“The Little Egyptian” is not the title of a fairy-tale. Or maybe it is.
It’s 1952. The Egyptian Military, led by the Free Officers had just staged a coup to remove King Farouk I (whose watch collection was a subject of an earlier post). The rule of President Gamal Abdelnasser was challenged by powers in the West. Egypt, its people, and its independence were under constant threats. More than ever, Egypt needed to strengthen its military, particularly its navy, as the strongest threat came from the opposite side of the Suez Canal.
The best navy of its time, it is rumoured that the Italian Secret Service worked with both Egypt and Israel to establish highly-trained naval assault groups on both fronts. In 1954, Egyptian navy officers had just completed training with their Italian counterparts, and the Frogmen unit was established. During their training in Italy, the Egyptian naval officers were introduced to and trained using Panerai equipment. (For the uninitiated, it is important to note that in 1954 wristwatches were tools. There were no Sunto dive computers around.)
Historical accounts differ on whether the Egyptians were trained by the Italians in Italy or in Alexandria, but what is known for sure is that they were impressed by the Panerai diving equipment used by their Italian counterparts and upon completion of the training, the Frogmen unit of the Egyptian military was created, and an order for Panerai dive equipment, including watches, was placed by the Egyptian military.
The GPF 2/56, or “Big Egyptian”
The Little Egyptian is not to be confused with its cousin the GPF 2/56, nicknamed the Big Egyptian due to its monstrous size of 60mm. The GPF 2/56 was made in 1956 and was the first Panerai reference to feature the patented and instantly recognisable crown protecting bridge developed by Guido Panerai. The GPF 2/56 also had an Angelus movement with an 8 day power reserve.
Albeit a very rare watch, the Big Egyptian is not shrouded with mystery like its little cousin as there are several reports of the watch coming out of Egypt, specifically from Alexandria. Some of them even with their box and papers! In 2015, a Panerai Egiziano GPF 2/56 was sold by Christies in their Important Watches sale and fetched a whopping USD 149,000!
Now let’s dig deeper…
The Reference 6154, also knows as the “Little Egyptian”
The Ref 6154 is among only a handful of references made by Panerai at the time. The 6154 was made in 1954, and less than 20 examples are known to exist (as pointed out by Panerai scholars or “Paneristi”). As you can see from the two pictures above, there are striking differences in how the dials on these watches aged even though all the Ref. 6154 watches started their lives with black dials. The generally accepted theory is that Radiomir, the patented radioactive luminous material used by Guido Panerai, was not applied uniformly across all the known examples. However, the different dials have fuelled some heated debate about the authenticity of the Ref. 6154, and have led some to question whether it the watch was supplied by Panerai and not a “Franken-watch”.
The Panerai Ref. 6154, nicknamed the Little Egyptian by collectors and scholars was manufactured by Rolex to Guido Panerai’s specifications. With a case that is 47mm wide, the Little Egyptian is not a little watch, not even by today’s standards. The watches movement and the case-back were both signed “Rolex”. (Many of the Panerai’s of that era had Rolex movements.)
The Panerai 6154 is so coveted by collectors that one example is part of the permanent collection of the Officine Panerai Museum in Florence, Italy.
It is uncontested that Panerai supplied the Frogmen with wristwatches. There are reports of GPF 2/56, Ref. 3646 and Ref. 6152 1 watches bought in Egypt. But whether the Ref. 6154 was a development prototype supplied to a secret, elite diving unit or if they were supplied to Egyptian Frogmen remains a mystery and a subject of many heated debates by Paneristi (some even contest the authenticity of the watch)!
More recently (in November 2016, to be specific), Phillips reported in a lot essay describing the Ref. 6154 that authorities on the subject can confirm that one example was purchased in Alexandria at a flea market, before wristwatch collecting became a hobby.
That lot sold for CHF 322,000 and included a depth gauge and torch made by Panerai and used by the Frogmen.
Upon learning of the Ref 6154, I was instantly intrigued by its controversial history and have reached out to several collectors and dealers in Egypt.
I was told by a watchmaker turned vintage watch dealer based in Cairo that in the late 1980s, the Egyptian navy held an auction to sell decommissioned equipment. Included in the sale were several examples of Panerai wristwatches. According to this dealer, he bought 5 Panerai wristwatches from that auction: 1 GPF 2/56 Big Egyptian with a Luminor Panerai dial, and 4 smaller Radiomir Panerai watches. Whether these watches were 3646s, 6152 1s or if they possibly confirm the 6154 story, he is not sure. The five watches were all sold to a collector in England before their prices skyrocketed.
His memory failed him when pressed for more details…