The Collections of Henry Graves

Henry Graves Jr was born in Orange, New Jersey in 1868 to Henry Graves Sr, a partner in the Maxwell and Graves banking firm.

Graves Jr followed his father into the banking firm. Working with the firm took him to New York City where he met Florence Isabel Preston, whom we was to marry and have four children by. The younger Graves was a skilled banker, and turned his privileged start to a great personal fortune.

This allowed him to focus on his great passion for collecting. Graves had a passion for art, and collected many fine pieces. Unfortunately, most of the details have been lost.

Nevertheless, the collection merited its own auction, entitled Masterpieces of Engraving and Etching: The Collection of Henry Graves, Jr, took place at American Art Association Anderson, Galleries, Inc (now known as Sotheby's).

The highlight was the painting Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer which brought a then impressive $10,000.

It is as a collector that Graves is best remembered, but not for the art he owned.

Rather, it is in the field of timepieces where his name still strikes a chord. Graves was a great enthusiast for Patek Philippe watches, and formed a great collection of them.

To some extent this was as part of a cheerful rivalry with automobile engineer James Ward Packard. Packard ordered 13 highly complex pieces from Patek Philippe during the first quarter of the 20th century, with complications including:

A perpetual calendar with phases and age of the moon, indication of sunrise and sunset and a celestial chart depicting the constellations of stars in the sky over his Ohio home. None of Packard's watches was the most complex watch in the world, however, as they ranged up to only 16 complications.

The piece laying claim to that title for much of the history of complex timepieces had been commissioned from the legendary watchmaker Abraham Louis Breguet by Marie Antoinette in 1783, and it held onto that for over a century.

Leroy no 1, with 20 complications, was created for Portuguese collector, A A de Carvalho Monteiro in 1897, and at that point it was the watch to beat.

Graves ordered a watch from Patek in deep secrecy with just one specification: to plan and construct "the most complicated watch...and, in any-case, certainly more complicated than that of Mr. Packard!"

Henry Graves 1933 Patek Philippe Supercomplication
Henry Graves 1933 Patek Philippe Supercomplication

Patek Philippe was not daunted by this request, and instead took three years carefully planning it and then another full five years putting it together. In January 1933, Graves became the very proud owner of a yellow gold watch with a full 24 complications.

These included additional timekeeping functions of the hours, minutes and seconds of sidereal time, and the time of sunrise and sunset (calibrated for New York City).

A perpetual calendar offering the date, the day of the week, the month, the star chart and the age and phases of the moon is also included, alongside a star chart and various chronograph functions.

This all comes in a package consisting of 430 screws, 110 wheels, 120 various movable parts, and 70 jewels - at over 0.5kg, it couldn't be a pocket watch.

The watch remained the most complex for over 50 years until Patek created the Calibre 89 (33 complications) in 1989 to celebrate their 150th anniversary. But it is still the most expensive ever to be sold, fetching just over $11m at Sotheby's in 1999, against an estimate of $3-5m.

It's not just the 1933 version which is associated with Graves however. Even now when a Graves piece appears on the market it's usually the cause for some excitement.

In our recent interview, Julien Schaerer of Antiquorum picked out as a highlight of his career a time when a couple with no expectations showed up with a broken watch which turned out to have the Henry Graves crest on it. It sold for $630,000 to their utter astonishment.

Collectors who've just turfed an old watch out of the attic might well be advised to check for some hint of his family crest an eagle rising out of a ducal coronet , or an engraving of his motto: Esse Quam Videri (To Be Rather than to Seem).


Images: Worldtempus (Graves) and Wadan - Flickr (1933 watch)

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