The Rolex that became Hillary's timebomb

The proposed sale of the mountaineer's watch is stoking a bitter feud between his children and second wife

A Rolex Oyster Perpetual watch presented to Sir Edmund Hillary after he scaled Everest in 1953 is at the centre of an increasingly bitter dispute between the mountaineer's widow and his children.

Peter and Sarah Hillary have barely spoken to Sir Edmund's second wife, June, since their father died in January 2008. Now they have taken legal action to prevent Lady June from selling a collection of watches that includes the Rolex – the latest in a series of treasured items which they accuse their stepmother of discarding without consulting them.

The High Court in Auckland, which granted an injunction preventing the watches being auctioned in Geneva last weekend, is trying to ascertain who owns them. The New Zealand government is also involved because it claims the Oyster Perpetual is protected under its heritage laws and cannot leave the country without permission.

The collection, due to be auctioned by the Swiss house Antiquorum, was expected to fetch NZ$500,000 (£241,000). If the watches are permanently withdrawn from sale, Lady June could face a penalty fee of up to $200,000.

The Oyster Perpetual was given to Sir Edmund after he and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first people to conquer the world's highest peak. The explorer, who subsequently became the advertising face of Rolex, wore the watch during a 1957 expedition where he led a tractor team across Antarctica to the South Pole.

The dispute has highlighted divisions within a family that has lived in the public eye since the former beekeeper became the toast of the Commonwealth when he was 33-years old. Sir Edmund proposed to his first wife, Louise Rose – or rather, his future mother-in-law did the proposing, so bashful was the young New Zealander – soon after his return from Nepal.

The couple had a happy marriage, and three children. But in 1975, Louise and her 16-year-old daughter, Belinda, were killed when their small plane crashed near Kathmandu. After years of depression, during which Sir Edmund drank heavily, he got married again in 1989 to June Mulgrew, the widow of a long-time friend, Peter Mulgrew, who had died on a sightseeing flight to Antarctica.

Mr Mulgrew was a guide on the Air New Zealand flight which crashed into Mount Erebus, killing all 257 passengers and crew. Sir Edmund was supposed to be on the plane but at the last minute, his friend and climbing companion stood in for him.

According to the The New Zealand Herald, the mountaineer's will bequeathed certain possessions to Lady June, including the camera, ice axe, spanner, enamel mug and silk gloves that he took on his Everest expedition. She also received the largest pieces of rock from the summit and the biggest share of her husband's estate, which amounted to $1.65m.

While diaries, personal papers and photographs were donated to the Auckland Museum, most of the balance of the estate was divided between Sir Edmund's children; Peter and Sarah are convinced the watches belong to them.

The pair's lawyer, Alex Witten-Hannah, said the Oyster Perpetual had "huge emotional and sentimental value" for the siblings and their children. "You can imagine if your Dad was the first to climb Everest, gets given a Rolex watch, which he wore all the time," he told the Herald.

Peter, who had a notoriously fraught relationship with his father, said the watches were the last straw. "There have been a number of very significant items from the Ed Hillary collection that do belong to Sarah and I that have been disposed of inappropriately," he said.

"Beautiful old Buddhist prayer books that were given to my parents. She [Lady June] has given them to someone. They were these wonderful old books that have always been there, a central part of Dad's study and a part of our house... by the gift of Dad's will they belong to Sarah and I."

While his father was still alive, Peter – a mountaineer and trekking guide who has climbed Everest twice – accused Sir Edmund of being distant and aloof. In an interview in 2003, to mark the 50th anniversary of his historic feat, Sir Edmund told The Independent that he got on better with Sarah, and confided: "I don't find it easy to warm to people. I've really found it difficult to have close friends."

How well the Hillary children got on with their stepmother during her 20-year marriage to Sir Edmund is not clear. But certainly relations are cool now. In the High Court ruling, Justice Geoffrey Venning said that Lady June had not heard from either of them – about the watches, at least – since Sir Edmund's death. The judge said it was "perhaps surprising" that she had decided to sell the collection without consulting the explorer's children.

For the moment, Antiquorum has retained the watches until their ownership is determined, and its managing director, Julian Schaerer, confirmed that Lady June might have to pay dearly for their return. "It's a simple equation," he said. "We had huge amounts of interest in the watches, and already had a lot of registered bidders."

Mr Schaerer also questioned whether the Oyster Perpetual had protected status, saying: "I've never heard of an item of personal property, actually belonging to a man, being claimed as heritage for a country."

In New Zealand, where Sir Edmund is revered, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage has not ruled out prosecuting Lady June.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'