The collector who once made Cartier gift him a watch – just because he could
Harry Fane is known as the man who knows more about Cartier’s Tank watches than Cartier does. And he’s curated a collection of rare vintage treasures in Singapore.
There are 31 rare watches on display at Dover Street Market Singapore. To the uninitiated, they’d simply look, well, old. Those in the know will recognise many of these as precious vintage Cartier Tank watches, first created in 1917 and inspired by the Renault FT-17 tank used in World War I.
For Harry Fane, these are historical treasures that he has dedicated much of his life to discovering, collecting and sharing. Fane can tell you why the lugs curve on one model but lie straight on another, or why references without a minute track are highly sought after. And he will do it all with the grace of the English gentry, and the informed passion of someone who has built a career on finding beautiful things.
The path that led him to becoming a leading authority on Cartier’s Tank watches wasn’t exactly orthodox. The son of a former chairman at Sotheby’s, Fane spent two years at the auction house in the early 1970s before deciding to go into business with his close friend Mark Shand – the late conservationist, travel writer and brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. Because the market then was saturated with art dealers, they decided to specialise in objets d’art.
“When I used to go looking for vintage silverware to sell, I would occasionally come across a beautiful Cartier thing, like a clock, a pair of cufflinks, a watch or cigarette case. I started to buy this stuff even though there was no interest in them. And in the late 1970s, I quite bravely dumped all the silver candlesticks so I could concentrate on Cartier objets d’art,” he told CNA Luxury.
"My favourite watch will change if an older, more beautiful model comes along. I’m a bit promiscuous in my love affairs with watches."
Fane would become intimately familiar with Cartier’s most exquisite jewels and objects, but it is the Tank that enamoured him most.
“Louis Cartier was wonderfully shallow. He wasn’t interested in what was going on inside a watch, so he simply got Edmund Jaeger [of Jaeger-LeCoultre] to create a movement thin enough to fit into his design,” said Fane. “There’s something unbelievably simple about the Tank but Cartier thought very carefully about its design.”
That love translated into years of accumulating knowledge of the Tank’s history. “I started to research where and how the movements and cases were made. Now one of the books Cartier published has an inscription that reads: ‘To Harry Fane, who knows more about Cartier than Cartier.’”
Fane personally collects Tank watches made only before the 1960s, and has developed a reputation for going to great lengths to acquire pieces that catch his fancy.
“I was just in Miami for a jewellery fair and there was a big Rolex dealer who was showing me a Cartier watch. I knew it was worth about US$10,000 (S$13,690), or US$11,000 on a very sunny day – but he asked for US$21,000. I asked him if he was crazy but he said, ‘No, you’re crazy because you’re going to buy it.’ The swine!” said Fane, laughing.
Unfortunately for his wallet, the dealer was right.
Difficult as some of these models are to come by, Fane rarely has an issue letting them go. “Really, I’m a trader at heart. My favourite watch will change if an older, more beautiful model comes along. I’m a bit promiscuous in my love affairs with watches,” he quipped.
"These classic, traditional watches designed 100 years ago aren’t clashing with these crazy, cutting-edge fashions. And I think that’s kind of amazing."
At any one time, his personal collection will consist of about 12 watches that are not for sale – but even that’s not set in stone. “If you asked me to show you everything I’ve got and offered me US$5 million for them, you can have them in three seconds. I have very little sentimentality,” he declared.
The only exception appears to be the watch he wore to our interview: A yellow gold Tank Normale from 1924. “It’s almost 100 years old. I wonder who it’s had dinner with. Whose wrist was it taken off of? Who has it been given to? I’ve been remarkably monogamous with this watch.”
Even the very first Tank he ever owned did not escape Fane’s pragmatism. He no longer has the modern Tank Americaine he demanded as a gift from Cartier following a favour he granted the maison.
“They were pretty rude to me, so I told them that on top of paying me they were going to give me a present. After a terrible uproar in French – which they didn’t know I could understand – they said I could go and choose some merchandise,” said Fane.
So he marched into Cartier’s Paris boutique, asked to see its most expensive watch, a “horrible diamond-encrusted one with buttons and sapphires everywhere”, and said he would take that one.
“They went bananas. I was only joking, so I chose the Americaine.”
Fane’s candid disdain for the more ostentatious stems from a deep reverence for the classics, and he doesn’t mince his words, even with Johann Rupert, chairman of Cartier’s parent company Richemont, who Fane describes as “a remarkable man”.
In fact, he believes it is because of Rupert’s leadership and understanding of Cartier’s heritage that the brand remains relevant today. “It’s the reason your heart still races when your boyfriend comes home with a Cartier bag. This is rare because a lot of these old brands have become so diluted over the years.”
This lasting legacy, he said, can be seen in how his curated Cartier pieces are on display alongside the modern apparel of the Dover Street Market boutique.
“In theory, these watches should be for people like me wearing pinstripe suits and a tie,” he said. “But these classic, traditional watches designed 100 years ago aren’t clashing with these crazy, cutting-edge fashions. And I think that’s kind of amazing.”
Harry Fane’s curated collection of vintage Cartier timepieces is available at Dover Street Market Singapore until the end of May 2019.