The woman who sold the world's most expensive watch, the Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch. Twice. Daryn Schnipper joined Sotheby's in 1980, straight out of college, before wristwatches were even considered collectable. Now, she sits at the helm of the auction house, as the Chairman of the International Watch Division, overseeing their sales across the world. We caught up with her to discuss the early days of wristwatch collecting (where a Submariner was a Submariner, with no other distinction), her experiences uncovering and selling the Henry Graves Supercomplication for $24 million, and why she thinks of herself as a custodian of extraordinary objects.
So, what are some of your first memories of watches?
When I was a child, there was a shop in the town where I grew up that had an alarm clock for sale. I was maybe seven or eight, and I remember I really, really had to have it. It was my birthday and my grandparents got it for me. It’s funny how I remember that.
Seems to have left quite the impression...
It was the mechanics at first, and the way it was able to generate music, almost autonomously. I still have that clock, actually…
Once the bug bites...
Yes, exactly. Fast forward a few years, to when I was in college, and doing research for a gentleman who was a watch dealer. He was going to write a book on King Farouk of Egypt. I was a journalism major and an art history minor, so he sent me to Sotheby’s to research part of the book, as Sotheby’s sold the king’s vast collection in 1954, as part of the ‘The Palace Collections of Egypt’ sale. I had to look at the sale catalogues and then find out which watches from his collection had come up for sale.
And you decided to stick around?
[Laughs] Yes, I remember thinking, “Well, this seems like an exciting place to work”, so after that first day I knew that I wanted to work at Sotheby’s in watches. I was probably in my second year of college, and when I graduated, I got the job as a cataloguer.
Daryn, in the Sotheby’s office in New York
I imagine things must have been quite different back then...
It was all pocket watches at that time. Wristwatches weren’t at all collectable back then.
So, no Nautilus then?
[Laughs] No, none of those. The shift to wristwatches really happened during the Swiss quartz crisis. The industry was obviously falling way behind the Japanese, and watch sales had slowed substantially. As a result, they were talking about converting all the factories to become manufacturers only of quartz watches. The rumour was that they were going to destroy all the machines that had made mechanical watches.
Not a good sign...
It was considered to be imminent that this would happen. It felt like end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new one. That’s essentially what led people to start collecting wristwatches.
So, they became collectible precisely because they were becoming obsolete...
Exactly, and everything was being collected in those days - there was no real definition of what was or wasn’t collectible. We didn’t even do reference numbers then. A Submariner was a Submariner. All the nuances of Rolex, Patek, certainly didn’t exist 30 years ago.
"It was all pocket watches at that time. Wristwatches weren’t at all collectable back then."
And who were some of the tastemakers in those early days?
It was different back then, but one could call Andy Warhol a very early tastemaker.
He was quite active - people would always see him in the different flea markets and at antique shows around the world, and he was always buying something. In fact, we sold Andy Warhol’s watch collection here at Sotheby’s in 1988. But the Italians were certainly at the head of the line when it came to taste makers, for sure.
As with a lot of things it seems...
A lot of people started collecting pocket watches, and since they were young, they tended to go over and check out the wristwatches, because at the end of the day that was probably far more exciting, since you could wear them! The Japanese kind of caught on from there, and then the Americans followed. But it was a really small market comparatively - nothing like it is today.
"I remember thinking, well, this seems like an exciting place to work"
The manufacturers must have been happy at the renewed enthusiasm….
Well, funnily enough, those early collectors were being looked at by the manufacturers very closely. They started to see that there was potential for a sort of rise from the ashes in the wake of the quartz crisis, so to speak. They saw what collectors were buying and interested in, and they probably thought: “we could do that”. And that is basically what they did.
So, collectors reacted to the quartz crisis, and then the brands reacted to the collectors?
In a way, yes. For example, in 1989, Patek Philippe developed these new models for the Jubilee anniversary, which was the beginning of their major growth in the 20th century. One of their anniversary watches, the Officer, was a direct inspiration of a watch they’d made in the 1920s. That’s a direct reaction to what was happening in the collector community.
"We didn’t even do reference numbers then. A Submariner was a Submariner. All the nuances of Rolex, Patek, certainly didn’t exist 30 years ago."
Speaking of Patek Philippe, let’s talk about the Henry Graves.
You’ve sold it...
[Laughs] What was it like uncovering something like that?
I remember the first time I saw it. Seth Atwood, the founder of the Time Museum and owner of the Graves, had decided to sell approximately two hundred pieces from his collection. My colleague Kevin Tierney and I went to visit him in about 1986, and he had all the pieces picked out for us. Then he brought out the Henry Graves and said: “Well, what about this one?”
I don’t think he was going to sell at that point. He was kind of curious about what we would say about it, and I think he enjoyed a little teasing as well. He was a hugely prolific collector, he had collected so much that he had to build a museum for his pieces.
As one does...
He ended up obtaining a hotel, and converted the basement into a museum for his pieces. There were over 2,000 watches, clocks and instruments. Eventually they sold the hotel in 1999, and he and the family decided to sell the Graves and other pieces. That’s when all the fun began.
"Then he brought out the Henry Graves and said: 'Well, what about this one?'"
Was it hard putting an estimate on something like that?
Oh, it was scary. We estimated the watch at $3 to $5 million dollars, which was a crazy estimate at that time - nobody had ever estimated a watch at that price. I was a little bit concerned, but thankfully we had intense bidding into the seven figures. Finally, it came down to two bidders until it finally reached all the way to $11 million.
Daryn outside her office, on the Upper East Side
And then you sold it again...
Yes, and actually, it was even more nerve wrecking the second time. What was interesting about the second time we sold it though, is that Henry Graves’ grandson, who I’d known since the late '80s, owned the watch before and sold it to Seth Atwood in the 1960s. He passed away in 2012. The day after he died his lawyers called me and said that I had been mentioned as a person that they were to call in his will to disperse his collection of watches. That felt pretty special.
It emerged that his grandson had left a file of papers from Patek Philippe providing considerable insight and information about the watch, which we didn’t have when we first sold it. Of course, this was of huge value for collectors and so it was a very exciting discovery. In 2014, we put an estimate on it of about $17 to 20 million.
And the watch sold for $24 million.
"The day after he died his lawyers called me and said that I had been mentioned as a person that they were to call in his will to disperse his collection of watches. That felt pretty special."
And recently, you’ve had another special pocket watch for sale....
Ah yes, the George Daniels Space Traveller I. The watch sold in our ‘Masterworks of Time: George Daniels, Visionary’ auction this July in London for around £3.6 million ($4.6 million).
Which you were also selling for the second time...
Correct – we sold it in 1988 for CHF200,000. I have a lot of fond memories of selling it the first time actually, because that was during a period where George Daniels was very active as our consultant. He was actually with myself and my colleague Kevin Tierney, at the Time Museum in Rockford ’86, when we went to visit.
The George Daniels’ Space Traveller, which sold for £3.6 million
Locked away for quite some time…
Yes, you know, the thing about that watch that’s so interesting is that it was the only watch that did not get included in the retrospective we held of George Daniels’ work. So, you know, George never even saw that watch again, after it was sold. The fact that it’s the only pocket watch he never got to see again is intriguing.
And he certainly led the way for independent watchmakers...
He was a pioneer - without him, there wouldn’t be an independent market. What he was doing was completely revolutionary. Apart from the fact that he made everything himself with the exception of the numerals, he was trying to introduce a new escapement, a whole new technology to the Swiss.
A difficult personal path to walk...
Oh yes, I remember those evenings when you would see he him after he’d come back from different firms, frustrated about how their watchmakers just didn’t get it. And it took him almost 20 years to get the coaxial escapement accepted into production finally, by Omega.
And what do you make of the auction market today?
You know, I think it provides a window for people to see what the trends are, something you can tangibly look up. If you want to know what Daytona’s are bringing, you can go and look up the results at one of the auction houses. They’re right there out in the open, so I think that’s their role - to act as a window into the market.
They do occupy a unique corner.
Yes, I think that auction will always serve a different purpose. You’re going to have people that want to sell or buy with dealers, and you’re going to have people that are going to want to sell and buy with auction houses. At an auction house, you’re buying reputation.
"Oh yes, I remember those evenings when you would see he [George Daniels] after he’d come back from different firms, frustrated about how their watchmakers just didn’t get it."
So, the physicality is important...
Exactly. Social media can function as brick and mortar in a sense. But there’s different strokes for different folks at the end of the day.
And do you collect at all?
It’s very difficult because when you’re constantly seeing the best of the best, it’s hard to know where to focus your efforts.
Part of Daryn’s collection of mainly steel watches: an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, ref. 14790
I have some watches, but when you’re exposed to the best watches it can be difficult to collect. I like to think of myself as a custodian.
You accompany special pieces along their journey?
Exactly, they’re coming in, you’re selling them and they’re going out again. There’s a sort of the ownership aspect to that.
So, you don’t feel the need to own some in the traditional sense...
No, to be honest - it’s enough to just have them pass through your hands, appreciate them and then find them a new home. You don’t actually have to own them yourself physically to own them in a different sense.
Thank you to Daryn for speaking to us.