In the world of arts and antiques the concept of restoration is a delicate topic, and it’s never more fraught with difficulty than when it comes to vintage watches. The wrong processes can drastically decrease the value of the timepiece, wiping off hundreds and even thousands of dollars, and reducing collectability. It pays to tread carefully when considering restoring these vintage pieces, to preserve their historical integrity and value. 

Patek Philippe. Fine Jewels & Timepieces. Leonard Joel Auctions
Before and after careful restoration by Patek Philippe in Geneva

As a purist, I personally believe that we should leave watches as close to their original condition as possible. Particularly as we are, as Patek Philippe states, ‘merely taking care of these watches for the next generation’. Generally therefore, I would be a “no” for restoration, but a “yes” for preservation.   

So, when in 2012 whilst working for another auction house, I was presented with this large and rare platinum Patek Philippe wristwatch in its original, unrestored, and quite battered condition, I was reluctant to turn the watch away. Not only was the watch platinum and large in size, making it rare for its age, it came with dazzling provenance too. 

This fine Patek Philippe wristwatch was the property of Count John Francis McCormack (1884 – 1945), an internationally renowned Irish tenor, celebrated for his performances of operatic and popular songs. McCormack had an extremely successful career and made millions from his recordings and appearances. He was the first to record It’s a Long Way to
Tipperary
in 1914. In 1917, he was given an honorary doctorate by the Holy Cross, the first of several important accolades. McCormack ended his career at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1938, however, a year later, he began singing again for the Red Cross in support of the war effort and continued to record and give concerts until 1943. This watch was a gift to John from his wife Elizabeth ‘Lily’ Foley, also a brilliant singer. The platinum case back is engraved Lily to John July 2nd 1931 with an added sentimental touch of being beautifully set with a diamond. 

Fast forward over 90 years to this month, when this same watch was referred to me by our Sydney office. I was astounded at its transformation but instantly recognised it not only because the reference is so distinctive and rare, but such was the meticulous mastery and adherence to originality of the restoration by Patek Philippe Geneva, that it was the same timepiece without a doubt. Here was proof of the fact that restoration is a nuanced concept and can take varied and even favourable courses.

A restoration is generally undertaken on a watch that is at least twenty years old. This is primarily due to the wear a watch of a certain age sustains merely by doing its job of keeping time. At this age, largely due to lack of parts, it would place the watch beyond the reach of a standard service. 

In the case of this watch, a documented outline was given by Patek Philippe of parts replaced or remade and serviced, knowing full well that every decision could affect the perceived originality, coherence, and integrity of the watch. In communications to the owner, Patek Philippe stated “the quality of restoration will be the key factor to ensure its good functioning and value for future generations.”   

What I was presented with this time around was a remarkable restoration that not only benefited the watch by again making it functional, adding value and desirability, but most importantly, none of this changed the nature of this significant timepiece. 

Patricia Kontos / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

Banner Image: Formerly Property of the Estate of Count John Francis McCormack, Patek Philippe, A Rare Platinum Wristwatch, Circa 1930. $20,000 – 30,000

May 2022