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Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's London.

Freddie Mercury's "Fabergé" clock that looks awfully like a timepiece by the French jewellery house Cartier.

5 November 2023.

On 12 October 2023, I visited th V&A with my friend Tim Adams, a fellow Fabergé scholar, curator & author, who was visiting London from California to attend a book launch. I posted some photos of our visit on Instagram here. We discussed - while admiring the Snowman Collection of Fabergé pieces in the  Jewellery Room - the attributes of a clock in Sotheby's auction of the late Freddie Mercury's estate. 

Having seen Lot 4 in the catalogue, I had dismissed it as "rock star schlock".

Tim Adams' question "I'm not sure about Freddie Mercury's Fabergé clock, are you?" encouraged me to look at the piece once again in more detail. This article explores why I'm "not sure".... 

In my opinion, which I hold with relative confidence, it is unlikely that the front of this timepiece was made in Henrik Wigström's workshop. It could be by the Parisian jewellery house Cartier, possibly dating from the 1910's or later... or perhaps it was re-modelled by Lacloche, after they acquired the remaining stock from Fabergé's London Store.  

Well... Let's get into the nitty gritty.

It is unusual for Fabergé timepieces to feature Roman Chapters... the majority have Arabic numerals. They are mostly fitted with movements by Möser & Cie, bought in by Fabergé, complete with their pierced gold hands, thereby saving time and money. When Roman numerals are used in Fabergé clocks, they are typically displayed on a plain opaque white enamelled dial. 

Of the dozens of Fabergé clocks that I know, I have rarely encountered a clock with a coloured guilloché enamel panel at its centre. And never in combination with an opaque white enamel band that carries the chapters. Usually, only the border surrounding the movement is enamelled; in one, two or even as many as three colours in those more elaborate timepieces.

It is well known that the clarity of the time-telling function of clocks by Fabergé  was not interfered with by superfluous decoration on the clock face. Etiquette at the time prohibited women from looking at their watch. A nonchalant glance at a clock on a mantel-piece or side table would suffice to let the hostess know if she was running late. In some smaller Fabergé clocks however, a guilloché enamel face can sometimes be seen, especially in smaller timepieces fabricated in carved hard-stone. Typically in these pieces the entire face of the clock is guilloché enamelled, in a golden oyster colour.

As for the marks...  I wonder if the rear cover & strut of a Cartier clock could have been struck with H.W. maker's initials for Henrik Wigström, Fabergé in Cyrillic, and 88 zolotnik silver standard marks from the St Petersburg Assay Office. We do know that Armand Hammer has been found to have "re-branded" a number of Cartier pieces, prior to flogging them off as Fabergé, at the time when the scholarship and literature about Fabergé were scant. This consummate salesman would have done this back in the 1920's &1930's, using steel punches that we know Hammer obtained from Fabergé's workshops.

Could this clock be of Armand Hammer's doing? If so, I am proposing a new category of  questionable pieces: "Hammergé" alongside "Fauxbergé", the latter being a term that was artfully coined by Dr Géza von Habsburg to describe proper forgeries. 

These marks can be seen below. They do look "puzzlingly right". Or... Did Fabergé make this piece to show that "we can do better than Cartier"? Who can be sure? It is a bit of a mystery!  

Freddie Mercury Clock SL-2023 09-Lot 4.jpg

The Scratched Inventory N° 25361 looks "slightly wrong" to me, looking at the photograph above. Here's why... The Numeral 1 was usually written in the French or German manner, in a way that looks to Anglo-Saxon eyes like a number 7.  There is a cross-bar that denotes the number 7 in the same  Continental European tradition.... This has led to many a mis-interpretation of Inventory Numbers by scholars, auction houses and dealers, who have mixed up their 1s and 7s. In this case, the Numeral 1 is scratched as a plain bar, as an English or American national would write it, without the additional hatch that we would expect from Fabergé. 

Second, let's have a closer look at those diamond-set hands on the clock face. They are "problematic". The Fabergé family has a well-known French Huguenot Protestant heritage; having fled the prosecution in France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. (N.B. according to the South Carolina Historical Society, The Edict of Nantes was revoked on 18 October 1685 by King Louis XIV. French Huguenots could either convert to Catholicism, face life in a prison or convent, or flee the country. At this time, there were about 800,000 Huguenots in France and nearly one quarter of them emigrated. Many famous silversmiths and silk weavers in London were French Huguenot refugees, including Paul de Lamerie.) 

Carl Fabergé's ancestors emigrated to Latvia, where the family was previously known as Favri. They were drawn to the increasingly dynamic and prosperous city of St Petersburg, where they changed their name to the à la mode French spelling, the official language of diplomacy that was spoken by the élite of Russia at the time and in the Imperial Court. The designs of the Fabergé firm in St Petersburg usually stand on the correct side of vulgarity. Ostentation is rarely - if ever - the effect! 

Freddie Mercury Clock SL-2023 09-Lot 4-hands.jpg

For my part, I have never seen a timepiece by Fabergé with jewelled hands. Never, ever. Carl Fabergé was not exactly known for  "gilding the lily", was he? Cartier, on the other hand, is renowned for making diamond-set entrelac hands of this precise design. In fact, these jewelled hands are one of Cartier's distinctive house design signatures for timepieces made in the 1910s and 1920s. I shall be seeking advice from an expert in Cartier clocks, and I will be sharing any findings with you here.

The movement.... hmmm. In an authentic Fabergé clock, one would typically expect the movement to be signed Hry Moser & Cie, with an engraved serial number (being different from Fabergé scratched Inventory Numbers). These are twin-barrel 8 day mechanisms, with two winding keys, and an aperture to adjust the speed of the mechanism, engraved A and R, denoting "avance" (forwards) and "recul" (backwards) in French. In this clock, the mechanism looks - from the back cover at least - like a Möser movement. It has not, to the best of my knowledge, been confirmed to be by Hry Möser & Cie.  I would rather like to inspect the piece in greater detail, first-hand, removing the cover of the clock movement. For comparison, an image of a Möser movement is shown below, from records of a Fabergé clock in my digital archive, bearing the engraved Serial Number 25566.

Freddie Mercury Clock SL-2023 09-Lot 4-movement.jpg
Fabergé cilcular clocks-11.jpg

To my mind, the strut presents a couple of challenges. First, the Greek Key feet are more than usually compact. This feels more like an Art Deco design that is perhaps 10 years later than Fabergé clocks. Second, there is an engraved acanthus "twiddly bit" at the centre of the base of the strut, shown below. This is a superfluous flourish, uncharacteristic of Wigström's restrained style. Workshop production time wasn't wasted on details that are not visible from the front of the timepiece.

Freddie Mercury Clock SL-2023 09-Lot 4-strut.jpg

By way of comparison, six timepieces by Cartier are shown in the image below, courtesy of Christie's London. Freddie Mercury's clock is closer to these designs than a Fabergé clock.

Sotheby's Catalogue Note reads "Nothing screams luxury quite like Fabergé". I fully disagree with this statement. Fabergé pieces hardly ever shout, let alone scream! You can read the Lot description in full for yourself here. I am currently looking into the Russian-inspired clocks made by Cartier during this period, aiming to find some comparables.

Freddie Mercury Clock -Cartier Comparables.jpg

Either way, this timepiece poses a number of questions. Stylistically this timepiece is atypical of Fabergé, being much closer to Cartier in its design and composition. In conclusion, erring on the side of caution, I would have recommended avoiding bidding on this piece. The price of GBP 69,350 was lower than expected, suggesting Fabergé collectors stayed away, and rock star fans didn't really see the appeal of this piece.  


If you have any questions, comments or additional remarks to add, feel free to drop me a line by email, here.

- o0o -

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