A stunning $1.1 million Cartier watch just sold at auction

A Cartier watch has only reached seven figures twice at auction.

A stunning $1.1 million Cartier watch just sold at auction
Courtesy of Sotheby's

A new owner has been announced for the Cartier Cheich watch that set the Internet on fire in July. In an online auction, Sotheby's sold the ultra-rare Cartier watch for $1.1 million, making it the most expensive watch ever sold at an auction in Europe. A house estimated the watch would fetch between €200,000 and €400,000 (roughly $196,000 to $392,000 at current exchange rates).

This is only the second time a Cartier watch has sold for more than $1.5 million at auction, following a Cartier Crash that sold in May for $1.5 million. But it indicates that the company, known for its jewelry, is attracting the attention of the world's most discerning (and deep-pocketed) horological collectors, and shows what might be in store for the company's rarest watches in the future.

The rare timepiece was awarded to Belgian motocross racer Gaston Rahier after he won the 1985 Paris-Dakar Rally. Through the Sahara Desert, drivers complete a 6,200-mile route from France to Senegal, starting in 1979. As an extraordinary prize for winning the Paris-Dakar Rally two years in a row within the same motoring category, the watch was made in 1983 by Cartier.

The event's founder, Theirry Sabine, and Cartier's then-CEO Alain Dominique Perrin collaborated on the high-stakes challenge. A 125cc motocross world champion, Rahier stunned the world by winning the 1984 and 1985 circuits shortly after the challenge was announced. In September, Sotheby's will auction off the driver's Cartier Cheich for the first time, nearly 40 years after it was created.

A mirror image of the race's logo was used in the design of the watch's case, created by Jacques Diltoer. An outline of a Tuareg nomad wearing a 'cheich' (or a 'chèche' in French) appears on the logo. Sun protection was provided by the traditional cloth covering worn around the head. As a result of this unique dial shape, Cartier was unable to attach its straps using bars screwed through the lugs. Rather, the back of the main case is carved to accommodate a fixture that holds the straps.

Back then, rally winners generally received an engraved watch on their back. On this limited-edition release, the dial side marked the occasion. In a slight departure from Cartier Tank fashion, a rectangular chemin de fer (French for "iron path" or rail track) marks the minutes. The Cartier Cheich is also one of the few watches from the Swiss manufacturer that displays the "Trois Ors" or trinity of gold that adorns some of its jewelry. To symbolize love, friendship, and loyalty, the case is crafted from white, yellow, and rose gold.

1986 marked the end of the Cartier Challenge. Perrin created two additional models of the watch for potential winners and offered the fourth to Sabine. Hubert Auriol, a famous French motorbike racer, may have instead acquired the watch, according to Sotheby's. But unless its whereabouts are confirmed, it is considered lost.

"As a true horological masterpiece and as a symbol of the legendary Cartier Challenge, it has achieved near-mythical status, and the market has been eagerly anticipating its debut at auction," says Benoît Colson, International Watch Specialist at Sotheby's of the timepiece."

The fact that it has returned to the family of the great champion to whom it was awarded, like a holy grail, is a dream for any serious watch collector."

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