A Look At Watch Smuggling And Its Fascinating History

A Look At Watch Smuggling And Its Fascinating History

6 min read
Anthony Peacock
Anthony Peacock

The lost art of watch-smuggling explained...

Many things have fallen out of fashion in recent years, such as cargo pants, Take That, conker fights…and watch smuggling. It doesn't seem so long ago that villains were depicted with wrists full of watches up to their elbows or carrying specially-adapted briefcases (back when people still had briefcases) with hollowed-out compartments for Rolexes and Breitlings. Back in 1961, the UK government tabled a debate in the Houses of Parliament about watch-smuggling, which they estimated added up to £3,750,000 in lost tax revenue: in the days when that was a truly head-turning chunk of change.

More than a decade later, legendary comedians Monty Python even wrote a sketch about watch-smuggling, which you can watch here (bizarrely with lego characters filling in for John Cleese and company):

But the watch smuggler has gone the way of the chimney sweep, telephone operator, travel agent and other superannuated professions. Or rather, watch smugglers have diversified, as other things – mostly of a chemical nature – have proved to be far more lucrative in the world of smuggling. The only watch-smuggling of real note that takes place these days is counterfeiting: a serious and growing problem, with about a million fake watches seized and destroyed every year.

Yet the globe-trotting, old-fashioned watch smuggler as we knew him is no more, apart from in countries that impose stringent taxes on imported watches. In China – where quite a lot of watch-smuggling still happens to cater for the demanding needs of a newly-rich elite – Shenzhen customs officials arrested a man last year attempting to smuggle in a Patek Philippe Minute Repeater watch, valued at roughly £325,000. To avoid paying customs tax, the passenger wore the watch when passing through customs, but the empty watch box was then discovered in his suitcase. Doh!

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The penalty he faced was a fine of up to £170,000 – or as much as a 10-year prison sentence. So it’s just not worth it. Another man was arrested recently in Vietnam with 21 Swiss watches from Omega and Zenith (among other brands) hidden in his pants, which must have caused no small degree of discomfort. Unsurprisingly, he stood out somewhat and was arrested.

In the past though, watch smuggling was much more commonplace – a regular occupation of fictional as well as real-life baddies – and it was often the source of some very creative thinking.

One almost unbelievable watch smuggling story...

Take this one, for example. One of the biggest personalities of British motorsport from the 1930s was Rob Walker, the heir to the Johnnie Walker whisky empire, who would go on to found a successful Formula 1 team in the 1950s, employing drivers of the like of Stirling Moss (always with a handshake rather than a contract). But like most people involved in racing right up to the present day, Walker kept some interesting company. And those people often had an amusingly creative interpretation of the law.

One of his many cars was a French Delahaye 135 Competition Speciale, registered as DUV 870 in 1936. Rob Walker bought the car from a Park Lane dealership in London for £400, (while he was ostensibly studying for finals at Cambridge) and it went on to have a truly famous career. In 1939, the Delahaye finished eighth overall at Le Mans, where Rob and co-driver Ian Connell averaged 78.1 mph over the 24 hours. Walker, the quintessential Englishman, wore a suit and tie throughout the race and even changed from brown to black shoes for evening driving. A gentleman (the profession stated on Walker’s passport) always had to be properly dressed after all.

In post-war years, the car was taken abroad for several races, and also leased out to friends and customers. So it came as something of a surprise when Walker received a phone call to say that racing driver Guy Jason-Henry had been caught by customs for attempting to smuggle no fewer than 3000 Swiss watches into England. Walker apparently found the whole episode absolutely hilarious — until he learned that the watches had been hidden in a fake fuel tank on the Delahaye and that Customs at Newhaven had impounded the car.

Walker was forced to buy DUV 870 back from the government for £300, though he said, “I inquired of Customs how much Cunard White Star Line had to pay when the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth was found with smuggled nylons on board. They declined to answer.”

After a protracted negotiation, Walker collected the car and had it refurbished. But the watch-smuggling saga wasn’t quite done yet: “Its first race afterwards was in the Empire Trophy,” Walker recalled. “On the very first lap, it was rammed in the tail and crashed. Many excited spectators rushed around hoping there were still some watches left to fall out!”

Any that remained were undoubtedly already on Walker’s wrist, but the Delahaye scam was probably still the most daring example of watch-smuggling that has ever been recorded. Others have tried different scams in the past that didn't go quite so well. In the 1930s, two American jewellers were arrested for trying to smuggle a number of Swiss watches hidden in rabbit skins, which began to stink on the trip to New York and gave them away. More recently, a Chinese man was discovered with 31 watches hidden inside a pushchair, complete with baby. None of these attempts really had the style of Guy Jason-Henry’s attempt. He somehow managed to charm his way out of it and continued his racing career, before passing away in London in 1988, at the age of 71.

Walker, a true gentleman to the last, lived to 84, having died in 2002. He kept the famous Delahaye and drove it across Europe even when it was nearly 50 years old. “I was returning with the car from Le Mans in the 1980s when I too was pulled over at Newhaven,” remembered Walker, no doubt with a certain sense of dejà-vu. “The officer involved was old – not old enough to have been present in 1950 – but he explained that the car was so recognisable and that it was still a well-known case.”

With 3,000 watches hidden in a fake fuel tank, it probably always will be. As for DUV 870, it’s still alive and well and owned by the Johnnie Walker company, coming out for special occasions (such as the shoot with Jude Law above). Keep an eye on your watch when it does….

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Anthony Peacock

About the Author: Anthony Peacock

I’m passionate about a lot of things but especially cars, food, wine, film – and watches. As a writer and PR consultant, I’m lucky enough to travel the world and find inspiration from all sorts of amazing places. Sometimes I’m on my own and sometimes with others, but my timepiece is my constant companion.

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