Makovsky’s Time

An obscure Russian inlay artist gets his due

Of all the items that Steven Fox displayed in the windows of his namesake boutique in Greenwich, Conn., the best at luring customers inside was a circa-1925 Vacheron Constantin desk clock. It’s an early-20th-century timepiece featuring a dial that depicts a swirling, curving, roaring dragon outlined in gold and set against a landscape formed from mother-of-pearl.

“Not a day went by when someone wouldn’t come in and compliment us on the clock,” says Fox. “ ‘Can I see it?’ they’d ask. ‘Can you tell me about it?’ There’s something about this clock that acts like a beacon, attracting people.”

The clock’s dial was made by the inlay artist Vladimir Makovsky, born in Russia in 1884, fled to Paris during the Bolshevik revolution, and died in 1966. Other details of his life are sketchy. He visited Asia on more than one occasion, and those travels seemingly influenced his work – but it isn’t known when he visited the continent, which countries he went to, or what he did while there. Makovsky’s earliest works date to around 1920 and the latest to the mid-’30s, when perhaps his fantastical, labour-intensive confections became too expensive to commission, or just fell out of fashion. He apparently didn’t produce any pieces under his own name; instead, he took on projects from companies such as Vacheron Constantin, Cartier, and Van Cleef & Arpels. The closest he came to self-promotion was inscribing his initials on his work, as he did with the clock that Fox owned.

The clock’s movement was made by Vacheron Constantin, and the French firm Verger Frères produced the case, but no doubt it was Makovsky’s dial that prompted a high bid of $150,000 (RM600,000) when Fox sold the piece through Sotheby’s in December. “It’s the soul of the piece,” says Fox. “These pieces are nothing without what he brings to it. The poetry comes from his work.”

Makovsky clocks don’t come on the market often, but when they do, they command high prices. In November 2014, Sotheby’s Geneva auctioned a 1929 Cartier compact graced with a Makovsky image of a dragon emerging from the sea. It sold for more than $110,000 (RM440,000). The following month, Sotheby’s New York sold a desk clock with a Makovsky dial for $377,000 (RM1.5 million). Another of his desk clocks sold for $340,000 (RM1.36 million) in 2009.

Katharine Thomas, the head of Sotheby’s watch department in New York, suggests that the demand for the clocks is driven in part by many unwitting Makovsky collectors. “There’s less familiarity with his name, but there’s huge appreciation for his style of work,” she says. “People don’t know they’re looking for Makovsky, but they actually are.”

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