In Watches, Provenance is Everything

There are many factors that can determine the price that something will sell for at auction, but few things can affect the price quite so much as previous ownership by someone famous.

Things can be collectible on their own, but if they’ve been owned by a famous person, the price can go through the roof.  A good example is the recent announcement that Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona is going to be sold.

jackie kennedy's watchThis watch sells for a lot of money, as it was a rare model even when new and has become closely associated with the famous actor.  The model is even known as a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman among collectors, even though it wasn’t sold by that name.  The watch is expected to sell for 3-5 times the amount that a common example that was not owned by an Oscar-winning actor might bring at auction.

That’s not the case with the Cartier Tank Ordinaire that will be sold this week.  This watch, while a bit unusual, has most of its value in the fact that it was once owned by the then-First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy.

The watch was a gift to Jackie Kennedy by her brother in law, Prince “Stas” Radziwill, who was married to Jackie’s sister.  The back of the watch is inscribed, “Stas to Jackie,” and includes the date of a 50 mile hike that Radziwill took as a challenge from Jackie.  He gave the watch to her as a thank you present.

While Cartier watches have their fans, they’re mostly viewed as jewelry and aren’t sought out by watch collectors, who tend to favor larger models with more elaborate features.  It’s also worth noting that women’s watches tend to sell for a lot less on the market than men’s models do.

As such, the going rate for even a vintage Cartier Tank is about $3000 or so.  This particular model, the Ordinaire, was one of only three made that year in 18 karat yellow gold.  Despite its relative rarity, the timepiece likely wouldn’t attract much attention were it not for its provenance.

Because Jackie Kennedy (later Jackie Onassis) was such a beloved and much-watched public figure during her life, the watch has an estimated price of $60,000-$120,000, though it could go much higher than that.  It only takes two people to drive prices into the stratosphere, and watch collectors and Kennedy aficionados tend to be both stubborn and wealthy.

An undisclosed portion of the proceeds from the auction will be given to the national endowment for the arts.