Watches

A Patek Philippe Watch Owned by a Doctor who Battled the 1918 Spanish Flu is Up for Sale

The watch is a time capsule of sorts and validates that true luxury endures the test of time.
IMAGE Patek Philippe
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Ask anybody who’s not even interested in luxury timepieces about a watch ad that says that you never actually own the watch but you merely take care of it for the next generation and they’ll know it’s the Patek Philippe ad. The brand’s highly successful ”generations” ad campaign started in 1996 and has continued to be the brand’s message for almost a quarter century. 

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We begin with this watch story over 100 years ago when the city of San Francisco awarded Dr. Rupert Blue, a gold Patek Philippe pocket watch in 1908 for his dedication and services during the sanitation of the city and the fight against the bubonic plague.  It wasn’t just an “ordinary” Patek Philippe pocket watch; it was a very minute repeating split seconds chronograph. In 2017, Patek Philippe issued a certificate based on an extract from its archives verifying its history and a description of the timepiece.

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This timepiece is being offered at Heritage Auctions, the Dallas-based auction house with several offices worldwide and it has an interesting and timely story to tell about this rare and collectible pocket watch.

Dr. Rupert Blue’s historical minute repeater chronograph pocket watch

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Photo by Heritage Auctions.

This historically important timepiece was presented to Dr. Rupert Blue and had a recent full factory service. The case is stamped with its serial number (No. 246950), and is a 18k gold four body 45mm watch case with an invisible hinge that features a gold slide to activate the minute repeater and split second buttons in the crown and on the band and has a presentation inscription on the dust cover.

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Back then, San Francisco was not even electrified and a minute repeater was needed to tell time even in the dark. The number of chimes produced by the repeater’s gong would tell the user the correct time and the chronograph was useful in taking one’s pulse rate. So these expensive things were not mere men’s jewelry, they actually had a very practical use.

The timepiece has a white enamel dial with Arabic numerals, gold Louis XV hands, 30-minute register at twelve, subsidiary seconds track with red numerals, outer 5th second marks and red 5-second numerals. Its movement is marked No. 137519 and the case is signed with Patek Philippe hallmarks, movement signed Patek Philippe & Cie and Shreve & Co., dial signed Shreve & Co.

The archive stated that its date of manufacture as 1905 and date of sale July 29th, 1907. Its dust cover is engraved "To Rupert Blue P.A. Surgeon, U.S.P.H. and M.H.S. from the citizens of San Francisco. In grateful recognition of services rendered the city while in command of the Sanitation Campaign of 1908."

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The highest level of craftsmanship was used to put together this movement and it features a bi-metallic compensated balance, wolf's tooth winding gears and a swan's neck regulator that is only used in high quality movements

Photo by Heritage Auctions.

So, who’s Dr. Rupert Blue? Years after he received this watch, Dr. Blue became America’s fourth Surgeon General. According to Heritage Auctions, he served with the Marine Hospital Service Regular Corps, which later became the Public Health Service. He received the watch with honors for his work to eradicate the bubonic plague in San Francisco in 1905 and in the eradication of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1907. He served as Surgeon General under Presidents Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson from 1912 to 1920. He also served as President of the American Medical Association from 1916 to 1917.  

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After his sanitation campaign against the bubonic plague, he went on to gather some of the country’s best medical minds and turned to the new science of bacteriology to effectively combat against diseases linked to poverty in both rural and urban areas. Before “social distancing” became a household name, Dr. Blue advocated the use of facial masks, told the government to shut down schools and churches and told everyone to stay away from crowds during the height of the Spanish flu pandemic that hit the US in September 1918. If it weren’t for his efforts, millions more would have perished.

The dust cover shows the inscription engraved permanently to the watch

Photo by Heritage Auctions.
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It looks like history is about to repeat itself with the coronavirus pandemic and the adage from Patek Philippe’s campaign becomes so real and encapsulated in this timepiece, certified by the auction house to be in excellent condition and had a full factory service performed by Patek Philippe Geneva. It is a time capsule of sorts and validates that true luxury endures the test of time. This auction is also a timely homage and a dedication to the pioneers of medical science that have taught us the tools on how to battle the current pandemic we are in.  

As of this writing, the latest bid stands at $26,000 ($32,000 with buyer’s premium) and is expected to fetch close to double that price. Not necessarily a princely sum, compared to the wristwatches from Patek Philippe’s boutiques. The history and effort that went through to produce this mechanical marvel makes it a real bargain, and hopefully the new owner will ensure its longevity for generations to come.

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For more information about this watch, visit Heritage Auctions at www.ha.com

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Alvin Uy
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