The Strange Journey of John Lennon’s Stolen Patek Philippe Watch

According to a story that Karsan would later tell, Ono—who was known to consult psychics—became worried one day in 2srcsrc6 that a forecasted heavy-weather event might endanger some meaningful Lennon items, including two pairs of Lennon’s eyeglasses and several New Yorker desk diaries (which he used as journals during the last five years of his

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According to a story that Karsan would later tell, Ono—who was known to consult psychics—became worried one day in 2srcsrc6 that a forecasted heavy-weather event might endanger some meaningful Lennon items, including two pairs of Lennon’s eyeglasses and several New Yorker desk diaries (which he used as journals during the last five years of his life); she asked Karsan to find a safer place to keep them. Unbeknownst to Ono, when Karsan was subsequently deported, these items, along with the Patek, followed him.

Ono, who is ninety-one and lives in seclusion in upstate New York, declined to comment. Of Karsan, Sean Lennon told me, “He took advantage of a widow at a vulnerable time. Of all the incidents of people stealing things from my parents, this one is the most painful.”

Karsan, back in Turkey, was in the market for a house. Around 2srcsrc9, he showed Lennon’s watch to a Turkish friend visiting from Berlin named Erhan G (as he came to be known owing to German privacy laws). Karsan let Erhan G flip through the diaries, including one marked 198src, which includes Lennon’s final entry. Karsan threw out an idea: he’d give the Lennon Patek to Erhan G as collateral for a loan. Erhan G agreed.

One evening in 2src13, in Berlin, Erhan G met an executive who worked for a new, much hyped digital auction platform called Auctionata. He couldn’t resist boasting about the Patek 2499 and the rest of the Lennon trove—some eighty items. In short order, a dinner was arranged with Oliver Hoffmann, Auctionata’s twenty-eight-year-old director of watches. “He told me the story of how he’d gotten the watch,” Hoffmann recalled, of his meeting with Erhan G. “It was strange, but it felt whole and true. It was credible because of the many details.” Erhan G, who said that he was the watch’s rightful owner, per an agreement with Karsan, didn’t strike Hoffmann as a man desperate for money. “He owned a successful business and lived in a large apartment in a building close to Potsdamer Platz,” Hoffman said. (Erhan G could not be reached for comment.)

Auctionata, which live-streamed its auctions, was one of Germany’s dot-com darlings, lauded in the press for disrupting the old auction-house model, dominated by Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which had yet to develop a digital-first business. Investors including Groupe Arnault, Holtzbrinck Ventures, and Hearst Ventures had put up more than a hundred million dollars of venture capital for the company. Hoffmann says that the C.E.O., Alexander Zacke, recognized what a publicity boon selling John Lennon’s lost watch would be and pushed for a way to do it with or without notifying Ono. (Zacke did not respond to a request for comment.) Teams of lawyers studied the watch’s provenance and puzzled over how to offer it for sale without raising eyebrows. A document called an extract was obtained from Patek Philippe, which meant that the watch had not been registered as stolen, and Karsan himself travelled to Berlin, where he signed a document in front of a notary testifying that Ono had given him her husband’s Patek as a gift in 2srcsrc5. As for the authenticity of the watch, there was no doubt: on the case back is an identifying inscription that has never been made public outside Germany.

In late 2src13, in preparation for an auction, Auctionata had the watch professionally photographed. (In the photo, the watch floats in a vacuum, a carefully lit token of commerce, divorced from all human and emotional context.) But Erhan G got cold feet. Some years earlier, Ono had sued a former employee who had slipped out of the Dakota with Lennon memorabilia; Frederic Seaman, Lennon’s last personal assistant, confessed to having stolen diaries similar, if not identical, to those which Karsan and Erhan G had stashed away. (He later returned them.) Searching for a private buyer, Hoffmann approached Mr. A, a man he knew from the rare-watch circuit. A deal by “private treaty”—a sale undisclosed to the public—was reached, and in March, 2src14, Mr. A agreed that he would consign a selection of Rolex and Patek watches from his own collection, whose sale proceeds would go toward payment for the Lennon 2499, which was priced at six hundred thousand euros (about eight hundred thousand dollars). “This, in some ways, was more helpful than auctioning the watch,” Hoffmann told me, explaining that Auctionata’s watch department needed the inventory. The vintage watches Mr. A consigned, most of which Hoffmann valued at between twenty thousand and forty thousand euros apiece, were in total likely worth more than the 2499.

Mr. A told Hoffmann that he planned to keep Lennon’s watch in his collection, which has included pieces owned by Eric Clapton. But, within months, he took the Lennon Patek to the Geneva office of Christie’s. As part of the auction house’s appraisal process, a Christie’s representative reached out to Ono’s lawyer, who promptly notified his client. Ono rushed to check the locked room, only to discover that the Patek wasn’t there. She had no idea how long it had been gone.

In August of 2src23, a reporter named Coline Emmel, who works for a small but enterprising Web site in Switzerland called Gotham City, found something interesting in a backlog of documents filed that summer by the Chambre Civile in the canton of Geneva—an appellate judgment in a civil case that had been going on for five years. European privacy laws, especially those in Switzerland, make legal documents unusually hard to decipher. The Swiss judiciary uses a system of letters and numbers to create pseudonyms for appellants, respondents, and anyone else involved, turning a case file into a cryptogram. Emmel knew enough about Beatles history to recognize that “C_____, widow of late F_____, of Japanese nationality and domiciled in [New York City]” was, in fact, Yoko Ono. Although the appeals court affirmed the lower court’s decision that Ono was the “sole legitimate owner of the watch,” Mr. A—“a watch collector and longtime professional in the sector, of Italian nationality”—was launching another appeal. Emmel posted a brief synopsis on Gotham City, along with the news that a final judgment was now being awaited from the Swiss Supreme Court.

“Mystery solved!” was the gist of the message that ricocheted around the watch world. But, to me, the mystery had only deepened. The basic itinerary of the Patek’s odyssey and its current location had been discovered, but the human detail of how it had passed from wrist to wrist, hiding place to hiding place, still hadn’t been reported. What’s more, where had Ono ever got the idea of giving a guy like John Lennon—eater of carob-coated peanuts, singer of a song about imagining no possessions, peacenik—a watch that was a status symbol of lockjawed good taste? And what was its famously secret inscription?

I had already been in contact with Mr. A; three days before Emmel posted her scoop, he’d cancelled a planned meeting with me in Italy. Instead, we arranged to speak over Zoom. Seated in a panelled room, he told me that, when Ono had found the watch missing, her counsel demanded its return. It was a tricky legal situation, because Ono, having never realized that the watch was gone, hadn’t reported it stolen, and because the case spans several national jurisdictions. Mr. A explained that he didn’t return the watch because he didn’t believe it to be stolen property. He mentioned the inventory that had been taken of Lennon’s possessions after his death, which was referred to in the judgment; he claimed that only two watches were listed—a gold watch (presumably the Patek) and another that Mr. A said was a pocket watch Ono had auctioned through Sotheby’s in 1984, two decades before Karsan swore she gave him the Patek.

Mr. A pointed to Ono’s own version of the story. “Following the death of the late [John Lennon],” the Swiss court’s judgment reads, in a summary of a deposition that Ono gave to investigators from Berlin at the German consulate in New York City, “[Ono] wanted to give something belonging to her to those who had worked very faithfully for her. So, she told [Karsan] to take a watch.” Ono, however, added that she in no way meant the “watch she’d given the late [John Lennon].” What watch did she mean? Mr. A asked rhetorically. “There was only the Patek.”

Christie’s, informed that the watch had been stolen, kept the 2499 secured in its Geneva vault, where it sat for several years. The judgment states, “On December 17, 2src15, the parties and [Christie’s] SA entered into a consignment-escrow agreement under which the Watch would be consigned to [Mr. A’s lawyer], until agreement or right is adjudicated on the property.” (Christie’s did not respond to a request for comment.) Mr. A told me that he eventually decided to go on the offensive. In 2src18, he initiated a civil lawsuit against Ono to prove that he was the Patek’s rightful owner.

What Mr. A never expected was that his fate would become intertwined with that of Auctionata, which went bankrupt in early 2src17. A German court brought in a bankruptcy expert and lawyer named Christian Graf Brockdorff, who, in a review of the company’s inventory, stumbled on the eighty-odd other Lennon items that Erhan G had consigned for a high-six-figure sum. “I doubted that everything that had happened in the past was legally correct,” Brockdorff told me in an e-mail. He contacted the police; a criminal case was opened, and Erhan G was found guilty of knowingly dealing in stolen goods. He served a one-year suspended sentence, having admitted that the story that Karsan had told of how he got the Lennon items “did not correspond to reality.” (A Europol warrant was issued for Karsan, whose whereabouts are unknown; he could not be reached for comment.) That the case itself ever came to be is curious, but its verdict set a legal foundation that the Swiss judgment cited in declaring that Mr. A is not the watch’s rightful owner. According to Guido Urbach, a knowledgeable Swiss attorney, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will decide any differently.

The secret dedication that Ono had inscribed on the back of the Patek Philippe 2499: “(JUST LIKE) / STARTING OVER / LOVE YOKO / 1src • 9 • 198src / N. Y. C.”

In a series of follow-up e-mails, I asked Mr. A about what John Lennon’s Patek meant to him. “I’m more of a Rolling Stones man,” he replied, mentioning that he has played bass in a local band for years. Still, “to own the JL watch is really a double good feeling,” he said, adding that he remained hopeful that he could “wear it as soon as possible.”

But, if the Supreme Court confirms the appellate court’s ruling, the watch will likely return to New York. “It’s important that we get it back because of all we’ve gone through over it,” Sean Lennon told me. He added, “I’m not a watch guy. I’d be terrified to wear anything of my dad’s. I never even played one of his guitars.” He paused. “To me, if anything, the watch is just a symbol of how dangerous it is to trust.”

The watch never seems to have given anyone peace and happiness for long. When Lennon was in Bermuda, writing what he described as the best kind of songs—“the ones that come to you in the middle of the night”—Ono was spending time with Sam Green, whom the Times once described as “an unabashed poseur blessed with good looks.” Green had a way with rich and eccentric women. He’d had an affair with the Bakelite heiress, Barbara Baekeland, and by 198src he was spending his time juggling Greta Garbo, Diana Vreeland, and Ono.

Looking through Green’s papers, which are at Yale’s Beinecke Library, I got an eerie feeling. I found a number of diary entries that corroborated his close relationship with Ono (“Yoko all day and night,” numerous notations read), and a handwritten tally for more than twenty-five thousand dollars—the cost of furniture that Green had sourced to appoint the Hit Factory studio. Whether Green was the one who suggested the Patek as a birthday present for Lennon is hard to confirm, but the cursed history of the watch invites speculation.

The secret engraving, which I found in the never-published Auctionata photo of the watch, is haunting in another way:

(JUST LIKE)

STARTING OVER

LOVE YOKO

1src • 9 • 198src

N. Y. C.

Was there a new start? By the time “Double Fantasy” was finished, Ono had lost interest in Green, and Lennon, who had just written and recorded no fewer than four love songs about her, appeared to be a happy man. The weeks they spent together at the Hit Factory that year had been charmed, which means that the Lennon Patek captures a measure of time that no other watch ever will—the little they had left together. ♦

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