Russell Working had never spoken to the 83-year-old translator he was about to meet for the first time because the old man, fearing a KGB tap, had no phone.
What Working, an Oak Park-based freelance journalist, found was a man as colorful as his Soviet-era apartment tower was drab.
Georgy Permyakov thumped his stomach to show he hadn’t lost all of the brawn of his boxing days. He bragged that he always slept on his balcony — even in winter. Books — in Russian, Chinese and Japanese — were wedged into every crevice of his shelves.
But it was what Permyakov retrieved from a desk drawer that floored Working: A wristwatch the man said he’d received 50 years earlier as a gift from Aisingyoro Puyi, China’s last emperor, his story told in the 1987 Academy Award-winning movie “The Last Emperor.” Permyakov had worked as a translator for the then-deposed emperor.
“It could have been a Kmart special for all I knew,” Working said of the watch.
It wasn’t. The Patek Philippe timepiece will go on the auction block May 23, with bids starting at $3 million. And Working, together with his wife Nonna Working, played a key role in establishing the watch’s value because of that meeting with Permyakov in his apartment in 2001.
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Working is the kind of adventure-seeking reporter that journalism students in college dream about becoming, but rarely do.
In the late 1990s, he was the editor in chief of the Vladivostok News, an English-language weekly in the Russian far east, arriving during the chaos of a crumbling Soviet Union. Not long before he got there, two reporters from another Vladivostok newspaper had been kidnapped and tortured, he said.
When the newspaper ran out of cash, he freelanced, traveling across Asia with his wife, a Russian native and deputy editor he worked with at the Vladivostok newspaper.
“We just treated the whole Far East as our beat,” said Working.
With his wife’s help, she was his translator and “fixer,” Working wrote about dog fighting in Vladivostok, an illegal gun factory in the Philippines, the world’s highest gold mine — about 14,000 feet — in Kyrgyzstan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Boston Globe and Business Week among many other publications.
In 2001, the couple were researching a story about a biological warfare facility in a Japanese-controlled part of China operated during World War II. The scientists had used human guinea pigs in their experiments. After the war, some of the researchers went on trial in the far eastern Russian city of Khabarovsk. That’s where they found Permyakov, who spoke fluent Chinese, Japanese and four other languages — and had been a translator during the trials.
He “sleeps on his balcony … most nights, even in Russia’s winter. He chatters in Japanese and Putonghua and is a little gleeful when visitors stare blankly back,” Working wrote in May 2001 for a story in the South China Morning Post.
Then, the host said something completely unexpected. He said that he’d once been the translator for Puyi.
“I said, ‘You’re kidding — you mean Puyi, the last emperor of China?” Working said.
Puyi spent his early childhood in China’s Forbidden City, living a life of unimaginable privilege. Hundreds of servants — mostly eunuchs — were at his beck and call. A half dozen tables were laid out for every meal; what the boy didn’t eat was thrown away.
“This kid was elevated at 2 years old to a position in which nobody could rebuke him, no one could punish him,” Working said.
That life came to an end in 1924 when a Chinese warlord expelled the emperor from the Forbidden City.
When Permyakov met Puyi, it was 1945 and the former emperor was being held in a Soviet prison camp. Puyi was permitted luxuries other prisoners weren’t, including wool suits and apartment-like accommodations. The two men were together for five years. Puyi lived in constant fear of being sent back to now communist China and what he thought was certain death.
Permyakov and Puyi became close friends, Permyakov told the Workings. To prove it, the Workings’ host rummaged inside a desk drawer, pulling out a paper fan Puyi inscribed with Chinese characters, a notebook of Puyi’s writings and a watch.
It was a Patek Philippe, a Swiss timepiece that, new, starts at $20,000 and can cost up to $2 million. This model was one of only three known to have been made and, of course, it had once been owned by a former emperor.
Puyi gave the watch to Permyakov, just as he was about to be put on a train and returned to China in 1950.
“There was nothing to be gained by handing him the watch. He knew he was going to be leaving Russia within hours. It clearly was just a gesture of friendship,” Russell Working said.
Puyi wasn’t executed. He was sent to a Communist re-education camp. The former emperor worked as a gardener for a time. Living a quiet life out of the spotlight, he died in 1967 in Beijing.
Permyakov died a few years after his meeting with the Workings. Permyakov’s family sold the Puyi items to an unknown buyer. Those items eventually ended up at New York-based Phillips Auctioneers, the company that reached out to Russell Working after seeing his piece about Permyakov.
Thomas Perazzi, Phillips’ head of watches in Asia, said of the timepiece: “It is extraordinarily rare and then secondly, you add an imperial provenance.”
But it’s hardly in pristine condition. Half of the paint has been scraped off the dial and the watch isn’t actually working. Perazzi said research revealed that a servant of Puyi had scraped away the paint — at his master’s request — to see if the dial, like the case, was made of platinum. The servant found only brass beneath.
“Currently, it’s not working but it can be easily serviced to bring it back to working condition,” said Perazzi, who himself wears a Patek Philippe.
Perazzi said Russell Working was a critical part of the research because of his conversation with Permyakov and what the Workings had been shown.
The Workings have lived in Oak Park for the past 20 years. She’s a university administrator. He wrote for the Chicago Tribune for 5 1/2 years and he’s also a published short-story writer.
He and his wife were on their way to Hong Kong last week to take part in a news conference before the auction and “rub elbows with the buyers, potentially.” It’s an all-expenses trip paid for by the auctioneers.
It’s an unusual position for Working, as a journalist, to be in.
But Working said he’s grateful for the opportunity to delve deeply into the life of so fascinating a historical figure. He wrote and edited most of the 96-page catalog for the auction.
“You spend years and years as a journalist, there are so many interesting stories along the way that you’re telling and so many interesting people you meet, then they fall out of your life,” Working said. “It was just such an amazing thing to have this thing wash up on the beach and, good grief, here’s this treasure chest from something we wrote about 21 years earlier. It’s fantastic.”