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  • Harry Fane

Mystery and a mysterious person...

Earlier, we discussed the story of Cartier and their extraordinary ‘Mystery’ clocks. Instead of going into the story again, I want to concentrate on the model which was sold yesterday by Christie’s New York.

The Cartier ‘Mystery’ clock story all began with this model, suitably named The Model A. The very first version was produced in 1913 and, by repute, sold to the American banker J. P Morgan. The First World War halted production and it was not until 1919 that the manufacture of these jewelled wonders begun again. Unlike any of the other ‘Mystery’ clocks, the Model A was produced, with some minor modifications and interruptions, right the way through until the mid-1960s. It is thought that as many as 80 models were produced, making the Model A by far the most numerous of all the ‘Mysteries’. Ominously, Goering bought one from Cartier, Paris in 1940 but Queen Mary of England, Queen Victoria-Eugenia of Spain, Queen Olga of Greece, and King Farouk of Egypt all owned models, and Stalin was presented one by General de Gaulle after the Second World War.

The model sold yesterday which Christie's dated to 1928 was, in my opinion, slightly earlier. It was the familiar ‘milestone’ shape in carved rock crystal resting upon a black onyx plinth. The inner frame is set with iridescent mother-of-pearl panels upon which gold laurel motifs are applied. And the hands, which Bachet & Cartier explain ‘represent a Persian inspired shrub, with the minute hand styled as an arrow’ complete the picture.

The general shape was retained in every iteration of this model; always rock crystal and always the same size. The bases changed, black or white onyx, nephrite, gold, and, in Stalin’s, lapis lazuli. It is the inner framework where the variations and adaptations are most clearly seen. From white enamel, to mother of pearl, polished platinum, even a mosaic of kingfisher feathers. And in some of the clocks, the frames are then further enhanced with diamonds (see the second photo).

Because the Model A is both the most numerous and, in comparison to the models that follow, simpler, many collectors/dealers turn up their noses at these beauties. Of course, it is easy to be seduced by the later clocks. They are all superb and more sophisticated in their design and decoration. However, when placed side by side, the Model A will give any of the other ‘Mystery’ clocks a good run for their money. It’s the dimensions, the exquisite rock crystal cases, the delicate hands, and robust bases that are just perfection.

So, who buys these clocks? This model fetched US $ 562,000 at the auction. This is absolutely ‘bang on’ in terms of value based on the history of Model A sales. However, this particular clock has some damage to the crystal case which is worrying as it is not known if it is repairable. The world’s biggest collector of Mystery clocks said no to this model because of the blemish. Another collector, before the sale said no, then immediately after tried to find the buyer as she had changed her mind and wanted it. Suspicion falls on the world’s foremost collector of Cartier, be it clocks or jewels, who resides in the US. He is being mysterious (sorry) about it, so we will not know for sure for a while. Of course, it might have been someone completely unknown. Whoever it was is a lucky person. Once this clock is positioned within a normal setting for which it was designed, it will catch the new owner’s eye and intrigue them every day.

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