The Epic Tale Of Proving The Provenance Of Ralph Ellison's Omega Speedmaster
The story of this multi-year saga begins with an email and will end this weekend at Phillips.
On December 29th, 2020, an email hit my inbox from Ted Walbye, a California-based collector, with a string of tantalizing words filling the subject line: “A vintage watch with historical significance (discovery).”
It immediately washed away my post-Christmas-plus-lockdown lethargy.
Here’s what followed:
A few years ago, I bought a 1968 Omega Speedmaster at auction.
Without any fanfare, the lot description noted that the item was from the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust.
Through extensive research, I have been able to establish that the watch was, in fact, owned by Mr. Ellison.
Historically significant timepieces can easily get ‘lost’ whenever their provenance becomes unmoored. Fortunately,
this 145.012 Speedmaster retains its story, and in my humble opinion, it’s one of the most historically
significant watches of the late 20th century.
Hope to start a dialog with you!
A Speedmaster 145.012! One of the last references powered by the calibre 321 movement! One of the original references approved for the Apollo moon shot program! Even better, the original owner of this watch wrote one of the few candidates for the title of Great American Novel!
You have my complete attention!
Invisible Man: Time and Timekeepers
In his 1952 novel Invisible Man, Ellison rearranges time. And in it, the unnamed protagonist describes his experience of time early on:
“Invisibility…gives one a slightly different sense of time; you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around.”
Appropriately for a novel with a distinct sense of time, clocks and watches often appear. They characterize people, suffuse scenes with nuance and mood, and even turn up in dreams.
And if a man writes about timepieces with such knowledge of what those small machines mean to people, how they influence lives, how intimate and personal the time they measure is, then, surely, he treasured his own watch. Right?
No doubt, he mentioned his Speedmaster somewhere in his writing. Right?
Sadly, although Ellison kept producing fiction of majestic stature throughout his life – complete with more meditations on time and timekeepers – he did so without a single mention of his Speedmaster. The watch is also missing from collections of his essays and letters.
The Collector: Ted Walbye
Ted admits to “collecting things from a very early age,” starting with a coin collection.
But in the first grade, Ted had what he describes as a “common event” in a child’s life, the gift of a watch. “I was given a pocket watch. It was probably my grandfather’s watch, and that just fascinated me,” Ted told me. “I was kind of anarchistic, a little kid wearing a pocket watch. It had a very loud tick. It was a beating heart that was conjoined to be in my pocket.”
Today, his primary interest is sports watches from the 1960s and ‘70s.
In 2016, one of Ted’s collecting goals became a calibre 321 Speedmaster. “It’s such an iconic movement and the Speedmaster with its connection to NASA, to space exploration,” he said. “It’s just such an iconic watch. It’s a watch that should be in everyone’s collection, especially if they’re interested in history and watch history. It’s just a beautiful watch too. It wears well on the wrist; its proportions are wonderful. It’s a gorgeous watch.”
Then he found one at an online auction house.
“I became aware of the auction maybe two days max before it went off,” Ted explained. But the lot note explaining that it was a part of the Ralph and Fanny Ellison Charitable Trust went almost entirely unnoticed. But a vague memory of a photo seen online tugged at his mind.
Ted continued: “It’s a very high contrast, and it shows Fanny and Ralph, I think, in a doorway. Omega Speedmaster fans speculate that he’s wearing a Speedmaster. I was vaguely familiar with that. I became more and more interested once I won the watch at auction that this might be not just from the collection of Ralph and Fanny Ellison, but it might be the watch that he wore.”
The watch arrived in LA with a busted mainspring and the upper chronograph pusher missing, but both were soon replaced: “It’s in working order as it should be.”
Ted’s Excellent Speedmaster Adventure
How do you unequivocally assert the provenance of a watch? You need bulletproof, ironclad, cannot-be-denied evidence.
While Ted had found images and even some video of Ellison wearing the watch, other avenues were not so helpful.
The online auction catalog, for instance, mentioned the Ellison Foundation. But the foundation had no additional information about the Speedmaster.
Next, Ted reached out to Professor Emeritus Arnold Rampersad of Stanford University, Ellison’s Biographer. Ted told me: “Despite many years of research and being a watch enthusiast himself, Prof. Rampersad knew nothing of the Speedmaster.” The professor ended his email by suggesting that Ted contact Professor John F. Callahan of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, since he was a close family friend of the Ellisons and is the literary executor of Ellison’s estate.
Professor Callahan was also unable to help but encouraged Ted to continue his search because, as Fats Waller’s said and Ellison enjoyed repeating, “One never knows, do one.”
Ted did not relent: “I had contacted the two men most likely to know something about Ellison and his Omega Speedmaster, but at the end of the day, the details remained elusive. [My] questions remain unanswered. Having accepted the idea that I may never know how or why Ellison acquired his watch, I decided to refocus my energy toward photographic discovery.”
Mr. Walbye Goes to Washington (or at least the Library of Congress)
At one point in his research, Ted noticed that some of the photos in Professor Rampersad’s book were credited to The Library of Congress (LOC) Photo Archives. So, he next contacted the LOC.
The reply Ted received from the LOC stated that Ralph Ellison’s papers consisted of over 9,000 photos, more than 6,000 negatives, and 35mm slides. Worse than that, the collection had not been fully indexed and was organized only by broad subjects. At first, Ted’s hopes welled up. Then he wondered if any of the photos showed Ellison wearing the Speedmaster and his euphoria waned.
The next email from the LOC left Ted dumbstruck. Attached were thirteen jpegs dated from 1968 to the early 1990s, showing the author wearing an Omega Speedmaster.
Still, though, the photos did not prove that the watch on Ellison’s wrist is the same one Ted bought.
Soon after having the watch repaired, Ted requested an extract from the Omega archives, which arrived in California on September 15th, 2017, with the usual details: model, calibre, reference, movement number (25.008.312), and date of production (March 15th, 1968). Finally, the extract stated that the watch was delivered to the United States. Other than the date of production and confirmation it was exported to the US, Ted still didn’t have any real information.
At this point, proving Ralph Ellison’s ownership of the Speedmaster came down to a hypothesis. Writers, especially fiction writers, depend on memory, using their memories of people who passed away and places from their past as the raw material for their stories. To preserve these memories many writers, keep photos, notebooks, hotel receipts, and trivial items such as restaurant checks.
Then on February 5th, 2021, Ted wrote to me saying: “VERY GOOD NEWS!” The reason for his cheer? Ted’s LOC contact opened the boxes of Ellison’s papers that contained everyday information. Inside were: “Several insurance policies wherein the Speedmaster is listed.” But what was really fantastic was that the movement number was, of course, included, and it matched the extract Ted received from Omega!
The Speedmaster belonged to Ralph Ellison. No one insures a watch they don’t own.
To Sell or Not To Sell?
Now, Ted faced a decision: Was he ready to sell? Yes, but before the watch left LA for this weekend’s 2021 New York Watch Auction at Phillips, he took many photographs of it.
However, before this tale comes to an end, I have one last confession to make: Hunting for proof of provenance for a watch resembles the search for Tutankhamen’s tomb, just without the heat, desert sands, and pesky mosquitoes. And in fact, the hunt for this provenance was so enjoyable that I wish it had taken longer. I entered the story near the end, and barely two months had passed from Ted’s first email to the discovery of the insurance policies.
Still, such hunts are an adventure.
Ralph Ellison’s Speedmaster will appear as Lot 138 at the Phillips 2021 New York Watch Auction (December 11th - 12th). For more information about the auction, visit the Phillips website.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)