Treasures: Time to cash in on military wristwatches
Ireland's fine arts, antiques and collectables column
In 2015, an ordinary British bloke was watching the telly with his missus. The programme was the BBC series The Antiques Roadshow. On this particular episode, a plain-looking watch was being valued at thousands of pounds.
"It's just like the one I have upstairs," said the man.
"That's never worth anything," said his wife.
The man's watch, a military issue, had been bought as army surplus. It cost him £1,000. A few months later, The Antiques Roadshow came to town. The man brought along his watch, which was identified as a "rare double reference version" of the Rolex Military Submariner, issued to the British Navy in the early 1970s. In December 2016, it sold at Bonhams for £120,100 (€139,028).
The watch was one of a series ordered from Rolex by the British Navy and used by their specialist personnel. They're not quite James Bond watches, but they buy into the same fantasy. The watch hands are sword-shaped to make them more legible under low light conditions. The dials are also marked with the international symbol for tritium, a treatment the watch received to help the wearer see the hands in the dark. The case backs are engraved with the serial number (on the interior) and the Ministry of Defence issue number (on the outside case back). Plus they're made by Rolex.
British military watches do turn up at auction in Ireland, especially north of the border, but they tend to be standard issue. "We get them the odd time, but they don't necessarily fetch a great deal," says Martin Bernon of O'Reilly's auctioneers. "They're not that easy on the eye. They've a gunmetal colour and no shine." That's so a sniper couldn't pick out a distant target by the glint of his watch.
If you do come across a military watch, it's worth having it checked out. Some of them are highly collectible items, especially in the UK. "My favourite thing about watches is that they are totally unpredictable," says Jonathan Darracott of Bonhams. Over the last 20 years, military watches have soared in value. A military Omega or Rolex that was worth €300 in 1997 could sell for €3,000 in 2017. One that was then worth €30,000 could now be worth €100,000.
Despite the fashion for big watches on ladies right now, generally speaking, watch collecting is a boy thing and the collectible watches were designed for them.
That said, the earliest wristwatches were devised for women. Some say the first wristwatch was designed by Patek Philippe for the Countess Koscowicz of Hungary in 1868, others that it was made by Abraham-Louis Bregeut for the Queen of Naples in 1810, but the stories have one thing in common: wristwatches were originally for ladies. By the beginning of the 20th century they were advertised in fashion journals as "bracelet watches" - delicate, exquisite pieces of jewellery that also told the time. Real men wouldn't have been seen dead with one on the wrist.
The First World War changed all this. When an officer was leading his men 'over the top', he had his gun in one hand and his whistle in the other. Accurate timing was crucial, but he had no spare hand to fumble for his pocket watch. A wristwatch could make the difference between life and death. As the war progressed, more and more officers began to wear wristwatches, which were frequently among the objects returned to their families.
After the war, men continued to wear wristwatches, which had by now obviously shed their taint of femininity. An American cartoon from 1919 shows a military-looking bloke consulting his wristwatch ("tick tick"). Two corner boys look on. "No, I don't think I'll go up and slap that guy on the wrist for wearing that," says one of them. "Err no! Times is changed," agrees his friend.
The caption describes the "Victory of the Wrist Watch - Once Worn Only by Dudes it has Achieved Respectability". It accompanies an advertisement from a brand called Thoma: "The army took the wristwatch strap out of the 'Dude' class. No more was it considered dandified to wear a strap watch on the wrist."
In Britain, the Ministry of Defence began designing and testing highly specialised military grade watches with solid bars for a NATO style canvas strap (durable, waterproof, easily adjusted) to be attached, tritium luminous paint applied to the hands and dial, and oversized hands for clear legibility.
Practical, utilitarian and not particularly pretty, many were discarded or destroyed. Their value depends on their rarity and the brand but within this, there are subtleties that can double the price.
In a male-driven area of collecting, military watches have become one of the ultimate symbols of manliness, leaving their feminine origins far behind.
Women's watches, in contrast, are notoriously hard to sell. Some of the exquisite diamond-studded designs by the likes of Cartier and Bulgari are collectible as pieces of jewellery but, in general, women's watches are worth very much less than men's. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Early women's watches were small, which makes the dial difficult to read, and they are generally less reliable timekeepers than men's watches.
"The craftsmanship and what was put in them was exactly the same," Darracott explains, "but the miniaturisation made them susceptible to damage and fiddly to repair."
Another reason for their lack of popularity is that many women don't feel a second-hand watch is an acceptable gift. Men, on the other hand, have no problem with wearing a pre-owned watch.
See bonhams.com and oreillysfineart.com.
In the salerooms
The next interiors auction at Adam's takes place on Sunday with much in the way of items for the home. Fans of Meissen figurines will appreciate a 19th century band of animal musicians, including a bear playing the double base and a fox on the violin (est €2,000 to €3,000).
The paintings in the sale include 'Mare And Foal' (est €5,000 to €7,000) by John Herring Senior (1795-1865) and the hilarious 'Returning From The Fair (est €1,500 to €2,500) by Charles Hancock (1802-1877). The painting shows a merry group, much the worse for wear, with one character falling off his long-suffering pony. Oddities in the sale include a Victorian chair made of stag's antlers on hoof supports (€100 to €200) and two lots of ritual items from Tibet and Nepal (€300 to €500 each), among them a leather-covered trumpet made of a human thigh bone. See adams.ie.
ANTIQUES & COLLECTORS FAIRS
Expect an eclectic mix of dealers at the AVA Antiques & Collectors Fair at Leighinmohr Hotel, Ballymena, Co Antrim on Sunday from 11am to 6pm. Admission is €2 for adults. At the other end of the country, but with a similarly various line-up, the Kerry Antiques Art & Vintage Fair, organised by Hibernian Antiques Fairs, will take place at the Earl of Desmond Hotel, Tralee.
The Godolphin Arabian was foaled in Yemen around 1724. He was imported to England and became one of the three great Eastern stallions from whom all modern thoroughbreds are descended (the others are the Byerley Turk and the Darley Arabian).
A portrait of the Godolphin Arabian by the 18th century Irish artist, Daniel Quigley, sold for £100,000 (€115,760) at Bonhams on March 29, far exceeding its £15,000 to £20,000 estimate. The composition is said to derive from a lost original by David Morier (c.1705-1770), which was engraved by John Faber in 1753 and became a popular print. See bonhams.com.
An auction of Irish and International Art conducted by Morgan O'Driscoll will take place at the RDS, Dublin, on Monday.
As well as paintings, the sale includes a number of bronzes, most notably 'The Judo Players' (€15,000 to €20,000) by Frederick Edward McWilliam (1909-1992), but also little gems like 'Saint Briget Feeding The Poor' (€1,000 to €1,500) by Imogen Stuart (b.1929).
Contemporary bronzes include 'Horse' (€6,000 to €9,000) by Anthony Scott, an artist based in Sligo whose work is inspired by the characters from Irish legend. See morganodriscoll.com.