THE KEEPER OF GREATNESS: Bao Dai

Bao Dai was the 13th and final emperor of Vietnam. He didn’t inspire devotion or much confidence: the American satirist S.J. Perelman, for example, described him as a ‘slippery-looking customer, rather on the pudgy side, and freshly dipped in Crisco’. But, Stuart Husband writes in Issue 58 of The Rake, a legacy can take time to be realised…

Bao Dai of Annam shaking hands with dog. (Photo by Jack Birns/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

In 2017, Phillips auctioneers announced that it had set a new world record for the highest price achieved at auction for a Rolex wristwatch. Naturally, the timepiece it sold — for $5,060,427, and after an eight-minute bidding war between 10 enthusiasts at the Hotel La Réserve in Geneva — was extraordinary even by the standards of the storied Swiss watchmaker. It was a Reference 6062, a triple calendar with moonphase indication, crafted in 18-carat yellow-gold, and is one of only three black-dial models known to exist. Furthermore, it was the only one featuring diamond markers at the even hours, making it a unique piece. One other fact elevated it to holy grail status for horologists: it was known as the Bao Dai Rolex.

There can be few provenances more prestigious than having once adorned the wrist of a bona-fide emperor — albeit the last of his line — whose honorific, granted to him when he ascended the throne of Vietnam in 1925, aged 12, means ‘Keeper of Greatness’. Bao Dai acquired his statement wristwear in the spring of 1954, in Geneva. Following the Indochina war, the world powers were meeting at the Hotel des Bergues to negotiate with the Viet Minh on the future of Vietnam. During a recess, and presumably in need of distraction, he stepped across the street to Chronometrie Philippe Beguin, a famed Rolex retailer. The emperor’s request to the staff was as stark as it was imperious: he wanted the rarest and most precious Rolex ever made. Many glittering examples were presented to him; all were rejected. Finally, an emissary was dispatched from the company’s workshops on the city’s outskirts, bearing the 6062 in a strongbox. Bao Dai was assuaged.

Contributor

Stuart Husband

Published

January 2021

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