Watch collecting is a funny pursuit, in that enthusiasts are both always in search of that next great thing and healthily skeptical of anything that they haven't seen before. When a watch is discovered that is unique, unusual, and properly documented, it's a perfect storm, and that's what we have here for you today. Phillips has announced that as part of its Geneva Watch Auction: Nine, taking place May 11, 2019, it will offer up a Vacheron Constantin minute repeater with retrograde calendar that, until recently, only existed in a single black-and-white photograph.
So here's the short version of the backstory. If you flip through the 1992 tome L’Univers Vacheron Constantin Genève by Carole Lambelet and Lorette Coen, you'll eventually stumble upon a lone photo of a tonneau-shaped minute repeater with retrograde calendar marked "ref. 3620." It's arranged in a grid with countless other pocket watches and wristwatches of all kinds, and you'd be forgiven for turning the page and not even noticing it. But for die-hard collectors, this unusual piece, dating to the 1930s, became a white whale. Repeating wristwatches from that era are already rare, but the combination of the tonneau case, crown at 12 o'clock, Brooking Madrid signature, retrograde calendar and day-of-the-week indicator, and repeater slide on the right side of the case, not to mention the fact that it came from Vacheron Constantin, made it almost impossible to believe. And for the last 27 years, this lone photo was basically all anyone knew about this watch. Many assumed it was lost.
But, luckily for us, the watch surfaced last year and Phillips is now going to be offering it for sale in May. Upon discovering the watch, Phillips Watches boss Aurel Bacs was delighted to see that the case hand't been polished and that the dial was totally unrestored. He made the decision to get Vacheron Constantin involved in a few different ways, including plumbing their archive for information on the watch, creating a new, but historically accurate dial for the watch, and getting the movement back in working order. It turns out the watch was delivered with both a non-luminous dial and the radium-laden dial you see here, hence the discrepancy between the black-and-white photo and the watch as it presents today.*
The watch was a custom order by a client named Francisco Martinez Llano, and he wanted both options (as well as his monogram on the watch's caseback). Llano's nickname was apparently Don Pancho, which is extremely convenient for nickname-loving watch collectors and dealers. Who wouldn't want to own "the Don Pancho repeater?" Whoever buys the watch in a few months will have the choice to keep the original dial on the watch or to have the new dial mounted. Either way, he or she gets both, so nothing original will be lost.
Llano started corresponding with Vacheron Constantin via Madrid retailer Brooking in 1935, and after much back-and-forth the watch was delivered in January 1940. He would go on to wear it for seven years until he died in 1947. It represented a substantial investment, having cost CHF 3,750, which would come out to around $1.2 million were he to buy the same watch today. Since his passing, the watch sat in the family vault for nearly three-quarters of a century. The vault was not sealed against humidity and temperature changes, hence the heavy aging to the dial, and when Phillips and Vacheron Constantin got their hands on it, the incredible movement needed to be fully restored back to working order.*
If you want to get the full story of this watch, how it was restored, and*why it matters so much to the collector community, I recommend you take a look at this video produced by Phillips. You'll see some familiar faces, including Aurel Bacs, John Goldberger, and even Philippe Dufour.

So yeah, as far as vintage watches go, this is about as good as it gets. We've got a watch only known to the public via one lone photograph finally surface, and it's both in unrestored condition and in the hands of the original owner's family. The chances of that happening are very slim, to say the least. That Phillips and Vacheron Constantin were able to work together with the owner's family to fill in the historical record and properly restore the watch without damaging any of the original components makes this something truly special. I would imagine that interest in this watch will be huge come auction time, though considering the uniqueness it's hard to say exactly where I think the hammer will fall. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.
The Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Nine will be held in Geneva on Saturday, May 11, 2019. The catalog is not yet published, nor has Phillips released an estimate yet for this watch, but we'll be sure to update this story when they do. For now, you can learn more by visiting Phillips Watches online.