History is in the details and this was the conviction of an enlightened collector who painstakingly assembled one of the finest collections of horological treasures, objects of vertu, and unpublished letters by the great visionaries of the 18th and early 19th century. All the great minds of the time are represented, from watchmaking genius Breguet, to skilled strategists and leaders, such as Napoléon Bonaparte and Lord Admiral Nelson.
This fascinating collection which captures intimate portraits of these storied figures, while also shedding unprecedented light on turning points in modern European history, will be brought to market by Sotheby’s London in a series of sales starting next month. Under the appellation The Collection of a Connoisseur, the series will include a dedicated live sale on 14 July offering over 150 works, and an online sale The Collection of a Connoisseur: History in Manuscript on 8 - 15 July. Further outstanding pieces from the collection will be offered across a number of sales at Sotheby’s throughout the year.
King George III’s Tourbillon: One of Breguet’s Most Important Watches
The live sale on 14 July will be led by a gold four-minute tourbillon watch made circa 1808 for King George III by Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) – the man who made accurate time portable thanks to his revolutionary invention: The Tourbillon. Breguet was also a “celebrity watchmaker” whose creations were sought after by all the crowned heads of Europe, from Marie Antoinette and the King of Spain to Napoléon and Tsar Alexander I.
Estimated at £700,000-1m (€805,000-1.2m / US$ 895,000-1.3m) and engraved with King George III’s royal cypher and the letters G & R, the watch is one of the most important pieces ever created by the genius watchmaker. It is most probably the first tourbillon Breguet sold commercially and is groundbreaking from many points of view (see table below).
An avid supporter of the sciences, deeply involved in the greatest scientific debate of his time - the longitude problem, George III (1738-1820) was also passionate about horology and assembled a remarkable collection of clocks and watches. This passion led the king to brave the blockade isolating Britain from the rest of Europe in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) to purchase what was then considered cutting-edge technology.
For King George III to purchase a French watch during this period would have seemed unthinkable. To prevent the chance of its seizure, the watch appeared from the outside to be unsigned: Breguet only signed the tourbillon carriage inside the watch. The piece - recorded as No. 1297 in Breguet’s archives - was sent to Recordon, Breguet's London agent for the King on 29 June 1808 and sold for FF 4,800, a huge sum at the time. It actually took George III over five years to pay for the watch in full. The ‘Georgian Papers’ archive contains a bill ‘reminder’ from 1812 which is addressed to the King’s son, the Prince Regent and lists four Breguet pieces for which payments remain outstanding. The first in the list is no. 1297.
The watch created a sensation when it appeared for sale at Sotheby’s from a private collection in November 1999, selling for £551,500. At the time, the watch had not been seen in public since its inclusion in the 1955 exhibition “Five Centuries of Timekeeping” at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London. Carefully stored since 1999, the watch has survived in extraordinarily original condition.
Next month, it will be offered alongside mechanical marvels, including very rare automata created in Geneva at the turn of the 19th century. Among the most sophisticated and whimsical are a ‘temple’ box made in 1807-08 by the Geneva goldsmith Phillipe Sené and Henri Neisser (est. £500,000-700,000) and a singing bird watch made by Frères Rochat, circa 1820 (est. £400,000-600,000).
Featuring a captivating array of personal and official royal documents the History in Manuscripts sale will offer an incredible insight into the lives and tastes of members of the British royal family. From an early signed letter by Elizabeth I (Lot 5040, £12,000 – 18,000) to a document signed by her cousin and legendary rival, Mary, Queen of Scots (Lot 5066, £8,000 – 12,000) during one of the most turbulent periods in Scottish history, to official court letters of George III and the personal correspondence of Queen Victoria, the collection includes royal manuscripts spanning over three centuries, from the 1560s to the 1880s.
Well known for her extensive journal writing, Queen Victoria was also an enthusiastic and impassioned letter writer as revealed through her well documented private and courtly correspondence. Among the examples on offer are personal letters to her Poet Laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson (Lot 5110, £4,000 – 6,000 / Lot 5103, £500 – 700) expressing her pleasure in conferring a peerage on him; a rare personal signed letter to Ferdinand II announcing the birth of her son Albert, Prince of Wales in 1841 (Lot 5109, £400 – 600); and a series of 15 intimate autograph letters to Lily Wellesley (Lot 5106, £5,000 – 7,000), the wife of Gerald Wellesley, the Dean of Windsor and one of the Queen’s closest advisors, on a range of personal subjects including her grief following the death of the Dean, and that of her personal attendant, John Brown.
The letters will be offered alongside a splendid group of six etchings (Lot 5107, £1,500 – 2,000) by Queen Victoria showing her as a talented amateur artist. Etching at Windsor Castle, under the guidance of Sir George Hayter and later Sir Edwin Landseer, Victoria produced some sixty-two plates, sometimes working on a plate with her husband, Prince Albert. An activity undertaken largely for the royal couple's own amusement, very few of each of the etchings were ever printed, with an occasional print and a very few sets, like this present lot, distributed as gifts.
Napoléon and the Great Military Minds
Considered one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, the Napoleonic era was defined as much by the ambitious and eminent military leaders of the time as by the battles they fought. Napoleon’s endeavor to create a French-dominated empire in Europe pitched him against Britain’s formidable leader of the Royal Navy Lord Nelson, bringing together two of the greatest military minds in history.
The power and passion of these great leaders are beautifully captured in a series of important letters and manuscripts from this momentous moment in history – with six letters and documents signed by Napoleon himself; seven letters by Nelson, including letters connected to all three of his greatest victories (the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar). Also on offer will be the magnificent grant of the Dukedom of Brontë (Lot 5154, £40,000 – 60,000) and letters by most of the generals, statesmen, and royals who played leading public roles in this turbulent period.
The fascination for objects d’art closely connected to major moments in British and European history will also be evidenced in the dedicated live sale on 14 July, including a diamond-set walking cane presented to Nelson (Lot 17, £70,000 – 90,000, pictured above) by the inhabitants of the Greek Island of Zante following his victory over the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798; several gold boxes with a Napoleonic connection (Lots 52 – 56), including official presentation boxes with the cipher of Napoleon III found alongside more intimate personal examples, such as a tortoiseshell snuff box containing an intricately painted miniature of Empress Josephine, by the renowned miniaturist Jean-Baptiste Isabey (Lot 56, £8,000 – 12,000).
Further stand-out lots from the sales:
The British Legion Album (Lot 5150, £30,000 – 50,000) – an important commemoration of the sacrifices of the First World War, compiled to raise funds for the British Legion. Comprising c.527 inscriptions, including contributions by many of the leading cultural and public figures of the early 20th century, from autograph poems by Housman and Yeats, to drawings by William Orpen and Augustus John, and autograph messages signed by statesmen and members of the Royal Family;
An autograph letter by Claude Monet (Lot 5071, £1,500 – 2,000) to an unidentified ‘Cher Monsieur’ in French, begging for his help in the desperate situation in which he finds himself, with his furniture loaded on a carriage, but without a penny to pay the removers, and asking for one hundred francs to tide him over;
A photographic portrait of Charles Darwin by Oscar Gustave Rejlander (Lot 5029, £6,000 – 8,000) – a signed photograph of the Father of Evolution taken by the Father of Art Photography.
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* Estimates do not include buyer's premium or overhead premium. Prices achieved include the hammer price plus buyer's premium and overhead premium and are net of any fees paid to the purchaser where the purchaser provided an irrevocable bid.
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