6 November 2012, Sotheby's, Bond Street, London
George Daniels collected a lot of clocks and watches, and of course made quite a few that he kept for himself. He left instructions that after his death, they should be auctioned to raise money to found a trust for training future British watchmakers. The sale raises £8.25m, far in excess of estimates, including Daniels' own Space Traveller, which goes for £1.33m.
I have only bid at auction once before. That was almost exactly ten years ago at Christie's auction house in Paris, when some Concorde parts were auctioned off. I was determined to get an airspeed indicator, and, €9,000 poorer, I did. It's a beautiful piece of instrumentation. In the photos, you'll see the speed in knots on the main scale and then, inset on the left, the speed in Mach. Since the speed of sound varies with air pressure, this scale moves around as the aeroplane's altitude increases. It's all entirely mechanical, driven from the pitot and static probes. (The electrical connections are for illumination only.)
I was nervous then and I am nervous today. I'm not much of a collector, thankfully, because I know how easy it is to get carried away in the frenzy of bidding. The man next to bids on the Space Traveller, but drops out at £1.2m. "Thank God for that," he says, "my wife would have killed me."
I'm after was the Trafalgar - the only electronic watch George owned, and a talking one at that.
The fuss of the big sales is calming down a bit and the auctioneer is getting into the swing of it. The lot estimate is £80 - £120, and it is announced to derisory laughter from the crowd. "Anybody got a fifty quid note?" jokes the auctioneer. Up goes my bidding paddle that the room turns to stare at me, thinking I am mad. There is only one other bidder, and he is bidding by phone. (If you know who it was, do get in contact.) By the time we hit the £300 mark, the crowd are on my side. They coax me through the £500 barrier and positively cheer when we close the deal at £813. "[The] price elicited about as many sharp intakes of breath as the Space Travellers' Watch!" reported the Horological Journal, though in fact it was the lowest price paid for anything at the auction.
By modern CNC machining standards, manufacture is poor - note the alignment of the speaker holes. But then Trafalgar did subcontract the manufacture to a French company, Reglex. It was reportedly no longer in working condition, so I was expecting it to require an extensive rebuild, probably with entirely new electronics. As it turned out, all it needed was a new set of batteries.