Imperial China and mechanical watches aren’t typically mentioned in the same sentence, even if they’re both considered vintage in their respective realms. Although he died over 50 years ago, the intriguing life of Aisin-Gioro Puyi is well documented and is even the subject of the 1987 Best Picture-winning film (The Last Emperor). Becoming the eleventh emperor of the Qing dynasty and the final emperor of China, Puyi took the throne at the age of two and reigned until he was six when the Xinhai Revolution commenced, resulting in the end of the Imperial Age and the establishment of the Republic of China. And while Puyi’s lineage as an emperor continued later in life as leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchuria, the monarch apparently dabbled in timepieces.
Incredibly unique timepieces, as it turns out. One such reference that’s on display now from Phillips auction house is an incredibly rare Patek Philippe Ref. 96 Quantieme Lune — one of eight in existence. Aside from the magnificent three-hand display, the watch also features a triple-calendar (or complete calendar) function and a moon phase complication. Of the eight Ref. 96 models, only three such examples were made with this exact Arabic “roulette” dial configuration.
There’s some significant wear shown on the watch, especially the distressed dial, but this piece is significant, with or without its connection to Puyi. Patek was responsible for creating the very first perpetual calendar (which is slightly different than a complete calendar) in 1925, although it wasn’t serially produced until 1941. So when the Ref. 96 debuted sometime before that in the ‘20s or ‘30s, it was among the Swiss icon’s very first calendar wristwatches and making it incredibly complicated considering the time it was released. Records indicate that Puyi acquired the 30mm platinum-cased watch in 1937 before gifting it to his translator-turned-friend Georgy Permyakov while imprisoned by the Soviets during World War II. Permyakov passed away in 2005 and the timepiece remained with his estate until 2019.
Past Ref. 96 sales have sold between $500,000 and around $1 million. However, those examples never belonged to personages of historical significance on the level of Puyi. This Patek Philippe, along with the emperor’s paper fan, manuscript notebook, watercolor paintings, and copy of Confucius’ Analects, will be on display in Hong Kong from March 18 through 31, followed by an international tour and a sale at an undisclosed date.