After many years of trying to get a photograph of the Dalai Lama’s Patek Philippe watch that was a gift from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943, I nearly fell off my office chair when I got an e-mail this morning from Thomas Laird directing me to Senator Patrick Leahy’s Facebook page, where Senator Leahy (perhaps better known for his cameos in Batman movies including The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) posted a photograph of the watch as well as a photograph of the Dalai Lama showing it to him last night at an event in Washington, D.C.
The journey to see and identify this watch started back in July 2010, when I first digitally met John Reardon, who is now my boss at Christie’s (that was certainly not anticipated at the time) and who was at that time working at Betteridge in Greenwich, Connecticut. John was writing an article on HODINKEE about the Dalai Lama’s Patek Philippe, and I noticed it in the draft section of the site. I did a little digging and developed a more comprehensive story of how the Dalai Lama received the watch from the book The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama by Thomas Laird.
The Patek Philippe was given to the Dalai Lama by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1943. However, it was not personally presented by FDR, but was presented to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet, on behalf of President Roosevelt by two intelligence agents in the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS for short (the World War II U.S. intelligence service that was the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency). The two intelligence agents were Ilia Tolstoy (who the book describes as the “Ã©migrÃ© grandson of the Russian novelist”) and Brooke Dolan. Tolstoy and Dolan went to Tibet to examine the possibility of constructing a road from India to China that would run through Tibet in order to help the U.S. better provide China with supplies to fight and resist the Japanese. They carried to the Dalai Lama the Patek Philippe and a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Laird writes, “Tradition dictated that he say nothing to his visitors and that they say nothing to him. Instead, he accepted gifts from the foreign envoys and they accepted a ritual ‘khata’ (a traditional ceremonial scarf) from him in silence.”
Page 294 of the book further tells the story directly from the Dalai Lama:
“This is from Tolstoy and Dolan,” he said as he put a box in my hands.
Inside was a gold Patek Philippe watch, which showed the phases of the moon and the days of the week.”Well Roosevelt certainly had nice taste,” I said. “How old were you when you received this from President Roosevelt?” I asked”
“I was seven or eight,” he said.
“Has it been repaired?”
“Several times, ” he said with an embarrassed smile. By the time his brother left for China, in 1946, accompanying a Tibetan delegation, who went to offer congratulations to India’s colonial government and to China on their victory in the war, the timepiece already needed repairs. Even a Patek couldn’t hold up to the wear and tear from young Tenzin Gyatso.
“Then after that, on one occasion in Lhasa,” the Dalai Lama said, “I had it stay in my pocket and I also had a strong magnet. I was working on the movie projector. So the watch went out for repair again,” he noted sheepishly. It was even out for repairs in Switzerland in 1959, when he fled Lhasa the last time. Regular maintenance is the reason he has the watch today.
He joked about the checkered history of Roosevelt’s gift. “It seems that this watch has made the prayer that it will never be in the hands of the Chinese!” the Dalai Lama laughed.
Laird had taken a photograph of the watch and it was on a slide in his collection of over 200,000 slides of photographs he had taken in Tibet, but he was unfortunately not able to find it.
I later contacted the Office of Tibet in Washington, DC, requesting a photograph of the watch. They were kind enough to connect me directly to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India, but I received a succinct e-mail from a secretary in the office denying my request. No reason was provided, but perhaps they thought the Chinese media would take it out of context to paint the Dalai Lama as living a lavish lifestyle by owning such an expensive watch. In fact, there are numerous articles online discussing the Dalai Lama’s watches, which seem to include at least a few Rolex and Omega watches, and various articles online saying he should sell his watches and give the money to charities.
Furthermore, the Dalai Lama is known to have some watchmaking skills, and he is quoted about it in his book “Ethics for the New Millennium”:
“For example, I have always enjoyed repairing watches. But I can remember a number of occasions as a boy when, completely losing my patience with those tiny, intricate parts, I picked up the mechanism and smashed it down on the table. Of course, later I felt very sorry and ashamed of my behavior–especially when, as on one occasion, I had to return the watch to its owner in a condition worse than it was before!”
The Reference 658
That brings us back to today and the photographs that Senator Leahy posted last night. After quick review with John Reardon, we identified the watch as an extremely rare and complicated reference 658, which is a watch featuring a perpetual calendar with moon phase, split-seconds chronograph, and minute repeater. It was a reference launched in 1937 in a modernist-style case and that was in production until the late 1950s. Only approximately 15 examples of this reference were produced, according to Eric Tortella’s database. The Dalai Lama’s watch is on the earlier side of production, featuring smaller registers, Arabic numerals that go from 1-12 with the exception of the 6 (later versions had larger registers that caused the removal of the 3, 9, and 12 numerals on the dial), and an earlier and longer signature that says “PATEK, PHILIPPE & Co.” rather than just “PATEK PHILIPPE.”
One interesting detail that caught the attention of John and me at first was what appeared to be a ridge carved on the dial in the photograph, which we then identified as only being on the right half of the dial. However, after a little closer examination, it seems that it may be a scratch on the inside of the crystal, perhaps from the hour hand, which may have been bent upwards and scraped along the underside of the crystal.
One other notable feature of the watch in terms of condition is that the dial seems to remain in excellent condition with enamel numbering and lettering that appears to have never been washed. The case, however, has in my view likely been polished given how the grain looks on the gold, but that is not at all surprising.
We have a Patek Philippe archive image of the reference 658 and it has the identical dial configuration of the Dalai Lama’s watch. It seems possible that he has the exact watch depicted in the archive photograph. Even the way the Arabic “2” sits on the dial with a small dot above it as well as what seems to be a rough bottom to the “2” in “12” seem to be mirrored in the archive photograph and the photograph of the Dalai Lama’s watch. I would want to see a higher-resolution photograph of the Dalai Lama’s watch (or even better, inspect it in person) in order to examine a few more details, such as the spacing between the periods and the abbreviations for the days of the week, but I have some confidence the archive image is the Dalai Lama’s watch, based on what I can see.
So what is the value of this watch? Christie’s sold two later examples of the reference 658 in the last six years. One sold for the equivalent of $357,909 in Geneva in November 2010, while another sold for the equivalent of $273,227 in Geneva in November 2011, and again for the equivalent of $253,605 in November 2013. Sotheby’s sold a probably unique example with black dial from 1937 signed “E. GÃBELIN” (rather than “PATEK PHILIPPE”) for $527,000 in December 2014 in New York. John Goldberger took a great photo of it here and you can also see it on the site of Davide Parmegiani.
I would say a conservative auction estimate on this reference 658 would be $150,000 to $250,000 without consideration of the provenance; however, with this kind of history behind the watch, the sky would truly be the limit.