On a balmy November afternoon in 2014, Claude Sfeir sat on the terrace of a Geneva hotel facing the lake, having lunch with an old friend. Afterward, he set off on a jog around the lake while Aurel Bacs, the lunch companion, took his young daughter for a walk.
They didn’t anticipate the fierce bidding war over the Henry Graves Supercomplication, Patek Philippe’s masterpiece pocket watch, that would bring them head-to-head that evening. “Neither of us had said a word about bidding in the sale,” Mr. Sfeir said recently. “I had no idea how far I was ready to go.”
In the packed salesroom at Sotheby’s that evening, Mr. Sfeir joined the bidding at “around 9 million.” By the time it reached 12 million Swiss francs, only he and Mr. Bacs were left.
When the hammer came down at 20.6 million Swiss francs, the Henry Graves was sold to Mr. Bacs, who bidon behalf of an undisclosed buyer. At 23.2 million francs with the commission ($24 million at the time), it still is the most expensive timepiece sold at auction. “I was hugely disappointed,” Mr. Sfeir recalled. “I wanted the Henry Graves very much. I would sell anything to have it.”
But some moments in every collector’s life are tainted by regret for the one that got away. Still, Mr. Bacs recalled recently, “we hugged each other after the auction.”
“The Henry Graves was the Mount Olympus of watchmaking in quality, rarity and complexity,” said Mr. Bacs, who had left Christie’s as its head of watches to start his own consulting firm.
(If high-level watch auctions are something of a spectator sport today, it is largely thanks to these two men. At major sales, chances are the hammer will be held by Mr. Bacs, whose Bacs & Russo consultancy is now associated with the Phillips auction house. And Mr. Sfeir will be the last to raise his paddle.)
“I started buying watches 37 years ago,” Mr. Sfeir said. “Everyone knows me and I know all the serious buyers. Over the years, some lost interest, some were dishonest, some stopped buying and some died.”
At age 55, Mr. Sfeir is still in the game. A jeweler and gemologist by trade, he has an eye for quality and admits to being driven by impulses like the thrill of the chase, the show of loyalty to watchmaking friends and the drive to create a legacy. “Every year, I tell myself that I will stop buying, but then I buy more,” he said.
Mr. Bacs said: “I have seen the evolution of his buying from hundreds of watches a year to a handful but in the millions. Claude says it is cheaper for him to buy watches than to see a shrink.”
There is logic behind Mr. Sfeir’s choices. He likes prototypes and one-off pieces by Rolex and Patek Philippe. He owns the first prototype of the celebrated Nautilus model designed by Gérald Genta in 1978, and the only titanium model of the Sky Moon Tourbillon, Patek’s most complicated wristwatch, which has the unique reference 5001T. “That is the most important watch of the 20th century,” Mr. Sfeir said.
His most beloved possession is a 1942 Rolex split-seconds chronograph reference 4113, which Mr. Sfeir bought in a private sale in the late 1990s. (In May 2016, another Ref. 4113 sold at Phillips for 2.4 million Swiss francs.)
“That is the watch I love,” Mr. Sfeir said. “Rolex only made 12 in this reference. Mine is the first in the series.”
Mr. Sfeir’s path to watch collecting began while he was in his teens. “In those days, my father drove a cab in Beirut to support our family,” he said. “In the summers, I worked in our neighbor’s stonecutting business.”
CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
His parents decided to send him, the oldest of the three children in their Christian Lebanese family, from a war-ridden Beirut to Dubai. He was to work in his uncle’s shop in the Gold Souk, Dubai’s old jewelry market.
Clients of the gold shop would sometimes bring watches to sell. “We traded everything by weight, even Patek Philippe and Rolex watches,” Mr. Sfeir said. “We didn’t know how to open the watch cases, so we would break them with a hammer, take out the movement and pay for the weight of gold.
“I realized years later that I had broken some very valuable timepieces,” he said.
His first watch, a Rolex Ref. 6694 that he bought in the 1980s for the equivalent of about $80, ignited a passion for the brand that he has not outgrown.
Auction catalogs with color photographs and detailed descriptions developed his appreciation of watches. And over the years, as his own jewelry business grew, he could support his family and feed his watch habit.
“For years, I worked 18-hour days,” Mr. Sfeir said. “The first thing I did when I started making money was to make sure my father stopped working. We kept his cab; it sits in our garden in Beirut.”
His taste for what Mr. Bacs calls “exotic” watches naturally steered Mr. Sfeir toward independent watchmakers, particularly François-Paul Journe. In 2014, he became Mr. Journe’s partner in the watchmaker’s first boutique in Beirut.
“Claude has a ‘hierarchical’ collection,” said Mr. Journe, who has made a number of bespoke watches for Mr. Sfeir. “My watches rank third in his collection, behind Rolex and Patek, after he decided to diversify.”
The stature that Mr. Sfeir enjoys among watch lovers and collectors comes not just from his impressive collection, but also from his generosity toward charitable causes and the watchmaking arts.
“Claude is an extraordinarily charitable person,” Mr. Bacs said. “He buys at charity auctions to support all causes, and across the spectrum: Pateks, Journes, Milles, Tudors.
“His collecting has always been an affair of the heart,” he said. “If people around him are happy, he is well.”
For example, Mr. Sfeir recently spent 450,000 francs on a one-of-a-kind mechanical timepiece made entirely by hand by Michel Boulanger. He was the first watchmaking apprentice to be sponsored by Naissance d’une Montre, a project that the master watchmaker Philippe Dufour and the Greubel Forsey brand organized in an effort to preserve traditional watchmaking.
“It was an important acknowledgment that a great collector acquired our timepiece,” Mr. Dufour said in an interview. “Claude’s generosity goes a long way in supporting independent watchmaking.”
Mr. Sfeir said he now focuses on vintage watches with historical links. In April, he bought the Lemania chronograph wristwatch owned by Winston Churchill.
He also owns the Rolex Submariner of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, and all the watches worn by the six actors who have played James Bond in the film series, timepieces he recently lent to the “James Bond Time” exhibition at the Espace Horloger in Le Sentier, Switzerland.
With a collection that already could fill a good-size museum, Mr. Sfeir also has an eye on his own legacy.
“I will not sell my collection,” he said. “I am looking for a safe place to show my watches, where people can come and enjoy them, free of charge.”
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