreau was a French general who served under Napoleon Bonaparte before later becoming a rival, and ultimately being exiled to the United States of America.

Moreau arrived in the USA in 1805. Seven years later President Madison offered him command of the U.S. troops, but Moreau decided instead to return to Europe, where he became involved with republican intriguers supporting the Prussians and Austrians in leading an army against Napoleon.

Moreau was mortally wounded at the Battle of Dresden in 1813 and died six days later from his injuries. His wife received a pension from Tsar Alexander I of Russia, and Moreau was posthumously given the rank of Marshal of France by Louis XVIII.

Breguet, as was his custom, particularly with the perpétuelle watches, bought back watch No. 217, presumably from Moreau’s family. He made some aesthetic improvements to it in the form of a new case and a stunning new guilloché silver dial by Tavernier in the latest style. This replaced the original white enamel dial, which by 1817 would have been regarded as old-fashioned.

Breguet’s repurchasing, updating and resale of his watches made excellent business sense because he could often update the watch and resell it for a much higher price. The perpétuelles, in particular, were very expensive, selling for upwards of 3,000 francs.

Charles Louis Havas (1817-1858), the founder of Agence France-Presse (AFP)
Charles Louis Havas (1817-1858), the founder of Agence France-Presse (AFP)

Charles-Louis Havas became the second owner of watch No. 217, purchasing it on 31 December 1817 for 4,800 francs. Born in 1783 in Rouen, France, into a wealthy Jewish family of Hungarian descent, Havas was a merchant, banker and publisher who had learned a number of languages — a very useful tool for his future business exploits.

In August 1832 he opened his own office in Paris, supplying news about France to foreign customers and translating articles from foreign papers and selling the translations to bankers, businessmen and politicians. Three years later, he restructured his operation and launched the world’s first news agency, calling it Agence Havas, which was described as ‘the first information bureau for the press’.

Havas employed every form of information technology available at the time, including hundreds of carrier pigeons delivering daily information on London stock exchange prices and news on various wars and conflicts. He was the first to use Samuel Morse’s invention, installing electromagnetic telegraph machines as of 1845, and thereby revolutionising the distribution of news.

The growth of the agency saw correspondents reporting from Crimea, Italy, Mexico and the United States. To cover his growing costs, the pioneering Havas created an advertising division in 1852.

His concept of an agency distributing news to the media was quickly adopted in other countries, notably by his most prominent employees, Paul Julius Reuter and Bernhard Wolff, who went on to establish Reuters in the United Kingdom and Wolff in Germany, the forerunner of Deutsche Presse Agentur. The 1859 agreement between the three major agencies — Reuter, based in London, Wolff in Berlin, and Havas — divided the world between them for the collection and dissemination of information.

Charles-Louis Havas passed away on 21 May 1858, and in 1879 Agence Havas became a publicly limited company.

Bregeut et fils, Paris, No.217 comes with Desoutter box numbered 217 containing a spare crystal, photocopy of Breguet Certificate No. 2385, photocopies of the 1965 catalogue entry and Daily Telegraph article
Bregeut et fils, Paris, No.217 comes with Desoutter box numbered 217 containing a spare crystal, photocopy of Breguet Certificate No. 2385, photocopies of the 1965 catalogue entry and Daily Telegraph article

On 25 November 1940 the News section of Havas was nationalised and became a government agency. The advertising branch, which retains the name Havas, and the news branch, which was renamed Office Français d’Information (OFI), were legally separated. Less than four years later, a group of journalists seized the offices of the OFI and issued the first news dispatch from the liberated city under the name Agence France-Presse.

Breguet watch No. 217 was sold at Sotheby’s in London in July 1965, and was described in the catalogue as ‘probably the finest Breguet watch to be offered for sale since well before the war’. It was bought by the famous Portuguese collector and art connoisseur Antonio Medeiros e Almeida for the then enormous sum of £8,500, an event deemed worthy of a story in The Daily Telegraph in London.

Today, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the company built by Charles-Louis Havas and headquartered in Paris, is the world’s third largest international news agency after Associated Press and Reuters.

Info on Christie’s

Château de Fontainebleau, parterre de Rois

Di tesori artistici noi italiani siamo pieni e ne siamo forse non troppo consapevoli, ma girando per l’Europa non restiamo certo indifferenti alle ricchezze che questo nostro vecchio continente custodisce amorevolmente. Una di queste è il Castello ddi Fontainebleau.

Dal latino Fons Bellaquaeus deriva Fontaine Belle Eau o Fontaine Belleau, fontana dalla bell’acqua, contratta poi in Fontainebleau. All’inizio fu un ritrovo di caccia e per più di sette secoli, da Luigi VI (1081-1137) a Napoleone III (1808-1873), numerosi sovrani vi hanno soggiornato per la bellezza della foresta circostante e la tranquillità che ci si poteva trovare così vicino a Parigi.

Il 18 ottobre 1685 Luigi XIV vi firmò il famoso Editto di Fontainebleau, che costituiva la revoca dell’Editto di Nantes, costringendo così all’esilio molti protestanti. Nel 1725 vi si tenne il matrimonio di Luigi XV. Il 29 ottobre 1807 Manuel Godoy, allora cancelliere del re spagnolo Carlo IV e Napoleone I vi firmarono il trattato che autorizzava il passaggio delle truppe francesi in terra di Spagna dirette in Portogallo. Lo stesso imperatore vi firmò l’atto di abdicazione nel 1814.

Nel 1848 la foresta di Fontainebleau fu dichiarata, sotto pressione popolare, “riserva artistica”, per difenderla dalla minaccia di un dissennato disboscamento. Lo scopo era quello di permettere agli artisti della scuola di Barbizon di ritrarre gli incantati paesaggi naturali che essa offriva ai pittori. Fu questo il primo provvedimento pubblico di tutela della natura della storia, anche se promosso e realizzato con finalità estetiche e non naturalistiche. 
Proprio per questo primato, cento anni dopo (1948), fu deciso di fondare l’Unione Internazionale per la Conservazione della Natura (IUCN) proprio nella città di Fontainebleau. Dal 1981 il castello ed il suo enorme parco sono iscritti alla lista del Patrimonio dell’umanità UNESCO.

Il manierismo francese degli interni del XVI secolo è noto con il termine di “stile Fontainebleau”: combina scultura, lavori in ferro battuto, pittura, stucco ed intarsi, mentre per gli esterni introdusse i giardini parterre. Grazie alle incisioni della “Scuola di Fontainebleau” questo nuovo stile venne esportato negli stati dell’Europa centro-settentrionale, soprattutto ad Anversa ed in Germania, per poi raggiungere anche Londra.

Ha 1500 ambienti interni, quasi 1900 tra finestre e porte-finestre, 116 ettari di giardini.

Il vecchio castello presente su questo sito era già usato alla fine del XII secolo da re Luigi VII, per conto del quale san Tommaso Becket consacrò la cappella. Fontainebleau era una delle residenze preferite da Filippo Augusto e da Luigi IX. Il creatore dell’attuale costruzione fu Francesco I. Il re invitò in Francia anche l’architetto Sebastiano Serlio e Leonardo da Vinci. La galleria di Francesco I, con i suoi affreschi incorniciati in stucco da Rosso Fiorentino, venne creata tra il 1532 ed il 1539, e rappresentava la prima grande galleria decorata della Francia. Il Rinascimento arrivò in Francia passando per Fontainebleau.

La Salle des Fêtes, durante il regno di Enrico II, venne decorata da pittori manieristi italiani, Francesco Primaticcio e Nicolò dell’Abate. La Ninfa di Fontainbleau di Benvenuto Cellini, commissionata per il castello, si trova oggi presso il museo del Louvre.


Enrico IV fece passare in mezzo al parco un canale da 1200 metri (tuttora pescoso) ed ordinò di piantare pini, olmi e piante da frutto. Il parco copre 80 ettari, è cintato da mura e costellato da sentieri rettilinei. Tre secoli dopo il castello cadde in disuso; durante la rivoluzione francese molti arredi originali vennero venduti, così come i contenuti di molti altri castelli reali, nel tentativo di recuperare soldi per lo Stato, e di evitare il futuro ritorno dei Borbone.

Nonostante questo l’imperatore Napoleone Bonaparte iniziò a trasformare il castello di Fontainebleau nel simbolo della sua grandezza, quale alternativa a quello vuoto di Versailles. A Fontainebleau Napoleone congedò la Vecchia Guardia andando in esilio nel 1814. Al piano terra è ben conservato il campo di Pallacorda (antenato del tennis) di Enrico IV. È il più grande campo al mondo di pallacorda, ed anche uno dei pochi di proprietà pubblica.

Tutto questo è nascosto solo ad una manciata di chilometri da Parigi e aspetta solo di essere riscoperto…


Le Château de Fontainebleau, parterre de Rois

We Italians are full of artistic treasure and we’re probably not too aware of it, but traveling around Europe we are certainly not indifferent to the riches that our old continent holds lovingly. One of these is the Castle of Fontainebleau.

Fons is derived from the Latin Bellaquaeus Fontaine Fontaine Belle Eau or Belleau, from the first water fountain, then contracted in Fontainebleau. At first it was a meeting place for hunting and for more than seven centuries, from Louis VI (1081-1137) to Napoleon III (1808-1873), numerous sovereigns have stayed there for the beauty of the surrounding forest and quiet so close to Paris.
On October 18, 1685 Louis XIV signed the Edict of you Fontainebleau, which was the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, forcing many Protestants into exile. In 1725 there was held the marriage of Louis XV. On October 29, 1807 Manuel Godoy, then chancellor of the Spanish king Charles IV and Napoleon I there signed the treaty which allowed the passage of the French troops in the land of Spain directly in Portugal. The same empero signed the act of abdication in 1814.

In 1848 the forest of Fontainebleau was declared, under popular pressure, “artistic reserve”, to defend against the threat of a reckless deforestation. The aim was to allow artists of the Barbizon school of portraying the enchanting natural landscapes that it offered to painters. This was the first public measure of protection of the nature of history, even if promoted and made ​​with aesthetic purposes and not natural. Precisely for this record, a hundred years later (1948), it was decided to establish the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) right in the city of Fontainebleau. Since 1981, the castle and its huge park are enrolled in the list of  humanity heritage by UNESCO.

The French Mannerist interior of the sixteenth century is known by the term “Fontainebleau style”: combines sculpture, iron works, painting, stucco and inlays, and the parterre gardens. Thanks to the engravings of the “School of Fontainebleau” this new style was exported in the states of central and northern Italy, especially in Antwerp and Germany, then to reach London.

It has 1500 interior, nearly 1900 windows and doors.

The old castle on this site was already used in the late twelfth century by King Louis VII, on behalf of whom Thomas Becket consecrated the chapel. Fontainebleau was a favorite residence of Philip Augustus and Louis IX. The creator of the construction was Francis I. The King invited in France the architect Sebastiano Serlio and Leonardo da Vinci. The gallery of Francis I, with its frescoes framed in stucco by Rosso Fiorentino, was created between 1532 and 1539, and represented the first great decorated gallery of France. The Renaissance arrived in France via Fontainebleau.

The Salle des Fêtes, in the reign of Henry II, was decorated by Italian Mannerist painters, Francesco Primaticcio and Nicolo dell’Abate. The Nymph of Fontainebleau of Benvenuto Cellini, which was commissioned for the castle, is now at the Louvre museum.

Henry IV built in the middle of the park a channel of 1,200 meters (still fishy) and ordered to plant pines, elms and fruit trees. The park covers 80 acres, is enclosed by walls and dotted paths straight. Three centuries later, the castle fell into disuse; during the French Revolution many original furnishings were sold, as well as the content of many other royal castles in an attempt to recover money for the state, and to prevent the future return of the Bourbons.

Despite this, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte began to transform the Château de Fontainebleau into a symbol of his grandeur, as an alternative to empty Versailles. At Fontainebleau Napoleon dismissed the Old Guard going into exile in 1814. In to the ground floor is well preserved the Pallacorda field (ancestor of tennis) of Henry IV. It is the largest field in the world of this kind, and also one of the few publicly owned.

All this is hidden only a few kilometers from Paris and it is just waiting to be rediscovered …