Although it has been quite some time since my last entry, I left behind a horrible cold season and an exhausting half an year. Beneath all appearances, life still throbs in the suburbs of Europe. Finding time to put together some thoughts is a different story.
Today, instead of a joke, I chose a cylinder pocket watch tale.
Under ordinary circumstances, cylinder pocket watches would hardly make the headline of an interesting story. So why should this be any different ? I'll let you be the judge and jury of this jigsaw puzzle.
And here lies history bleeding...
If we can give Shakespeare the benefit of being the most celebrated world poet, Eminescu can be considered, the Romanian counterpart. Although more than two centuries apart, it has been documented that Eminescu developed a great attraction for Shakespeare's work, that eventually influenced his creation, thus the imminent comparison of the two geniuses of the universal literature and poetry. Today, enabling Eminescu as the canonical figure of the Romanian poetry is not just by the eminescologists choice, but also by national conscience.
A while back, exactly on 22nd of November, 2016, a pocket watch, with an unknown provenance, rumored to have belonged to Eminescu and carrying a hand engraved dedication, translated "To the Wordsmith" and dated 1876, was auctioned at Artmark, in Bucharest.
Allegedly Mihai Eminescu's pocket watch Photo: Artmark
Below (in translation) the lot description:
Pocket watch, that once belonged to the great Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu, with a case dedication "Maestrului slovei 1876", from the Junimea literary society. Manual wind movement, 15 jewels, case serial 12902. Case back with chased and engraved floral motif and monogrammed "M.E.". The watch is offered with box and winding key. Unique watch, that has belonged to the foremost Romanian poet, offered by the Junimea literary society as a gift, in 1876. In 1876, Eminescu was the director of the Central Library in Iași, substitute teacher, school inspector for the counties of Iași and Vaslui, editor of the newspaper Curierul de Iași, and a frequent publisher and contributor of "Convorbiri Literare" magazine. In 2012, the pocket watch was exhibited in the Rotunda of the National Museum of the Romanian Literature, in the "Eminescu in archives" exhibition.
No further notice on the authenticity or expert analysis on the piece.
The Artmark's estimate and starting price was €5.000. And the lot hammered at €19.000 + premium.
In an attempt to decipher the mystery around the pocket watch, the before sale catalog and estimation, and the after sale report, created small media stir, but no general consensus on the authenticity.
If the sale would have taken place in a fancy British ball room, and the auctioned piece would have belonged to say T. S. Eliot, I'm sure the sale would have fetched a ridiculous price. Make no mistake, by the Romanian collectible market standards (extremely conservative), it is already a high price. Thus the fuss.
The only watch confirmed to have belonged to the poet, is the gold pocket watch gifted by his father, Gheorghe Eminovici, in 1881, and now available to the public eye, at the gallery of the National Museum of the Romanian Literature, of Iasi. The watch, along with a few other personal effects, have been donated to the museum, by the artist's descendants before leaving the country (in controversial communism era circumstances).
Eminescu's 18kt gold pocket watch, gifted by his father, G. Eminovici Photo: Petru Chichirau
Besides the gold pocket watch, it has been documented that Eminescu owned at least another time piece before 1881. It is presumed that a silver pocket watch has been offered by the Junimea literary society in 1876, while another gold pocket watch is rumored to have been offered to the poet by Veronica Micle, however none have been confirmed, so far.
The watch sold at Artmark, is, supposedly, the silver pocket watch gifted to Eminescu by the Junimea society.
Among Romanian media outlets, Mediafax Agency expressed legitimate interest and inquired serious questions about provenance. It has been revealed that the watch has been actually authenticated by Prof. Dr. Nicolae Georgescu, eminescologist, literary critic and historian.
However, one must ask, by what standards has Dr. Georgescu conducted the examination and authentication. Other then the rush and excitement for getting near a possible genuine artifact rumored to have belonged to Eminescu, I find no reason why would Dr. Georgescu put at stake his reputation, as a matter of choice.
On the other hand, regardless the overwhelming research on Eminescu's work conducted by Dr. Georgescu, Artmark should have applied standard forms of evaluation in respect to the connoisseurship, and produce relevant evidence the watch is authentic, before being auctioned.
The pre and after sale criticism seriously questions such standards apply.
Considering the interest for national heritage, I will try to raise supplementary questions, and at the same time, offer so far as possible, unearthed details or circumstantial elements that at first sight, may fall outside the standard forms, but may contribute with substantial evidence toward the main purpose, authentication.
1. Establishing the conservation grade
Please note: assessing the watch by pictures only is a nasty business, but this is the only available material.
Back case view, M.E. monogrammed in a shield Photo: Artmark
Case: Three body "demi bassine" engine turned case with hinged bezel, movement cover and case back. Case back decorated with floral motifs and shield monogrammed "M.E.". Case matching serial # 12902. Inside case back, besides the serial number, there is a hand engraved dedication "Maestrului Slovei", "1876", and two silver hallmarks, while the cuvette reads "Ancre, 15 rubis" and the same serial 12902. Case condition is worn but shows original patina.
Dial view, white enamel, black Roman numerals Photo: Artmark
Dial: White enamel with black Roman numerals, black indexed minute track and outer Arabic 5 - 60 numerals minute track, recessed subsidiary seconds dial. Black leaf hands.
Condition: The watch has been restored to some degree and its originality has long been altered. The hands have been replaced, as they belong to a different era, which shows either the watch remained in use for a longer period or a collectors choice. If we take a closer look at the dial, the minute track, just between the Arabic and Roman numerals, has had an additional dot indexing, which looks to be of luminous material, if not black enamel repaint. Luminous materials were widely available in watch industry, only after 1910's, which would indicate a later dial alteration. The dial also shows a craze network. The crystal, a replacement considering the dial and hands condition, has a crack between 11 and 1.
Movement: According to the inner case markings, the watch should be powered by an early Swiss bar lever movement, nickel or frost gilt finished, unattributed. Without movement pictures or physical examination, movement condition cannot be assessed.
Traveling case: Hinged wooden case, secured via key system, with inner blue soft velour, showing a hand carved pocket watch motif and monogrammed "M.E.".
Observation: The lime wood traveling case, likely of late 20th century, and a previous owner choice, versed with the poet's work, and with the famous Eminescu's Lime Tree of Copou garden, is not related to the original watch casing.
2. Paleographic expertise
Before going further with the watch examination, a paleographic expertise is in question, for the hand engraving inscription "Maestrului slovei, 1876" is one of the most controversial element around the watch.
Inside case engraving "Maestrului slovei, 1876" Photo: Artmark
The need to clarify the engraving is because the United Principalities (later Kingdom of Romania) adopted the Latin alphabet, officially, only in 1862, under the rule of Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza, when it replaced the Cyrillic alphabet. Before the 1862 decree though, a Transitional Alphabet, combining both Cyrillic and Latin characters, was in use, to gradually change the writing habits, that would later influence the way of speaking and thinking across Romania. The "Transitional Alphabet" is really a curious historical shift, because, with the Adrianople treaty of 1829, the Principalities (Moldova and Wallachia) fell under the Russian Empire rule, a traditional protector of the Slavic alphabet. It is worth mentioning, the first alphabet change progress was already happening in Transylvania, as early as 1780, with Samuil Klein and Gheorghe Şincai introducing the first Romanian grammar (Elementa linguae daco-romanae sive valachicae composita), that would irreversibly influence the most illuminated minds of the Principalities.
According to Prof. Dr. Ioan Albu, the engraved text "Maestrului slovei" (To the Wordsmith) is not unusual to the second half of the 19th century. Both phonetically and orthographically, the text is not uncommon and the spelling is correct for the period the engraving is claimed to be from, and therefore there is no compelling paleographic evidence to indicate the engraving it has been latter applied. By courtesy of Prof. Dr. Albu, I have also been provided with excerpts from The Annals of the Romanian Academic Society, dated as early as 1869, that would sustain the idea. So, chances are, the engraving could have made its way into the case in 1876.
Dr. Albu also suggested that the answer might lay in the Junimea society archive, however, so far, I wasn't able to source any additional information chasing this lead.
3. Silver hallmarks and cartouches interpretation
Inside case shows a few distinctive marks, as it follows: Fine Silver under a Crown, the 84 silver cartouche and the unique case serial # 12902.
Fine Silver, at first sight, might look intriguing as it is not a familiar Swiss silver hallmark. But before the Precious Metals Federal Act of 23 December 1880, Swiss export silver watches were usually hallmarked "Silver", "Fine Silver", "First Silver", "Argent", "Argent Fin", etc.
The 84 cartouche is a bit of a mystery too, especially on a Romanian import watch, as it stands for the Russian Imperial silver assay office mark. Since 1815, in Imperial Russia, fineness was expressed in zolotniks, while a zolotnik represented a 1/96 of a pound, whereas 84 zolotniks represent 84/96. Therefore, an article with the 84 zolotniks mark guarantees a fineness of at least 875/1000.
When I first saw the watch, I thought to myself that the 84 silver mark could potentially be the first nail in the coffin, but further research oblige me to express a new personal opinion on the matter.
Since the Romanian Principalities and Romanian Kingdom hallmarks prior to 1903, to my knowledge, remain undocumented to this day, I will try a rather flimsy theory, based on several 19th century pocket watches observed on local market, carrying the Russian Imperial hallmarks.
Earlier in the article, I mentioned about the "Transitional Alphabet" and the Adrianople treaty of 1829, when the Principalities fell under the Russian Empire rule.
One of the highly important measures taken during the occupation, was adoption of the Organic Regulation, an early form of Constitution, under the rule of General Pavel Kiseleff, the Romanian Principalities governor assigned by the suzerain, which ensured many critical reforms, like the installment of the first government, judicial independence and economic welfare measures. It may be since 1832, with the introduction of the Organic Regulation, when the Russian Empire hallmarks became of use in the two Romanian Principalities.
The theory may sound rather curious, but it could partially explain why between 1859, under the rule of Prince Alexandru Ioan Cuza and 1903, under the rule of King Carol I, the hallmark import system expressed no interest to the guilds and the administration. Therefore, it may well be possible to observe imported watches in the Romanian Principalities and Romanian Kingdom, fitted with precious metal cases and dated between 1832 and 1903, carrying one of the Russian Imperial assay office marks.
4. Movement manufacture period, maker and serial number interpretation
The movement cover provides the following markings: "ANCRE, 15 Rubis". "No. 12902". The two pierce holes inside the case back and the lack of a winding crown, tells this is a key wind and set movement.
Movement cover Photo: Artmark
In the absence of a movement picture, I can only estimate what the movement looks like, compared to other contemporary watches.
Early Swiss Lever movement, typical of 19th century
The earlier Swiss Lever (Anker) escapement, inspired by the English Lever, was introduced as an improvement to the older cylinder escapements, as early as 1860-1870, and although it suffered various alterations, the Swiss Lever remains in service to current day, with maybe 99% of the mechanical movement manufacture around using it.
During the 18th and 19th century, many if not most watches produced in Switzerland had rarely maker's name on them. This happened for a number of reasons:
- because the branding was something unheard of or little exploited back then,
- because the retailer did not want any name on the watch; and back in the day, it could have been assumed the retailer was also the watch maker
- or simply because, in Switzerland, each watch was the result of so many hands involved in the making process due to labor division - as there were little competent manufacturers that could have employed enough resources and skills to built complete watches from scratch -, that it would have been impossible to attribute the complete product to one maker
Combining this complex set of reasons, serial numbers stamped into a watch case, belong, most of the times, to the watch maker (or finisher, that later sold the complete watch) and not to the case maker, however, serials are hardly useful for identifying when exactly the watch was assembled or who the manufacture was, unless the maker's name is stamped on the dial, case or movement. Therefore, numbers can't identify, by themselves, the manufacture.
But some observation is in order:
According to David Boettcher from VintageWatchstraps.com, "serial numbers were usually allocated in sequence, incremented in ones, and were used to keep track of production. This was useful when a watch repairer needed a spare part, allowing the correct item to be supplied, or in case some faulty components or material were used in a batch or items which later needed to be recalled. Serial numbers don't in themselves contain any information and are only useful if you can identify first the watch manufacturer, if the manufacturer is still in existence, and then if they still have access to their old records".
By late 19th century, new Swiss watch making businesses were establishing all around the country, not just in Geneva. As serial numbers were already the fashion of the time, a low serial number clearly indicates a recent start, as opposed to a high serial number, which would imply, but would not necessarily mean, a long business run. For example, Rolex is believed to have started their serial numbering at 20.000, while Hampden Watch Co., started their numbering at 59.000 in 1877.
Omega Watch Co. could make another interesting example. Since the register of the Omega trademark, on March 10th, 1894, the earliest pocket watches with the famous 19" lig. Omega caliber, are usually in the 1.000.000 serial range. However, Louis Brandt & Fils, had their presence in Bienne as early as 1880, and by 1889, it became the largest company in Switzerland, with a total annual production of 100.000 watches. Although Omega is the successor of the Louis Brandt's business, the production quality differed very much after 1894, and albeit the lower quality manufacture remained in production under different trade names, Omega watches started their numbering supposedly at 1.000.000. Not to disregard their past, but to rather mark a new beginning, I am sure.
Therefore, a serial number as low as 12902, on an unattributed key set early lever watch of the second half of the 19th century, would mean either a newly formed manufacture, or a new trademark, with a small annual production (by the hundreds or thousands), as it would be expected, as the most Swiss watch making businesses did not thrive from the mechanized technology until 1880's, as opposed to Elgin Watch Co. of United States, who really meant volumes since 1867.
5. Relevant research and comparison in determining age
In 2014, two very important Romanian pocket watches have surfaced the internet, completely independent of each other.
In a sort of appearance order, first was a Pateck Geneve Key Lever 15 Rubis:
Pateck Geneve Key Lever pocket watch Photo: Ceasornicaria Criss
And shortly after, a Longines Key Lever 15 Rubis:
Longines Key Lever pocket watch Photo: CeasuriPentruRomania.ro
Both can be regarded as "very important" as they represent maybe the earliest military related Romanian timepieces.
If the Longines "Trei Voinici" (Three Brave Men) of the "Ceasuri pentru Romania" collection, has been well documented, and can be regarded as a road opener, offering valuable information on the second, the Pateck Geneve is still a mystery, but may produce unearthed and relevant information on the Longines.
I will first try to briefly resume the importance of the Longines Three Brave Men: On March 1878, Johann Baumann, one of the two official Longines agents of the era, placed an order for 6 full hunter pocket watches made of silver. The dial cover case had a beautiful detailed hand engraved work, framed in a black enamel round shaped medallion. The gravure represented a significant military achievement of the 1877 Russo-Turkish war, that eventually involved Romania to reject the Ottoman resistance and ultimately, proclaimed independence from the Ottoman Empire.
The history records the moment as the "Siege of Plevna": The Ottoman forces maintained command around Pleven (Bulgaria). On August 30th 1877, the Romanian 4th Division "Vanatori" (Army Rangers) took the Grivita redoubt after four consecutive bloody assaults. In the last siege, private Grigore Ion, with the help of the sergeant Gheorghe Stan and corporal Nica Vasile, managed to seize the Ottoman flag from an enemy soldier, that was later triumphantly presented in front of Prince Carol I of Romania and Emperor Alexander II of Russia.
The event was newsworthy and the three brave men soon made the rounds of the national press. On September 19th, 1877, the Resboiul gazette published a beautiful gravure, executed by Thiel & Weiss Publishing House, depicting the brave soldiers with the captured flag, and suggestively entitled "Three Brave Men", where, most likely, Johann Baumann got his inspiration from, thus the allegory name under the case gravure.
Following the 1877 events, the Kingdom of Romania finally emerged in 1881.
Longines and the Resboiul gazette "Three brave men" gravure, side by side Photo: CeasuriPentruRomania.ro
Whilst this is the first out of six Longines Three Brave Men that has ever flushed the surface in the internet era, there is no picture of the back case and dial. However, the Longines archives confirmed that the Three Brave Men watches were fitted with white enamel dials with black Roman numerals. The archive also explicitly mentions J. Baumann ordered these watches for the Romanian Army!
If for the back case artistry, later research show the Longines "Mihai Viteazul" of 1880, another 6 piece set ordered by Johann Baumann, that could unveil the mystery, but the Pateck Geneve specimen could produce the earliest evidence to complete the Longines case back puzzle, considering it depicted and celebrated the same event.
Most likely, the Longines case back showed the same kind of engraving artistry, in the form of the 1872-1881 Romanian Principalities Coat of Arms, found on the Pateck Three Brave Men specimen.
Pateck back case Romanian Principalities Coat of Arms gravure Photo: Ceasornicaria Criss
But, besides the Longines breakthrough, the "Pateck" specimen should be examined thoroughly, as it may disclose valuable information on the "Eminescu" specimen that could upend suppositions.
First, because it shows the (Lepine style) bar movement with a Lever (Ancre) escapement, which one would expect to see in the "Eminescu" specimen. Then, because it carries the 84 silver mark, which brings back the interest for the curious Russian Imperial hallmarks in the "Romanian affairs". And finally because of its low serial number.
Pateck Lever movement Photo: Ceasornicaria Criss
As we could observe earlier, the Pateck case shows the same Flag capturing allegory, although in a slightly different representation. If Longines was provided by J. Baumann with graphic instructions in the shape of the September 19th 1877 Resboiul gazette reproduction, the Pateck engraving could have been inspired by another newspaper depiction, or the manufacture simply received instructions by mail, including graphic material of the Romanian army clothing, Ottoman Flag and the Romanian Coat of Arms.
The other possible theory suggests the engraving could been performed in a Romanian workshop. Although not impossible, the latest would have brought significant additional cost. On the other hand, the Swiss could have easily provided with the case engraving artistry at a fraction of the overall unit cost, having the necessary technology and experience, and if these would have been ordered in batches, the agent would have pocket a nice discount either.
One of the most relevant aspect in determining age of the Pateck specimen is the Coat of Arms. The Coat of Arms is specific to the Romanian United Principalities under the rule of Carol I, Prince, and not to the Kingdom of Romania, and the main difference is the shape of the crown or the lack of the Steel Crown. The Steel Crown was first used on May 10th 1881, at King's Carol coronation and proclamation of Romania as a Kingdom.
But the main argument remains the Three Brave Men and the Ottoman flag depiction. The flag was captured on August 30th, 1877, while the first press material depicting the event, came out as early as September 19th. It is unclear the exact moment Baumann instructed Longines about the case artistry and the date of order, but Longines delivered the 6 watch set on March 21st 1878, thus about 6 month later the event.
If Longines influenced the Pateck artistry or the other way around, I cannot tell, however, it is hard to believe the Pateck could have been delivered earlier then say the start of 1878. And this would date the watch anywhere between January 1st 1878 to May 10th 1881, considering the coat of arms, or anywhere between January 1st 1878 to January 1st 1881, considering the new precious hallmarks, according to the Federal Act of 23 December 1880.
The Pateck case marks are also relevant as they could possibly help attributing the supposedly Eminescu's watch to a maker
Unfortunately, either way we put it, Pateck is one of the biggest forgeries of the nineteenth century. The mark was registered by George Holloway of London, UK somewhere around 1876. However, the British forgeries I've seen so far, are British lever imitation or the 3 quarter plate cylinder style.
At the same time, a watch making business established both in France (1867) and Switzerland (1881) by the name of Armand Schwob & Frere, deliberately sold watches under the name of "Pateck & Cie." or "Pateck, Geneve" to deceive and make a profit out of the quality and reputation of the prominent Patek, Philippe watch manufacturer of Geneva, that needs no further introduction.
According to Pritchard (K. Pritchard, Swiss Timepiece Makers 1775-1975), Schowb brothers had a long history in forgeries. They did not resume to "Pateck", but forged about anything they could squeeze a dollar out of a dime.
It is unclear if Holloway of London was in business with Schwob brothers, but the further research could suggest that Holloway was the one to bring Schwob's forgeries into the Great Britain and the colonies. In doing so, Holloway was repudiated from the British guild.
Schwob brothers faced two major trials. Patek, Philippe brought Schwob into court for forgery in 1886 that ended with a 15000 Swiss francs fine and the interdiction in using Pateck, Patek or any trademark related to the real Patek Philippe, plus the right to publish in 5 different magazines, of Patek Philippe's choice, the court decision. The sentence brought the company liquidation in 1892 and the consequences were dramatic for the Schwob brothers, with the 1894 final decision.
The 1886 Patek Philippe vs. Schwob case had huge impact on the Geneva and Swiss watch industry. Although little known today, the Pateck and other similar forgeries that took advantage of the Geneva and Genevan watch manufacturers name, forced the Republic and Canton of Geneva to introduce as of November 1886 ,The Poinçon de Genève (Geneva Seal). Schwob being brought to court, and the sentence of 1891, made the most notorious example.
Almost as in a great novel, it is amazing how Armand Schwob, somehow reminding of the life of the great adventurer, Jacob Heraclides, moved forward, and despite all battle scars, in 1892, we find him back in business, now related to Tavannes.
6. Pateck Three Brave Men serial number and its relevance
The Pateck "Three Brave Men" carries the serial # 12920, while the "Eminescu" specimen carries the serial # 12902, being only 18 units apart.
This little relevant number at the beginning of this journey, together with the rest of the case markings and engravings, bring the two pieces under the same umbrella. Although one open face and the other a full hunter, I would bet my moustache the two serial numbers and movement cover engraving artistry were executed by the same hand, possibly at no relevant time difference. Having this in mind, it would not be a mistake to consider they both emerged from the same factory, or when convenient, considering both "Schwobs", if not "Patecks".
The two "Schwob" covers, side by side
If I'd be running into conclusions, by the above sum of observations, here is what I've learned so far:
Odds are, the "Eminescu" specimen could have been manufactured around 1876-1881.
The inside case gravure could have made its way into the case by 1876, or at any later date.
The 84 silver cartouche found on a Romanian market watch could possibly indicate 19th century Romanian import, as long as it's well documented or associated with a sort of case dedication that would identify the watch as such. The same goes for the Pateck Three Brave Men specimen. Stripped of these unique features, one could simply not tell if the watch has been exported to the Romanian Principalities (later Romanian Kingdom) or to the Russian Empire, just by the 84 silver cartouche. In fact, the silver cartouche alone, could create confusion, and would make one think first the item is a Russian Empire silver import.
The Pateck specimen is relevant in determining age of the allegedly Eminescu specimen, and odds are, the two watches left factory in the same export batch.
Although by 1876, Eminescu represented quite a prominent figure, there is no irrefutable evidence or archive confirmation this is the exact same watch that has been gifted to Mihai Eminescu, and therefore such a sale would have not been possible in any of the mainstream international auction houses.
Other suggested but unconfirmed theories:
1. The two "Schwobs" were manufactured and delivered to the Romanian Principalities at the same time. If the "Three Brave Men" was delivered no earlier than 1878, it means the so called "Eminescu" specimen is a forgery-forgery (which would make a Premiere in my horological meanderings).
2. The two "Schwobs" were manufactured in 1876, or a couple years apart, and therefore delivered at different periods, to the same market. Possibly but highly unlikely. Who would get into watch business for such a low run manufacture in a two year time and what would that tell about a manufacture ? Watch manufacturing means business from day 1, and Schwob "factories" had no problem in producing "Patecks", "Vacherons" or "Tobias" in considerable numbers by 1880's. During the real Patek vs. Schowb trial, in 1886, Georges Roulet, one of the Schwob brothers engravers, declared that he himself engraved 678 "Pateck" pieces within 2 years. However, not all Schowb watches were engraved Pateck or Vacheron Geneve. Many were unlabeled while others carried the "Schwob Freres & Co." markings.
3. The two "Schwobs" were manufactured and delivered to the Romanian Principalities prior or not later then early 1876, while the "Three Brave Men" engraving was commissioned locally, in early 1878 using available market stock. Possibly but undocumented. This would make one of the most relevant scenario to accept the "Eminescu" specimen related to 1876, and possibly authentic.
4. The two watches, although 18 serial units apart, are unrelated, and delivered by two different manufactures, independent of each other, to the same market. Possibly but very unlikely. Without any distinctive features, the engraving style and serials would indicate the same engraver. This was an era where, before entering a market, one would have to be represented by a trustee (mandataire) with the necessary material to make an entry, so what would be the odds for two different manufacturers, having a so close serial range, to be present in the same market with the same kind of product ?! Schwob is also known for taking his "Patecks" as far as possible from Switzerland.