Watch fetches record $21.3 million at Swiss auction

Geneva (AFP) - A Patek Philippe gold watch billed as the most expensive -- and most complicated -- in the world fetched a record $21.3 million on Tuesday when it went under the hammer in Switzerland.

The sale of the "Henry Graves Supercomplication", a handcrafted timepiece named after its original owner, a New York banker who ordered it in 1925, weighs more than half a kilo and comprises 900 separate parts.

It had been expected to sell for $15 million at a Sotheby's jewel and watch auction in Geneva.

But frenzied bidding pushed the price up higher, and the final amount paid was "a new world record", Sotheby's said.

The winning bidder, who remained anonymous, will have to fork out a total of $24 million, including the commission.

It took Patek Philippe five years to assemble the watch, which has Graves's name on the dial.

Tim Bourne, Sotheby's worldwide head of watches, said the sale confirmed the watch's "superstar status".

Bourne called it an "icon of the 20th century, a masterpiece that elevates the discipline of watchmaking to art".

- 'Symbolises strength, power and money' -

A watch industry expert told AFP before the auction the timepiece was not just an immensely expensive accessory.

"This is not a watch you can wear. It is a watch that symbolises strength, power and money," he said.

The Patek Philippe piece displays not only the hour but also a plethora of other indicators: a perpetual calendar, the phases of the moon, sidereal time, indications for the time of sunset and sunrise, and the shifting night sky over Manhattan.

Its Westminster chimes sing joyfully every 15 minutes.

The watch has been up for sale once before, at a Sotheby's auction in New York in December 1999, when the Time Museum in Rockford, Illinois closed its doors and emptied its inventory.

That time, the exquisite timepiece went for a mere $11 million.

The watch was among 368 timepieces that were up for auction on Tuesday.

Wealthy collectors from around the world have descended on Geneva for four action-packed days at Sotheby's and rival house Christie's.

Christie's kicked off the bidding frenzy on Sunday with a special auction to mark 175 years of Patek Philippe watches, which saw 100 wrist and pocket watches go under the hammer for a total of $19,731,099.

That was double the original estimate, and set nine world records in the process, said Christie's, which raked in another $15 million on a second round of watch sales Monday evening.

At Christie's on Tuesday a diamond-decked brooch commissioned by France's empress Eugenie in 1855 went for $2 million, at the low end of the pre-sale estimate.

The piece had not been seen at auction in 125 years, Christie's said, stressing that it was "extremely rare for a jewel of such historic importance to be offered for sale".

At the same auction a diamond and sapphire necklace, the Blue Belle of Asia, which includes a legendary cushion-shaped sapphire of 392.52 carats, sold for $15.75 million, well above its estimate.

Sotheby's is also presenting a bit of royal history at its competing auction on Wednesday, offering up a stunning pearl necklace that once belonged to Josephine de Beauharnais (1807-1876), who later became queen of Sweden and Norway.

Sotheby's jewel chief David Bennet suggested the pearls, expected to fetch up to $1.5 million, may even have been handed down by the queen's grandmother and namesake, the first wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.

"It may well be that these pearls were originally in her collection as well," Bennet told AFP.