Geneva prosecutors are preparing to release a Patek Phillipe watch that once belonged to Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, ushering in a new phase of the battle between Christie’s auction house, a Sudanese client, and Selassie’s descendants who say the timepiece was stolen.
The Geneva prosecutor’s office will lift a sequestration order on the watch in the next two to three weeks after it failed to find grounds for criminal wrongdoing, a spokesman for chief prosecutor Olivier Jornot said. That could, in theory, free Christie’s to put the watch back up for auction with the client’s permission.
The dispute over what Christie’s describes as an “exceptionally important, possibly unique” timepiece, pits two prominent African families against each other in a tale that goes back more than half a century. The watch, which is expected to fetch as much as $1 million, was commissioned by Federico Bazzi, an Italian entrepreneur who wanted to give Selassie a gift during a visit to Switzerland, according to the auction house.
That much Selassie’s family agrees with. The emperor later gave the watch, which has a rare black luminous military-style dial, to an “eminent African personality,” Christie’s said prior to the planned November auction. Nonsense, say Selassie’s descendants.
They say the watch was stolen from the Imperial Palace by soldiers in the wake of a 1974 Marxist coup that deposed the Ethiopian monarch or was taken from a safety deposit box shortly thereafter. Selassie was briefly imprisoned during the coup, then put under house arrest and died in August 1975 amid allegations of murder following prostate surgery.
During his reign, Selassie was among the early leaders of the 60’s-era Non-Aligned Movement that tried to tread a line between Western and Communist nations, and presided over the creation of the Organisation of African Unity, the forerunner to the African Union. He was revered by millions of Rastafarians in Jamaica and elsewhere, who saw him as a messiah and incarnation of god.
Selassie, who took the throne in 1930, was meticulous about cataloguing gifts received from friends or heads of state and was not inclined to re-gift, especially not to another head of state, his relatives say. The Patek Phillipe is “just the tip of the iceberg” in terms of items looted from Haile Selassie, but his descendants are not motivated by cash, said Hannah Dereje, his great granddaughter who is a college professor in Minneapolis.
“It’s not about the money or just the watch, it’s about a legacy,” she said in a telephone interview.
Demand for vintage luxury watches is booming, even as the fine art market cools, encouraging owners of unique pieces to put them up for auction while the market is hot. At a series of sales over the weekend in Geneva, Phillips, another auction house, said it raised $33 million, selling six timepieces for over $1 million each and a limited edition Rolex for $2.45 million.
The 18-karat gold Patek belonging to Selassie was supposed to go on auction in November at Christie’s in the Swiss city but was pulled at the last minute because of what the auction house said was a “dispute of title.” Christie’s didn’t say at the time who the watch’s owner is and won’t now, citing its policy not to name clients if they want to remain private.
Selassie’s family say that “eminent African personality” is Ibrahim Abboud, former president of Sudan, and his family put the watch up for sale with Christie’s. The Selassie heirs reject claims that the watch was given to Abboud as a gesture of thanks for helping the Ethiopian reclaim his throne after a failed 1960 coup.
Nicolas Didisheim, a Geneva lawyer for the Abboud family, said he represents the “legitimate owner of the watch, which has been in the family for decades and was given to my client’s family by the emperor.”
Selassie’s family said the fact the watch’s provenance stayed unknown all this time is suspicious.
“It’s an insult for an African family that another African country that claims to be a friend and loyal supporter never even called in the last 40 years—and then showed up at Christie’s with this story that it was an expression of gratitude,” Dereje said. “That’s why we’re saying this is not credible.”
The release of the watch, however, doesn’t mean the fight will end soon or that getting to the bottom of the case will be easy.
Prosecutors said that the lifting of the sequestration order doesn’t mean that no crime took place, but rather that it was difficult to investigate events that occurred more than 40 years ago half a world away.
Once the order is lifted, Selassie’s family will have 30 days to appeal the decision. It is currently exploring all legal options, it said.