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GENEVA (Reuters) - Fine watches soared above their estimates at sales in Geneva, reflecting collectors' strong demand for exceptional pieces, auction houses said on Monday.
A pair of Patek Philippe wristwatches sold for a combined $7.3 million, each setting world records after doubling the low-end of their estimate, Christie's said.
One of them, a 1949 steel timepiece that had belonged to the late wealthy American businessman and sportsman Briggs Swift Cunningham II, fetched $4.016 million -- making it the second most expensive watch ever sold at auction, it said.
The buyer was an unnamed Swiss private museum.
"It's also the most expensive steel watch ever sold. With today's turbulent stock markets, it is an extraordinary price, demonstrating the strength of the market for fine watches," Aurel Bacs, co-director of Christie's international watch department, told Reuters after Monday's sale.
Cunningham, who died in 2003 at the age of 96, was one of the richest men in America in his day, Christie's said. An avid car racer he also won the America's Cup in 1958.
A second Patek Philippe, a 1954 platinum perpetual calendar wristwatch -- which recently emerged after spending more than half a century in a family safe -- netted $3.1 million.
"It never saw the light of day. The original owner's nephew didn't realize what he had," Bacs said. It was bought by a European collector who chose to remain anonymous.
Christie's sold 346 watches for a total of $25 million. "Twelve different bidders from four continents competed for the two top lots," it said, referring to the pair of Patek Philippes.
At rival Sotheby's on Sunday night, a chronograph wristwatch which belonged to an Italian racing driver fetched 2.345 million Swiss francs ($2.25 million).
The large gold Patek Philippe watch originally owned by Count Carlo Felice Trossi, president of Scuderia Ferrari, went for the highest price ever for a wristwatch sold at Sotheby's, the auction house said. Its new owner remains anonymous.
The "Trossi Leggenda" was the star lot among 193 pieces on offer, 159 of which sold for a total of $10.4 million, it said.
Trossi was a racing driver, pilot and speed boat racer whose motor-racing victories included the 1947 Italian Grand Prix.
"It is a watch of great symbolic and historic importance as it came out in 1932, a turning point which also saw car racing and the emergence of airplanes," Geoffroy Ader, Sotheby's head of watches in Geneva, told a pre-sale news briefing.
A gold Rolex made around 1980, known as the "Oyster Daytona Paul Newman" and named after the Florida car race and for the American actor who made the style famous, netted 157,000 francs, compared to its pre-sale estimate of 50,000 to 80,000 francs.
Additional reporting by Sam Cage; Editing by Charles Dick