Found: The Dalai Lama's Patek Philippe, Gifted By FDR Via An OSS Officer Who Was The Grandson Of Leo Tolstoy (Seriously)
The journey to see and distinguish this watch began back in July 2010, when I first carefully met John Reardon, who is now my boss at Christie’s (that was positively not foreseen at that point) and who was around then working at Betteridge in Greenwich, Connecticut. John was composing 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 bit of burrowing and developed a more comprehensive story of how the Dalai Lama got 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 introduced by FDR, yet was introduced to the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet, for President Roosevelt by two insight specialists in the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS for short (the World War II U.S. knowledge administration that was the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency). The two insight specialists were Ilia Tolstoy (who the book portrays as the “émigré grandson of the Russian novelist”) and Brooke Dolan . Tolstoy and Dolan went to Tibet to analyze the possibility of constructing a road from India to China that would go through Tibet to help the U.S. better provide China with provisions to battle and oppose the Japanese. They conveyed to the Dalai Lama the Patek Philippe and a letter from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Laird states, “Tradition directed that he doesn’t utter a word to his visitors and that they don’t utter a word to him. All things being equal, he acknowledged endowments from the foreign envoys and they acknowledged a custom ‘khata’ (a traditional ceremonial scarf) from him in silence.”
Page 294 of the book further recounts the story straightforwardly 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 periods of the moon and the times of the week.”Well Roosevelt surely had pleasant taste,” I said. “How old were you when you got this from President Roosevelt?” I asked”
“I was seven or eight,” he said.
“Has it been repaired?”
“Several times, ” he said with a humiliated grin. When 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 watch previously required fixes. Indeed, even a Patek couldn’t hold up to the mileage from young Tenzin Gyatso.
“Then from that point onward, 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 fix once more,” he noted timidly. It was even out for fixes in Switzerland in 1959, when he escaped Lhasa the last time. Normal support is the reason he has the watch today.
He joked about the checkered history of Roosevelt’s blessing. “It appears to be that this watch has made the petition that it won’t ever be in the possession of the Chinese!” the Dalai Lama laughed.
Laird had snapped a picture of the watch and it was on a slide in his collection of over 200,000 slides of photographs he had taken in Tibet, yet he was unfortunately not ready to discover it.
I later contacted the Office of Tibet in Washington, DC, mentioning a photograph of the watch. They were benevolent enough to connect me straightforwardly to the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India, yet I got a compact email from a secretary in the office denying my solicitation. No reason was provided, however maybe they thought the Chinese media would take it out of context to paint the Dalai Lama as carrying on with a sumptuous way of life by owning a particularly costly watch. Indeed, there are numerous articles online examining the Dalai Lama’s watches, which appear to incorporate at any rate a couple of 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 make them watchmaking abilities , and he is quoted about it in his book “Morals for the New Millennium”:
“For model, I have consistently enjoyed fixing watches. In any case, I can recall various occasions as a boy when, completely losing my understanding with those little, complicated parts, I got the system and crushed it down on the table. Of course, later I felt extremely sorry and embarrassed about my behavior- – particularly when, as on one occasion, I needed to restore the watch to its owner in a condition worse than it was before!”
The Reference 658
That takes us back to today and the photographs that Senator Leahy posted the previous evening. After fast survey with John Reardon, we recognized the watch as a very uncommon and complicated reference 658, which is a watch highlighting a ceaseless schedule with moon stage, split-seconds chronograph, and moment repeater. It was a reference dispatched in 1937 out of a modernist-style case and that was in production until the last part of the 1950s. Only approximately 15 instances of this reference were produced, according to Eric Tortella’s information base. The Dalai Lama’s watch is on the previous side of production, including more modest registers, Arabic numerals that go from 1-12 with the exception of the 6 (later versions had bigger registers that caused the removal of the 3, 9, and 12 numerals on the dial), and a prior and longer mark that says “PATEK, PHILIPPE & Co.” instead of just “PATEK PHILIPPE.”
One fascinating point of interest that grabbed the eye of John and me from the outset was what had all the earmarks of being an edge cut on the dial in the photograph, which we at that point distinguished as only being on the correct portion of the dial. However, after a little closer examination, it appears to be that it very well might be a scratch within the gem, maybe from the hour hand, which may have been bowed upwards and scratched along the underside of the crystal.
One other notable element of the watch as far as condition is that the dial appears to stay in fantastic condition with veneer numbering and lettering that seems to have never been washed. The case, however, has in my view probably been polished given how the grain looks on the gold, yet that isn’t at all surprising.
We have a Patek Philippe chronicle picture of the reference 658 and it has the indistinguishable dial configuration of the Dalai Lama’s watch. It appears to be possible that he has the specific watch portrayed in the chronicle photograph. Indeed, even the way the Arabic “2” sits on the dial with a little dot above it just as what is by all accounts a rough bottom to the “2” in “12” appear to be mirrored in the file photograph and the photograph of the Dalai Lama’s watch. I would need to see a higher-resolution photograph of the Dalai Lama’s watch (or surprisingly better, investigate it in person) to inspect a couple of more subtleties, like the dispersing between the periods and the abbreviations for the times of the week, however I have some confidence the file picture is the Dalai Lama’s watch, in light of what I can see.
So what is the estimation of this watch? Christie’s sold two later instances of the reference 658 over the most recent six years. One sold for what could be compared to $357,909 in Geneva in November 2010 , while another sold for what might be compared to $273,227 in Geneva in November 2011 , and again for what might be compared to $253,605 in November 2013 . Sotheby’s sold a probably extraordinary model with dark dial from 1937 marked “E. GÜBELIN” (instead of “PATEK PHILIPPE”) for $527,000 in December 2014 in New York. John Goldberger took an extraordinary photo of it here and you can also see it on the site of Davide Parmegiani .
I would say a conservative auction gauge on this reference 658 would be $150,000 to $250,000 without consideration of the provenance; however, with this sort of history behind the watch, the sky would really be the limit.