Philippe Dufour Watch Sells for $1bn!
What is the true value of art? Are watches art? Is the value of watches which are compared to art, simply made up?
You probably knew before clicking through to read this post, that the headline is complete nonsense. How did you know that? Well, there is some sort of ‘reasonableness test’ which we apply to all things we see, hear and feel… and often, when something just doesn’t feel right, we do not need to do any fact-checking - our intuition tells us the correct answer in a split second.
That’s all well and good, but the problem with this approach, is that we can be fooled by our own intuition. I’m reminded of this old post which rings true as I think about this post, and my reason for writing it. Perhaps you have seen it before, but if not, here it is:
How fake news works
This video is epic because it highlights some textbook approaches to the creation of disinformation, and for us collectors, it provides a useful baseline for understanding how today’s online ecosystems have exponentially boosted the reach and effectiveness of such activities…
Before diving into those tactics, a bit of historical background from Thomas Rid’s Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare1 might be helpful - Here’s a clipping from a CIA summary (not even kidding!) about the book, just to whet your appetite:
The levels of detail in Active Measures’s Cold War-era case histories reflect the thoroughness of Rid’s research. He combines declassified CIA records and documents released by Moscow (including official SVR histories), with material from East German and other former bloc countries’ archives—because of close cooperation of the bloc services, copies of documents still locked away in Moscow or destroyed by one eastern service often are available in another country’s archives—and interviews with retired East European intelligence officers.
As Rid explains - the United Nations started investigating the Soviet Union’s use of chemical weapons against Afghani muhajideen fighters in the early 1980s. The bulk of the U.N.’s evidence had been sourced and submitted by the United States (who were secretly funding the muhajideen and keen on stymying the Soviet Union); it was also being released to the public, damaging the USSR’s international standing. Operation Infektion was one of a series of active measures that the USSR undertook to deflect attention from itself by accusing the U.S. of creating biological weapons; Including a claim that the CIA was producing weaponised mosquitos at a malaria research lab in Pakistan!
One interesting point Rid observes is that for the USSR, exposure of these disinformation campaigns carried little risk — and could even further its objectives. He writes:
“Even if the Soviet claim that the CIA was developing chemical weapons in Lahore was revealed as fake, that revelation would make it easier for the U.S.S.R. to claim that the CIA’s reports of Soviet chemical weapons in Afghanistan were equally made up.”
The video illustrates the initial article from the Patriot went dormant for a few years before resurfacing again. Rid connects this to an accusation made by the U.S. in 1985 that the USSR was not in compliance with the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. Basically, as with the weaponised mosquitos, the purpose of Operation Infektion was to discredit the United States and reverse the accusation.
In assessing Operation Infektion’s success, there are five key areas that facilitated the operation: 1) ease of entry (into the information ecosystem); 2) offering nuggets of truth; 3) a long game; 4) repetition; and 5) low levels of trust.
India was a hotspot for KGB active measures. As the KGB spies in the video point out, third world countries offered easier penetration of media outlets and greater plausible deniability for the true source of stories. Importantly, India — the world’s largest democracy — had a robust free press at the time (maybe not so much today!). Creating a new front like the Patriot (which Rid notes was funded by the KGB for the purpose of publishing KGB propaganda and disinformation) is easier in an open society with a commitment to free expression. As a bonus, India’s media ecosystem has many English language outlets, offering a convenient entry point for disinformation to get picked up by the west.
Weaponised mosquitos may seem a bit silly, but in the early 1980s, the idea that the CIA might be conducting experiments using biological agents wasn’t completely outrageous. During the 1975 Church Committee oversight hearings, then CIA director William E. Colby testified to Congress about various covert activities the CIA had undertaken over the previous decades which were outside the scope of its legislative charter — the so-called “family jewels.” These included coups, attempted assassinations, and of course… clandestine drug experiments on human subjects (including unwitting U.S. citizens)! Known as MK-Ultra, the CIA operation conducted studies on mind control, brainwashing, and psychological torture, often using psychotropic drugs like LSD and heroin.2
The U.S. also has an ugly history of human experimentation on Black Americans. Between 1932 and 1972, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted nonconsensual experiments on 600 Black men at the Tuskegee Institute, to study the effects of untreated syphillis.
So you see, the general notion of Operation Infektion was temporally and substantively close enough to real historical events to make it believable. In fact, Rid observes that the Patriot piece cleverly invoked the CIA’s past and…
“was a masterfully executed disinformation operation: comprising 20 percent forgery and 80 percent fact, truth, and lies woven together, it was an eloquent, well-researched piece that gently led the reader, through convincing detail, to his or her own conclusion.”
Operation Infektion taking root in the public imagination was helped immeasurably by the fact that it was repeated so many times in so many different places — two hundred times in 80 different countries! Research has shown that repetition makes information more credible: This is known as the illusory truth effect: Repetition is so powerful that individuals can perceive information to be true even when the source is not credible and even if they know from prior knowledge that the information is false. This will be a key point to bear in mind, with regards to the topic of this post i.e. the Dufour story.
In the case of Operation Infektion, as is the case with all watch-related infamy… repetition — particularly across many media outlets — will impact journalists’ perceptions. In the AIDS story, the fact that so many other publications had reported “the story,” for example, would have likely impacted the vetting process of the CBS Evening News to determine whether it was credible enough to include it in its programming. “Virality,” therefore, is a key ingredient in allowing disinformation to take root — and underscores why counter narratives are so important in the information space. In fact, that’s basically the point of this very post you’re reading.
The time elapsed between the AIDS story first hitting the Patriot to finally going mainstream on CBS was about five years. Sure, the AIDS story was one of several similar (failed) attempts. The KGB allowed the initial post to remain slightly dormant in the background until circumstances made it useful to resurrect again. The point being, it may never have become useful, but I do wonder how this applies to watch-related media as well. I will not elaborate for now, as you may choose to stop reading and label me a conspiracy theorist - I am not, but I think it doesn’t hurt anyone to think beyond the seemingly obvious motives.
So, what the actual f*ck does fake news have to do with Dufour? Well, let’s find out.
Why I decide to write this post
After the whole pricing debate about Dufour Simplicity Watches kicked off with Horology_Ancienne’s post on Instagram, I got several responses like “Dufour doesn’t make his own watches”, and “he does very little himself”, and “he only really did the movement decoration and nothing else”. Well, that’s an awful lot of negativity for someone who is, by most accounts, one of the most celebrated names in watchmaking alive today… isn’t it?
Now I am happy to admit, I don’t know any of this to be true or false. I don’t have any skin in the game, but I found myself having to form opinions with incomplete information. So in light of what I shared at the start about doing the work before forming opinions… here we are!
I decided to see what I could find. After a while, I landed on a useful blog entry by one Peter Chong, which I will share below - but this was at the very end of a rather arduous web ferreting session with mostly expired links on old forums and other similar dead ends.
The most overwhelming thing was the near unanimous conclusion that Dufour is “the master of our time”, “a watchmaker without equal”, “an absolute legend” and other similar praise which idolises the guy. Talk about confirmation bias!
If you feel like reading some of the material I found along the way, here are several links to warm you up:
This is by no means an exhaustive list (obviously!) - and since you have access to Google like everyone else, please feel free to add other useful links in the comments section.