Following my first post on what may become the most famous Frankenstein watch, an alleged 1957 Omega Speedmaster watch, we take a more detailed look at the people involved. I will spend a bit of time looking at connections between the parties. The real fireworks will be saved for the final installment of this “Cheatmaster” saga.
Let’s start with the people who created this Frankenstein watch.
The Creator Group
The names of this murky group of people have not yet surfaced. That said, given the details that we have, I am sure that a well-connected individual would be able to identify them. From our perspective, it is irrelevant who they are. They are merely bad actors. We are more interested in what they did, what their connections were, and what their motivations were.
The dial was the item on the watch that initially raised suspicion of this watch. It was connected back to a watch for sale from the collection of a dealer based in Bern. This particular watch had been widely offered around the market but failed to attract a buyer. Let us call this the “Bern Watch.”
What we know about the Bern Watch is the luminescent material on the dial and hands was tritium rather than radioactive radium. In 1957 all luminescence was based on radioactive radium and various luminescent materials. This luminescent material is banned because it is extremely dangerous to your health. Therefore it is evident that the dial has been modified from its original state. At the very least, the luminescent material has been replaced in a relume process. As I have noted in previous articles on luminescent materials, and vintage watches, all collectors travel with a Geiger counter to identify original luminescent applications. Radium-based luminescent materials were banned in the 1970s.
The dial raised suspicion, but then based on photos that collectors had of the Bern Watch and pictures of the watch sold at Phillips, it is evident, even to my untrained eye, that the dial, case, and parts of the movement of the Bern Watch” are the same watch that Phillips, the Frankenstein watch, auctioned.
Who Did What?
What happened? Someone realized that the Bern Watch had almost everything to transform it from a wreck of a watch to a world-beater. What the Bern Watch needed was consistency between all the parts to be accurate for the period and then provenance, or a good story, so the watch is credible for the collecting public. For the moment, this watch had the wrong movement and bezel. Along comes the brains of the deal. Let’s call him “Brian” the brains.
Brian realized that the watch dial was original, and if the rest of the watch matched the dial, it would be very valuable. It is the Omega logo that marks out this dial as a 1957 version. In the early editions of these watches, the O of the Omega in the logo is not round, as in later models, but oval. Second, the dial has a bleached-out color. This is a defect in the manufacturing process, but one that makes the dial rare and valuable. There are several Rolex dials out there with the same fault, and they are now highly valued.
To make the Bern Watch consistent with a 1957 watch, the movement needed to be of the period. Omega used the same movement for a long time. The key identifier would be the serial number. The bezel, too, needed to change to be of the period. If you have all the right connections, anything is possible. With the knowledge of what to change, the next step is determining how to make the changes. This was the skill that Brian had.
The Inside Man
Information is key to the success of this dramatic escapade. Where can you get all the information you need? The best source would be Omega itself and, ideally, someone on the heritage team. This is where we meet Harry, Harry, the historian. It transpires that there are three individuals who worked at Omega involved in this sorry tale. It is certainly possible that Brian is one of them. What we do know for sure is that individuals who worked in the heritage team were involved in the deception.
How do we know? The CEO of Omega Raynald Aeschlimann wrote the following response to questions posed by NZZ.
“The initial findings (of this investigation) have provided clear evidence that three former employees were involved in this operation with clear criminal intent, and to the massive detriment of Omega.”
What did Harry do? He would have gone through the historical records at Omega and found the records of a watch that would match most closely to the Bern watch. He would have passed all this information to Brian, including a specific serial number to place on the movement. By changing the serial number on the movement it will magically transform from a 1960s movement to a 1957 movement. The serial number Harry passed to Brian was movement serial number 15500066.
Later, the Frankenstein watch would surface in the heritage department, looking for a certificate of authenticity. Perhaps it even ended up back on the desk of Harry or one of the other three insiders at Omega. Who better to authenticate this watch? Verify it as authentic and original. Suddenly the provenance is created, and beyond dispute, Omega has verified it. Who can challenge those bits of paper from the brand?
Someone somewhere made a single escape wheel bridge with the movement number 15500066 on it. Having a single bridge manufactured for a historical movement with a specific serial number on it needs connections. In fact, from my experience, to get anything manufactured in Switzerland needs connections!
There is no indication where this work was conducted, but there are many skilled artisans in Switzerland, and other locations around the world, who have the skills to do this. The manufacture of the new escape wheel bridge, with a fraudulent serial number, is where this story goes very dark. When the bridge was replaced with a fraudulent serial number, this escapade went from being morally dubious to being outright fraudulent. More on this later.
Phillips Auction House has a long history of selling huge numbers of historic watches. It is a good business line for them. At the front of the auction catalog, there are 52 headshots of the good and the great who work in the watch auction business for Phillips. These people will profit from the 15% buyer’s premium payable to the auction house on the hammer price.
These people repeated the credentials of this watch from whoever consigned the watch to Phillips. One would have expected some degree of inquiry to ensure the details provided were true and accurate. Although, in defense of Phillips, they were expecting this watch to sell for less than CHF100,000, so perhaps the checks they performed are in line with the expected sale price. Still, to have sold a fraudulent watch at auction does not look good, especially for a business that trades on trust. More on this later.
But why did the seller choose to sell through an auction house? Probably because an auction house is the best way to sell vintage watches at a high price. Furthermore, sellers remain anonymous. Neither the buyer nor the public will know who consigned the watch to the auction house. Equally, if there is an unusual sale price, it will certainly generate headlines.
The Famous Flamboyant One
One of the 52 names at the front of the auction catalog is Aurel Bacs. This gentleman does not work for Phillips but is an accomplished auctioneer who provides services for various auction houses. From all reports, he can control the bidding in an auction room very skillfully and extract the highest prices for watches. An example of his work would be auctioning the Rolex Daytona of American actor Paul Newman for the equivalent of CHF15.5 million in 2017. At the time, this was the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch.
Auction price records write headlines, are good for the auction house business, and attract new customers who expect the same service for their watches.
There is no suggestion that Mr. Bacs has done anything wrong. Yet, it appears the stars aligned for this watch to appear in an auction he was conducting. He has the skill to drive the price higher. Good for the seller, good for the auction house, and great for headlines. But there is a loser in all this.
When I saw this, my jaw just dropped.
NZZ published their article on this Frankenstein watch on 1 June 2023. The very next day, 2 June 2023, Omega came out and told the world that the buyer was none other than Omega themselves. Their heritage department had been bidding for this watch for the Omega Museum collection. Omega had, somehow, been duped into paying an all-time auction hammer price high for what is at best a Frankenstein watch, and at worst a watch of fraudulent misrepresentation, that has now been named the “Cheatmaster.”
This leaves me with two key questions. First, how could they be duped into paying this sum for a watch with a history of selling for a tiny fraction of what they paid? Second, what will Omega gain from all the headlines around the world beating the auction price because someone (pretty high up) internally had to have authorized bidding to that price for this specific watch?
Back in 2021, when this watch was auctioned, Omega was very keen to encourage the headlines. It was also interesting to note that Omega did not disclose they purchased the watch until the fraud came to light. Why were they not willing to disclose they were the purchaser at the time of the auction? In fact, at the time of the auction, I was told the buyer was reportedly Chinese (although I cannot find any reference to that for the moment).
The CEO of Omega is convinced that Omega has been the victim of three ex-employees who colluded with criminal intent. That explanation throws up more questions than it answers. Next time out, we will start asking some of those questions and see where it leads us.
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