Timepiece Chronicle

In-depth, passionate and entertaining articles that explore the stories behind great watches

To Steal The Queen: The Story of Marie Antoinette's legendary Breguet

To Steal The Queen: The Story of Marie Antoinette's legendary Breguet

Abraham Louis Bregeut

Abraham Louis Bregeut

In my opinion there is no greater Swiss watchmaker who did more for the future of horology than Abraham-Louis Breguet. His ability to combine the art and science of watchmaking to new unparalleled heights was extraordinary and whilst researching this article I discovered just how talented he was; for example he invented the precursor to the Incabloc shock absorber (which is still used in watches to this day) back in 1790! When I edit articles one of the final stages is going back and double checking I've got the correct dates and whilst going back over this piece I was constantly going back and correcting an already corrected 19-- back to 17-- or 18--. The fact my brain wasn't able to fully comprehend the first time round that these timepieces were being made over two hundred years ago speaks volumes about Breguet's skill.

I don't know about you dear Reader but I've always been rather fascinated with jewelry thieves and heists. Not your run-of-the-mill smash and grab thugs but the people who plan with skill and cunning to enter and leave without anyone knowing who they were and getting away without causing physical harm. The mythical gentleman thief so to speak. Whilst their behaviour is wantonly greedy and causes untold amounts of grief to museum staff, private collectors and the public I still find myself holding a certain level of admiration to these criminals. It was earlier this year whilst reading A Grand Complication did I first hear about one such theft that took place in Jerusalem, 1983. The theft of perhaps the greatest piece of watchmaking ever, the Breguet Ref. 160, also known as The Queen after it's intended owner, Queen Marie-Antoinette of France. 

A pre-guillotine Marie-Antoinette

A pre-guillotine Marie-Antoinette

Other than knowing that she almost certainly didn't say her famous quote "Let them eat cake" I knew very little about the young Queen when I began writing this article. Thankfully I didn't have to as she features only very briefly in the story of the watch that carries her name. The Queen had been an admirer of Breguet's work for many years and was one of the first people in the world to own a Breguet timepiece with a self-winding movement. In 1783 a mysterious admirer hoping to impress the Queen came to Breguet to order a watch that would be the most spectacular ever made. He requested it have as many complications as possible with gold to be used in every feasible circumstance over other metals. More importantly this man said that neither time nor money were to be considered a factor which was probably music to the ears of the Swiss watchmaker. It is rumored that the admirer was Count Hans Axel von Fersen, a Swedish Nobleman and Army Marshal, as he and Marie-Antoinette had always maintained a very close friendship since youth. This is mere historical speculation as the man's name was never recorded as he preferred anonymity in regards to the timepiece.

Unfortunately for both the Queen and the Count the volatile nature of turn-of-the-century French Society meant that neither of them would ever see the watch before it was finished. Marie-Antoinette was convicted of high-treason in 1793 and the Count was killed by a lynch mob who mistakenly believed he was conspiring to kill the heir to the Swedish throne in 1810. Not even it's creator saw the watch's completion as Abraham Breguet died in 1823 with his son Antoine-Louis taking up the monumental task after his death. Four years later in 1827, twenty three years after Marie-Antoinette had died and forty four years after it was first ordered the watch was completed. I find the logistics of the order quite strange as who was going to pay for the watch upon completion now that anyone involved was dead? Perhaps the mysterious admirer had paid in advance or perhaps the Breguet's knew that someone somewhere would desire the world's most complicated timepiece ever made?

The Breguet Ref. 160

The Breguet Ref. 160

Cased in 18kt yellow gold with a clear rock crystal dial displaying the entire beautiful movement and the twenty three complications housed within. The Ref. 160 would remain as the world's most complicated timepiece for over one hundred years until the creation of the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Jr. Super Complication which would best it by one complication. The watch changed hands numerous times with a French noble owning it till 1838 until he failed to collect it following a repair with the watch returning to the Breguet family until 1887 where it was sold and eventually landed in the collection of Sir David Salomons. Sir David Lionel Goldsmid-Salomon's was British scientist and an avid collector of timepieces with over one hundred and twenty four pieces of Breguet timepieces in his collection. Upon his death in 1925 he bequeathed fifty two of his pieces to the LA Mayer Museum of Islamic art in Jerusalem which had been founded by his daughter in honor of her University Professor. This is where the Breguet Ref. 160 would stay until Friday the 15th in April, 1983. On Saturday the 16th April it was discovered that over half of the Museum's collection of timepieces, including the Breguet Ref. 160, had been stolen.

It was not known how the watch was stolen until many years later with police initially suspecting three men under the employee of a foreign collector of the crime. What would eventually be discovered was that a man had parked his car near the museum and had scaled the side of the building using a grapple and some rope. Once he reached the bars he used a car jack to pry them apart far enough to squeeze through an 18 inch window into the museum. In 2009 the Museums Director Rachel Hasson recalled her reaction to the crime by saying "I came as soon as they phoned me. It was shocking. On the floor were the glass panels and the locks of the showcases. Everywhere lay remnants of packing materials, tape and cardboard; there were empty Coca-Cola bottles, cables and wires". The museum hired a private investigator to track down the stolen pieces and despite travelling to hundreds of antique dealers and auctions houses he was never able to find any trace. Anyone who was smart enough to plan a heist of this magnitude and get away clean without being detected or harming anyone wasn't going to suddenly appear redhanded in a Tel-Aviv pawn shop. As the investigation dried up so did the tabloids interest in the story with the public forgetting about the watch and the Museum in no hurry to remind people of the embarrassing incident. 

In 1999 Breguet were bought by the Swatch group and five years later Swatch Chairman Nicolas Hayek Sr. began asking Breguet about the possibility creating a replica of the Ref. 160. Later he would say that it was a hell of a big challenge because there wasn't any technical drawings of the watch and the watchmakers had to refer to photographs of the original and descriptions of it's functions in textbooks. The same year the Mr. Hayek began asking questions about the Ref. 160, another man was finally talking about the piece after twenty years. Na'aman Diller, a renowned jewelry thief was dying of cancer and on his deathbed told to his wife Nili Shromat that he had stole the piece in 1983 and where she could find it. It took Nili two years to finally approach a lawyer (albeit anonymously) to begin the process of returning the timepieces. Her terms for returning the pieces were that she would receive a finders fee, remain protected from prosecution from the museum and that her anonymity would be guaranteed. The museum agreed to pay Ms. Shromat $38,000 and sent Rachel Hasson to authenticate the pieces that for the last two decades been wrapped in newspaper in a cardboard box like an unwanted crockery set. "I opened them and identified them from their numbers. Most were in good shape. Some were damaged. When I came to the Marie-Antoinette, I couldn't help crying. It was so moving and exciting to see it after so many years" said Rachel Hasson upon discovering the Ref. 160 again.

After the pieces were catalogued and returned to the museum Hasson realized that their discovery wouldn't be assimple as first thought as she wondered whether to risk displaying the pieces again and also about how the Museum had accepted the insurance payout after theft in 1983. It was decided that they would remain locked in a safe and their discovery would remain a secret till later. However just like in the movies, somebody talked. Whilst the Museum had accepted Nili Shromat's conditions, the Jerusalem Police had no such obligations and set about tracking down Ms. Shromat and when it became apparent who her husband was, the police focused on whatever remaining stolen goods were stashed away. Ironically enough in 1983 Na'aman was considered a suspect by police however as an expert forger, he had created documents that showed he was out of the country at the time of the robbery. When his home in Holland was raided by police they discovered more jewelry and timepieces along with multiple forged passports and written instructions to some of the watches explaining how to care and use them correctly. 

In 2008 the Museum went public with the announcement that they were back in possession of the Ref. 160 yet strangely enough Breguet were denied their request to inspect the watch. Whilst speaking with the Financial Times in 2008, a representative of Breguet said "We cannot comment on the return of the watch. We have asked the museum to be allowed to see the watch several times in order to check that it is genuine but the request has always been refused. As long as our experts have not seen it, we cannot confirm that it is, indeed, the real Marie-Antoinette". Currently on the Breguet website it does mention the return of the watch in late 2007 some at point the Museum did eventually let Breguet authenticate. Also in 2008 Nicolas Hayek showcased the new Ref. 1160 at Baselworld which was proudly displayed in an Oak box made of wood from a tree in Versailles where the Queen would frequently rest under. It had taken four years to make and was just as magnificent as the original with great pains made to make it as authentic as possible with the dial being made of rock crystal rather than sapphire or mineral as per the original.

The complications included a thermometer, minute repeater, perpetual calendar, jump hour display and an independent central seconds hand which was an early precursor to the chronograph. The complication that always eluded my understanding was the equation of time which tracks the difference between civil and solar time. Simply put the irregular orbit of the earth around the sun causes a slight time difference between time shown on a sundial (True Solar Time) and the standard twenty four hour time that humans use to measure time. Mean solar time can run up to 16 minutes behind and up to 14 minutes ahead of our conventional timing and is only the same on four days of the year. Not exactly a complication that will receive gasps of admiration from non-horologists like a minute repeater or tourbillon will but it is probably one of the greatest scientific achievements horology has ever accomplished. Despite the grand achievement that is this watch I will say that I find the dial almost impossible to read in photographs but I doubt anyone would be really pushing Marie-Antoinette to hurry up getting ready to go out. As with the Graves Super Complication and the recent Vacheron Constantin 57260 I think these pieces are less about functionality and more about the skill and craft used to make them.

What I do find strange about the Ref. 1160 is that is was never intended to be sold to anyone. Unlike the Patek Super Complication, the Grandmaster Chime or the Vacheron Constantin Ref 57260 which were intended for buyers, the Ref. 1160 now currently sits prominently in the hands of Breguet and is on show till early 2016 at San Francisco's Legion of Honor Museum. Creating a watch that is estimated to be valued at $30,000,000 simply to adorn the company's portfolio rather than a private collectors is very interesting. The original Ref. 160 is still in Jerusalem under heavy guard and one can only hope that there isn't a new Na'aman Lidor eyeing up the watch. Hopefully they've made the bars on the window just a little bit bigger.

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