UK government prevents an historically important pocket watch leaving the country in the hopes a new British buyer can be found. Anyone got £2.5m?
Pocket Watch No. 1297, a four-minute tourbillon made to order by Abraham-Louis Breguet, is now subject to a temporary export bar by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport so as to allow a UK institution the chance of raising the estimated £2m plus VAT that it will take to "save the work for the nation". Referring to the recent rise in interest of the Georgian period, a Netflix movie has made it into a press release issued on behalf of the UK government, which said: “with the nation captivated by Bridgerton, there is no better time for this watch owned by George III to come to light.”
The Worshipful Company of Clockmakers - the 61st livery company of the City of London, which was established under a Royal Charter granted by King Charles I in 1631 - is actively considering its options, reports The Telegraph. The Clockmakers' Collection, hosted in London's Science Museum, would be a natural home for the George III watch. As the Company's Dr. James Nye says: "It is a watch of undoubted national and international significance and it would be magnificent to display the watch alongside Harrison's H5."
Quite apart from its horological importance, the George III watch would have been a status-symbol appropriate for a king. It’s also a watch that’s full of story, its creation involving the Emperor Napoleon as well as a band of semi-official smugglers.
George III was a keen supporter of the sciences and particularly interested in horology, engaging directly with the leading watchmakers of the day, commissioning pieces to his detailed specification and recording in his own hand details about the watches’ care.
Unsurprisingly, given the king’s interest, the watch was state-of-the-art at the time featuring a new mechanism designed improve its timekeeping. Breguet’s invention caused the entire escapement assembly to slowly rotate, thereby counter-acting errors brought about by gravity.
Complicated and expensive to make, these ‘tourbillons’ became (and remain) highly prized. One of 35 made (of which ten survive) by Breguet between 1805 and 1823, the watch also includes a thermometer, continuous seconds, stopping seconds and a state of wind indicator, all housed in stunning chased gold case.
The watch cost 4,800 francs, several hundred thousand in today’s money. While George III’s interest in horology was not controversial, what was best kept quiet was his choice to buy a watch from a Swiss maker based in Paris at the height of the Napoleonic wars. Napoleon maintained a trade ban with Britain through his ‘Continental System’, but was also sensitive to the economic value of selectively breaching the blockade. To that end, smugglers on the channel coast were given semi-official protection and it is likely through this route that the watch made its way to George III.
The ban is part of the government’s export control licencing system and exists in part to allow museums and national institutions the chance to acquire objects considered to be of national importance. It will remain in place until the DDCMS makes its final decision on 28 April, although there can be an extension of six months if there’s evidence of a serious attempt to raise the amount required to buy the watch.