The First-Ever Automatic Patek Philippe

In a world of overused superlatives and “possibly unique” this-or-thats, it’s refreshing to come across something genuinely exciting: the first-ever automatic Patek Philippe, made for one of the brand’s most important clients, will be sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong on April 7.

Eight years ago (has it already been that long?), Ben wrote about the Patek Philippe 2526 and “why it’s a watch to pay attention to,” and it doesn’t get more important the the first 2526 to ever come out of the manufacturer in 1952. First, a quick refresh: The 2526 was the reference that Patek used to introduce its first automatic movement, the superlative caliber 12-600AT. But the appeal of the 2526 doesn’t stop with the movement – the 36mm screw-down case and enamel dial are equally impressive.
But this isn’t just any Patek 2526, it’s the first one ever made, with movement number 760,000. It’s being auctioned in Sotheby’s Hong Kong Important Watches sale on April 7, where it has an estimate of 3–5 million HKD (about $380–770,000). Even better, the watch was originally delivered to American lawyer J.B. Champion, perhaps Patek’s most important client at the time. The Champion 2526 has appeared at auction twice before, in 1991 and 1998, last selling for $57,500 to the current consignor. In addition to its Patek Extract, the watch comes with a letter from the then-president of the Henri Stern Agency confirming its provenance and delivery to Champion.
The watch is engraved on the caseback, “The First Self Winding Patek Philippe Made Especially For J.B. Champion.” Beyond its importance as the first 2526, it’s a typical first-series example in yellow gold with an off-white enamel dial made by Stern Freres. Champion’s 2526 remains in good and original condition – the most noticeable difference from its first appearance on the market is that the braided “C” bracelet has been swapped for an “A” bracelet.
While Champion is known as one of the greatest Patek collectors of the 20th century, only three of his watches have surfaced on the market to date. He’s said to have owned around 20 Pateks, but these are the only three that were designated specifically with his name, so it’s possible others will never surface (or that some other folks already unknowingly own a watch with Champion provenance). Eric Wind documented the story of Champion here back in 2014. At the time, Champion’s 2458 Observatory watch was the most expensive wristwatch without a complication ever sold.
“It’s weirdly a more important Patek that it is 2526,” Ben told me when I asked him about the Champion 2526. “I’d much rather have a black dial platinum than this watch, but to a scholar or a broad Patek collector, for sure this is the 2526 that matters most.”

Ben’s comment highlights the historical importance of this particular 2526. On its face, it’s not the most interesting or rare watch: It’s a simple yellow-gold 2526 with an enamel dial (first series, sure). But flip it over, and the caseback engraving tells a different story.