This is the first chapter of my book, Marie-Antoinette’s Watch, the thrilling story of the most valuable watch in the world and the men and women who gave their lives to own it. You can sign up here to get more information about the book when it launches. Until then… enjoy!
On hot August days, when the thermostat grazed 94 degrees Fahrenheit by the Mediterranean shoreline, there was little traffic in Zion Yakubov’s little shop on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. The jumbled store – a small room, really, filled with brass and stonework along with jewelry and other knickknacks popular with the grazing tourist antique hunters – had played host to many treasure seekers over the years. But on this sweltering afternoon in 2006, a woman named Hila Efron-Gabai entered bearing treasure.
Efron-Gabai was a lawyer, she explained, with a very interesting proposition. She was eight months pregnant with twins, but she was glowing. She had a thin face, an olive complexion, and a no-nonsense demeanor. Her dark brown hair framed her sharp features, and she had large brown eyes over an open, unlined face. She was charming and seemed used to getting her way.
Zion himself was a proper, older man of about sixty with close-cropped, carefully combed hair, and small oval glasses. When he visited clients or went to examine antiques elsewhere in the city, he carried a small leather satchel, under his armpit. He was a trusted confidant to many rare art dealers and had only been in trouble once, back in 1980, when he was accused of fencing two silver vessels from a nearby synagogue. Nothing came of the accusation, although Zion did spend two nights in jail. He had stayed clear of trouble since, focusing on above-board art sales.
Yakubov was a better breed of the kind of antiques and antiquities sellers found in places like Tel Aviv’s Jaffa flea market, a bustling souk where everything from old jewelry to antique cooking pots were available for sale. Yakubov’s taste was more nuanced, and he owned a number of rare items.
Five of these items — clocks and music boxes — he had loaned to the L.A. Mayer Museum when the family gallery reopened in 1989 after a major theft. These items have resided at the museum for almost two decades, making their small contribution to the museum’s efforts to recapture some of the magic and majesty of an original collection of fine watches that had been stolen twenty years before. But it was coincidental that this very pregnant lawyer was about to involve him in further business with the museum, in what would be one of the strangest deals of his career.
Earlier that month, Hila Efron-Gabai had taken on a client with an unusual request. The client, a woman from America, wanted to return some objects to the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art. Her only stipulation was that the return be anonymous. The client explained that her late husband had owned a few boxes of clocks and watches and that, under community property laws (he hadn’t left a will), the boxes were now hers. He had only told her about the boxes late into the yearlong cancer that would eventually kill him, revealing some information that took her breath away: The clocks belonged to the Mayer Museum, and he had stolen them twenty years before.
The client said that she had opened the boxes once, to look inside them, and she knew only that these were “beautiful things” and that they didn’t belong to her.
“Whatever happens, these things have to be returned to the museum,” the client said. The client said she had no interest in making money, but she did want to remain hidden. She left the boxes with Efron-Gabai, asking her to take care of them.
After the client departed, Efron-Gabai took one of the boxes to a conference room in her firm’s office and placed it on a table. She thought carefully about her next step. She could contact the museum directly, but first she wanted to be sure the clocks and watches were authentic. Her father, Nachum, often visited a well-known art dealer in Tel Aviv, Yakubov, who had sold the family some candlesticks long ago and done repair work on some of the family silver. She called her father, asking for the jeweler’s number, and then she rang Zion Yakubov. She asked that he come in for a consultation on what she would only describe as very unusual pieces. Grudgingly, he agreed.
When collectors and dealers are approached with a secretive deal, they mostly prove to be a dead end. Contrary to the myth of Antiques Roadshow and other one-of-a-kind find television programs, the vast majority of items found in attics and basements are junk. The heady days of treasure picking are past. With the rise of the Internet and eBay, collectors know almost to the penny what anything is worth. Even the dealers at the Tel Aviv antiques market rarely sold anything without knowing its provenance and going price — and whether or not it was genuine. That this lawyer would be harboring anything of great value was a long bet, but Yakubov took it.
He arrived on the afternoon of August 16, 2006, driving up the coast through Tel Aviv’s honking, jammed traffic to Efron-Gabai’s office near crowded Milano Square, a part of town popular with ex-pats and higher-end businesses.
After he sat down, the lawyer began to unpack a box. One after the other, on a wooden conference table, Efron-Gabai laid out a number of the most storied and illustrious clocks and watches Yakubov had ever seen.
Some were in medicine boxes marked with cramped, handwritten care instructions in Hebrew. A bottle of watch oil was included with one, along with a note reading: “These watches are very delicate. Use this oil once a month.” It was as if someone had packed up a collection of old trinkets in preparation for a move. The objects lay haphazardly on the table — millions of dollars in watches spread out like a child’s collection of toy soldiers.
Yakubov knew instantly what he was looking at: This was the missing Salomons collection, nearly complete and surprisingly intact. Efron-Gabai had brought out forty watches to show him, and she now unwrapped one that was in faded, dirty newspaper and covered with a thin patina of grime and oil. It was a piece Yakubov had hardly dared hope he might see. Behind a rock crystal face, a movement that had taken one man and his son forty-four years to create was still awake and alive. It was the 160, Marie-Antoinette’s watch, missing twenty years and now bright as the day is was finished almost two hundred years earlier. He held in his hands a masterpiece of horology, the most coveted, most storied, and most tragic watch in the world.
He held in his trembling hands the Queen. She had returned.