Among the most desirable of all Second World War wristwatches is the Panerai 3646. This distinctive outsize model was made c.1941- 43 using Rolex movements for the Italian Marina Militare (Italian navy) and German Kampfschwimmers (frogmen). The name Radiomir to the dial references the radium-based powder that gives the dial its luminosity.
Collected as war souvenirs by British serviceman, some of these come with tales of derring-do. Dealers were able to pick them up for as little as £1000 in the 1990s. Not any more.
The example sold by Fellows (23% buyer’s premium) back in January 2018 for £41,000 came from the family of George H Rowson, a member of the 43rd Reconnaissance Regiment who ‘liberated’ it from one of 10 German frogmen captured during Operation Market Garden, 1944.
News travels fast and the auction house received another watch from a descendant of Captain Alfred Packer – Rowson’s superior officer during Market Garden. Inscribed Kurt Kohlrusch for the original owner, it was sold with Packer’s military issue jacket, military service records and a wartime diary. The price on April 2 this year was £42,000.
Laura Bishop, watch manager at Fellows, said: “To sell both of these watches is a career highlight of mine. To my count there are still six to eight Panerai watches from Operation Market Garden unaccounted for. Maybe this sale will prompt the remaining few to come to light.”
Another Panerai 3646 was offered at Lockdales (18% buyer’s premium) of Martlesham Heath, Ipswich, on February 20.
This watch was engraved Kampf-Schwimmer and marked LK700 for LehrKommando 700, the base on the island of Sylt off northern Germany where the German frogmen units were headquartered. It has the initials HK to the back but the original recipient is unknown. Sold together with its original orange leather strap, it went at the top end of a £20,000-30,000 estimate.
Several other examples of this watch have made more than both of these. In September 2016 Great Western Auctions of Glasgow sold a 3646 for £44,000 while Cheshire auction house Wright Marshall has sold two: one in March 2016 for £46,000 and another two months later for £55,000.
Navigation watches represent a further subset of the market. The beobachtungsuhren or observation clocks of the Luftwaffe were not intended to be worn on the wrist but attached to the arm outside a bulky flight jacket, or on the navigator’s thigh by use of a long leather strap.
The standard of performance was similar to that expected of marine chronometers (and featured anti-magnetic protection that chronometers lacked) and German pilots were justly proud of them. Many were photographed holding out their watches to the camera.
Their giant 55mm size was also appealing to the Allied soldier who frequently persuaded captors to part with them.
The example offered by Tennants (20% buyer’s premium) in Leyburn on March 23 was by A Lange & Sohne, Glashutte, c.1941 and described as ‘arguably the most desirable Second World War German aviator’s watch on the market today’. It sold for £3900 (estimate £3000-4000).
Immediately after the war the Ministry of Defence procured watches for service from a range of different Swiss manufacturers.
The Navigator’s Mark II wristwatch (reference 6B/346) was made for the RAF and later the RAAF by both Jaeger-LeCoultre and International Watch Company in the post-war years.
It is considered one of the finest mechanical military watches ever produced (there are entire websites devoted to this watch and collectors seeking to record every serial number) and the Jaeger-LeCoultre movement in particular is one that would later morph into flagship retailed watches of the 1950s.
Two good examples by Jaeger-LeCoultre emerged for sale in regional salerooms in the space of a month. That at Lockdales (18% buyer’s premium) of Martlesham Heath, Ipswich, on February 20 was estimated at £1000-1500 but sold at £5100. Another was curiously catalogued as ‘a Jaeger-LeCoultre lady’s wristwatch’ and pitched at £300-500 at Gloucestershire saleroom Chorley’s (20% buyer’s premium) on March 26. However it was spotted online and bid to £4700.
More commonly encountered are the thousands of MOD general service watches made by 12 different manufacturers – Buren, Cyma, Eterna, Grana, International Watch Co, Jaeger-Le-Coultre, Lemania, Longines, Omega, Record, Timor and Vertex – known to collectors as the ‘Dirty Dozen’. The Grana, made by Kurth Freres to MOD specifications, is the rarest of the dozen with perhaps 1500 units produced. They can sell for north of £5000.
However, some of the others are more plentiful (there were 25,000 made by Omega and 8000 by IWC) and are priced in the hundreds. For example, an Eterna branded watch sold for £1200 at Lockdales while examples of the Buren, Vertex and Cyma sold for £1000, £800 and £1200 respectively at Watches of Knightsbridge (20% buyer’s premium) for March 16.