W hen photos of a rare Patek Philippe landed on the desk of Sotheby’s watch specialist Tom Heap, he knew he was looking at something special. Scouring through the details – the lightly-worn gold case, the flat, rather than domed bezel, the blue enamel sector dial – he identified it as a rare Reference 533, made between 1937 and 1957. One of only around 125 in yellow gold, of which only 44 are known from the market, and of which only 10 feature a sector dial. This would be the 11th.
Sotheby's Spotlight: Fine Watches
When Sotheby's Watches department further explored the provenance of the watch, a fascinating story began to emerge. Tom Heap discovered a date, a location and owner, Major General Thomas North, whose eventful life took him from the Somme to the Pentagon, spanned both World and Cold Wars, and linked directly to the likes of General Pershing and future US presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. And it was during the course of his long tour of duty that he was given this watch in 1939, by the Chief of Staff of the Brazilian Army.
'A rare watch like this is incredibly exciting,' says Heap. 'But being able to have the service record detailing exactly what this person had done and when they received the watch, so you know it’s been with him for the rest of his life? That’s very unusual.'
To call that service record distinguished would be an understatement. Although he had been born in London in 1893, Major General North served as a senior American military figure, who over the course of his career, earned the Purple Heart and a Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster.
Arriving in America in 1911, he enlisted in the 11th Engineers (Railway) in New York on 9 May 1917. Just over a month later, he was on a ship to France, where he saw action at the Battle of the Somme – that most notorious of the First World War’s terrible battlegrounds - before transferring to the map section of the American Expeditionary Forces’ GHQ at Chaumont, the base of AEF commander General Pershing.
North’s considerable intelligence was put to good use when he returned to Washington in 1918 as a first lieutenant. He was soon moved to the Field Artillery School faculty at Fort Sill to work on field artillery fire-control, including flash spotting and sound ranging – at the time, cutting-edge methods of locating hostile artillery.
It was in 1924 that he began the work that would define his career, opening the Paris office of the newly-created American Battle Monuments Commission – the organisation tasked with ensuring those lost in war were commemorated appropriately. Here, while working closely with Major Eisenhower and General Pershing on a job of great significance – a lively sense of character can be found in his unpublished memoirs, in which he describes less than conventional methods of securing land for the memorials, including getting landowners drunk and stirring up sibling rivalries.
A succession of postings followed, including graduation from Command & General Staff School, until when, in 1939, the then Captain North accompanied General Marshall on a highly successful tour of Brazil. Subsequently, he was invited to escort the Brazilian Chief of Staff, General Pedro Aurelio de Góes Monteiro, on a tour of the United States. The tours cemented a relationship between the two countries that would be vital during World War Two – and it was here that Captain North was presented with the Patek Philippe Reference 533.
It might seem an particularly generous gift – 'If you look at a modern equivalent, it would be around £30,000,' says Heap – but this was not without precedent. The bar had been set high when, during the Brazilian leg of the tour, General Marshall presented General de Góes Monteiro with a large gold nugget and three aquamarines. Nevertheless, says Heap, it’s clear that this watch was worn and cherished through Major General North’s life.
'It's been worn, it's been enjoyed, it's clearly had a polish or two here and there, but it's been kept in nice condition,' he says. 'I suppose at that point, during the Second World War, he was in his 50s, so he wasn't storming beaches and that kind of thing.'
Following World War Two, General North was appointed secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, supervising the cemetery and memorial program. In 1953, aged 60, he retired from active duty (and thanks to the peculiar quirks of the military) reinstated the following day, his duties uninterrupted, before being promoted to the rank of Major General in 1957. And his illustrious career continued to function at the highest levels. Included alongside the watch is a selection of photographs, including one of John F. Kennedy, certified as being from the press office of the Pentagon.
Almost as impressively globe-trotting as the Major-General, the watch itself bears marks that represent its far-flung travels over the years.
'On the watch you can see all the import marks,' says Heap. 'On the inside of the case back, there's a Swiss gold mark, and then there's a French gold mark, and there's another mark, which we're still trying to work out – it may be a Brazilian import mark, or a retailer stamp.'
And though small in size – 'It’s more like a dress watch, or a Calatrava, at 33mm, when a modern Submariner is 41mm' – the watch packs a punch in terms of design and relevance, says Heap.
'It’s a really nice example of a watch that’s very much in vogue at the moment; people have been re-releasing watches with a sector dial in recent years – think of the Calatrava Reference 5296, for example.'
"Honestly, if I had the choice between a Patek with a story like this, or one in an amazing, never-sold condition, found in the back room at Patek Philippe - I'd absolutely go for this one"
But, for Heap, it is the owner's extraordinary story that makes this watch a truly unique piece, the type of discovery that is increasingly scarce. 'As time progresses, we have less and less of this stuff coming out,' he admits.
'And honestly, if I had the choice between one that was in condition like this, with a story like this, or in amazing, never-sold condition, found in the back room at Patek Philippe, I'd absolutely go for this one.'