On a Ridiculous Commission

Henry Graves, Jr., was from what we usually call “old money” because his ancestry traces back to some of the wealthiest member of the group who first settled Massachusetts. By the time he came into the family’s fortune in the late 1800s, he was ready to take that money and make more. And so, he did. He invested in railroads at exactly the right time in American History that maximized his earnings, and his shrewd financial insights more than doubled his family wealth.

As one of America’s wealthiest men, Graves, like others of his ilk, was incredibly competitive. One of his major rivals in business and in other things was James Packard, the creator of the famous Packard automobile. The two business tycoons competed to outdo the other one in profit but also in possessions. In 1925, looking to best his rival, Graves commissioned the creation of a personal item that would become the envy of everyone he knew–especially Packard.

What Graves commissioned would take three years to design and five more years to complete and deliver to the wealthy man. By the time the item was delivered, of course, the United States had been plunged into the depths of the Great Depression. What seemed like a harmless jab at a rival at the time Graves had placed his order had then become symbolic of the excesses of the wealthy. Those excesses were a part of what many people felt had caused the economic downturn in the first place.

And then word spread that the commission had cost Graves $320,000 at a time when most people wouldn’t have paid more than $70 for an item that accomplished the same thing.

Graves received a piece of work that had 920 separate and individual parts. Yet, the work only weighed a little more than a pound. It boasted almost 450 screws, over 100 wheels, and 120 levers. To top it off, the piece also featured over 70 valuable jewels. On the front, the item showed the night sky over Central Park in New York City, accurately depicted in detail. Truly, it was a piece of art to behold, the most extravagant and complicated item of its kind ever produced.

But people cursed Graves and the item despite its obvious craftsmanship and beauty. Graves ignored the curses, but then, something curious happened. Soon after the wealthy man took delivery of the piece, his best friend died. Then, a few days later, his own son was killed in a car crash. Not a few people shook their heads and felt that Graves was certainly paying for the extravagance in such a commission while most people in the nation–and the world–were suffering. It seemed like justice for such a ridiculous commission.

Graves decided to put the thing away. He died in 1953.

And in 2014, the Patek Philippe Graves Supercomplication watch he commissioned sold for a record $24,000,000.

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