A splits-second chronograph made by Eberhard sold for €156,000 (including buyer’s premium) at an auction in Milan on October 21. It’s not every day that an Eberhard fetches a price like that at auction, so what gives? The answer to this question involves a World War II backstory that involves a covert Axis mission to Tokyo. Buckle up.
Let’s go back in time to 1942, right in the middle of World War II. The Axis Powers (German, Italy, and Japan) are certain that the Allies have cracked their secret radio codes. To re-establish secure communication between the three countries, the Royal Italian Air Force is called upon to make a carry a new set of secret codes to their Japanese allies. This mission was always going to be fraught with risk because the aircraft would be flying over vast swatches of airspace that could be covered by Soviet anti-aircraft guns.
In the wee hours of the June 29 1942, a Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 aircraft of the Royal Italian Air Force took off from Guidonia with a five-man crew including Captain Dr. Publio Magini, one of Italy’s best pilots and expert navigator. To minimize the risk of being shot down, Magini charted a flight plan that relied heavily on astronomical navigation. He relied on two watches to help him navigate – a Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle and a 24-hour split-seconds chronograph pocketwatch that he had ordered from Eberhard specifically for this mission.
While the Lindbergh’s dial allowed a direct reading of the hour angle of Greenwich, the Eberhad split-seconds chronograph allowed pilots to measure intermediate times without interrupting the timekeeping of the entire mission. After a hair-raising flight that involved escaping Soviet anti-aircraft guns, the crew touched down in Tokyo on July 1.
After the crew’s return to Italy, Eberhard in 1943 received an order for an additional 10 split-seconds chronograph wristwatches that was to have ‘Sistema Magini’ printed on the dial. However, the conflict was almost over in Europe and these watches were never delivered to the Air Force. The “Sistema Magini” pocketwatch, later called the “Metodo Magini” by Eberhard & Co., was auction for €56,000 at the Meeting Art Auction House to an unknown buyer in 2012. It resurfaced again as part of set, the other watch being the Longines Lindbergh Hour Angle and sold for CHF112,500 at a Phillips Auction in Geneva in November 2015.
According to the Phillips catalogue, the pocketwatch “is accompanied by an original document from Eberhard dating from 1943, confirming an order one year later by the Italian Air Force for 10 simple chronographs and 10 split-seconds chronographs bearing the inscription “Sistema Magini” on the dial.”
And now comes the news of the discovery of another Sistem Magini splits-seconds chronograph wristwatch. According to the auction house that sold the watch, Aste Bolaffi, before the appearance of this watch, it was thought that the Eberhard Magini wristwatch model was a unique piece, “the only other known example kept in the private collection of one of the most important collectors in the world.”
According Bolaffi, the wristwatch auctioned on October 21 is in “surprisingly excellent condition”. The stainless steel watch has a 45 mm wide tripartite case with a snap-on caseback and concave lugs with fixed bars. It has a co-axial monopusher on the winding crown and a pusher for the split-seconds function placed at 4 o’ clock.
The signed silver dial has 24 hour Arabic numeral and a graduated scale that shows 1/5th of a second fractions. The manual-winding movement is based on the Valjoux 55. The chronograph uses a column wheels for the rattrapante function and the escapement uses a Breguet hairspring and an index regulator.
The only possible explanation of this chronograph’s appearance now is down to the possibility that those 10 Eberhard split-seconds chronographs that didn’t make it to the Italian Royal Air Force eventually found homes with other buyers. Given the vagaries of the vintage watch auction business, it may only be a matter of time before more of these surface.