WORDS SIMON DE BURTON
With luxury timepieces holding their value remarkably well, watch auctions are a must for the serious collector. But it pays to do your homework
In recent years, retail sales of luxury watches have proved to be defiant in the face of financial crises, with all the major brands posting dramatic increases across the board – the giant Swatch Group, for example, shifted timepieces worth almost £5 billion last year, a rise of more than 21 per cent.
One of the effects of such buoyancy can be seen in the market for pre-owned watches, notably those being sold at auction. The average man in the street (especially here in parsimonious Britain) still struggles to come to terms with the idea that people spend tens of thousands of pounds on a wristwatch, but such figures pale into insignificance when compared with the sums being splashed out at auction on the rarest vintage pieces.
During 2011, Christie’s sold no fewer than nine wristwatches for more than $1 million apiece, two of which fetched in excess of $2m and one a staggering $3.6m. Such stellar prices helped Christie’s to become the first auction house to smash the $100 million barrier for watch sales in a single year – with a total of $116.3 million realised – while its main rivals, Sotheby’s, Antiquorum and Bonhams, grossed $64.97m, $60.93m and $15m respectively.
The really big money, however, is reserved for a single brand: Patek Philippe. Its vintage watches from the Forties and Fifties are far and away the most sought-after by truly serious collectors, and a 1946 Patek World Time which sold for CHF6.6 million a decade ago remains the most expensive wristwatch ever to cross the auction block.
Rolex comes next in the league table of collectable names, although the record for the make stands at a ‘mere’ $1.1 million for a 1942 split-second chronograph that was sold by Christie’s last May. After this, you’ll find committed vintage collectors battling for watches by brands such as Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet.
But the times, they are a-changing in the world of watch auctions. Until recently, the world centres were Geneva and New York and, generally speaking, it was older watches that reached the biggest prices. During the past five years, however, some of the new Chinese money that manages to escape being mopped up by the luxury goods giants is finding its way to the Hong Kong watch sales being organised by Antiquorum, Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s as wealthy Asian enthusiasts attempt to satisfy their burning desire for timepieces.
The overall trend in Asia is to bid for contemporary watches by cutting-edge brands such as Richard Mille, Greubel Forsey and Urwerk – although some buyers are gaining sufficient confidence in the timepiece market to start paying large amounts of money for blue-chip vintage pieces.
Regardless of where a pre-owned luxury watch is bought or sold, however, the benefits of picking one up at auction remain the same: in the case of most contemporary models, it’s possible to acquire a virtually new watch in excellent condition for a considerable saving over retail; a typical watch auction will feature 200 to 400 lots, so there is a wide choice instantly available. Provided you buy from a reputable house, you can bid with confidence and, not least, if you don’t get carried away and bid over the odds, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to re-sell your purchase later at little or no loss.
The biggest watch auctions in London are staged by Bonhams and Sotheby’s. The former holds sales at two levels: it offers more expensive ‘fine watches’ in its New Bond Street rooms and more affordable pieces at its Knightsbridge location.
Activity in the London market has also increased recently with the arrival of a new specialist horological auctioneer, Watches of Knightsbridge, while Birmingham-based Fellows has established itself as the leading regional house to specialise in watches at all levels - it stages four sales per year of higher quality pieces together with large, weekly auctions of watches priced from as little as £50.
No matter how inexpensive the object, buying at auction can be a nerve-wracking experience for the absolute beginner – so we’ve compiled a 10-point guide for novices. Follow it closely and you should be able to strap on your dream watch without feeling you’ve been handcuffed.
1) Attend a sale, but go with no intention of bidding. Ideally, go with someone who has experience of auctions, so you can watch what they do and ask questions.
2) Closely observe what goes on and get a measure of how the auctioneer works the room, how bidding increments change as prices rise and how experienced buyers ‘time’ their bids.
3) When you eventually feel ready to buy, get hold of a catalogue for a forthcoming auction and read it carefully. Check the terms and conditions; be sure you understand about ‘buyer’s premium’ and any additional taxes that will be added to the amount of a successful bid.
4) Attend the pre-sale view and look carefully at any watches that interest you. Try them on, ensure they are working correctly and, above all, ask the auction house specialists as many questions as possible. They are there to help and will be very happy to explain the process of buying in detail, as well as giving you all the necessary information about individual lots.
5) Select the watch or watches that you are interested in, mark them in the catalogue and resolve not to bid on any that you haven’t researched. If you are planning to bid for a current model, check the retail price and bear in mind that you might end up paying more for a pre-owned example at auction than you would for a brand new one. In any event, look up prices achieved for similar watches in recent sales in order to discover the market value. Antiquorum’s online database is an excellent way to do this.
6) Do not be tempted to buy a timepiece which looks tatty or badly restored – in the current market, condition is everything, regardless of make or model.
7) Look for watches that come supplied complete with their original boxes and paperwork. Any other documentary provenance relating to the watch is also good to have.
8) If you are interested in a very specialised piece – perhaps a high complication, a military Rolex or an exceptionally valuable ‘blue-chip’ collector’s piece, for example – seek the advice of a respected expert in the field. If you are hoping to buy a watch that has been made in several different variants, research the options as thoroughly as possible to avoid paying too much for a less desirable version.
9)If you don’t want to attend the entire auction but you do want to arrive in good time to bid on your chosen lot, roughly calculate when it will be offered on the basis that a moderately fast auction moves at the rate of around 100 lots per hour.
10) When the time finally comes to bid on your ideal watch, set a price limit and stick to it resolutely. Unless it’s a real rarity, avoid paying over the odds – another example will probably appear at auction in the near future.
Around the world in 20 watch auctions
11 March, Geneva
4 April, New York
19 May, Geneva
2 June, Hong Kong
20 June, New York
11 August, Hong Kong
23 May, Hong Kong
7 June, New York
13 June, London (New Bond Street)
21 May, Geneva
30 May, Hong Kong
13 June, New York
Auctions held weekly –
see website for details.
6 April, Hong Kong
12 May, Geneva
14 June, New York
10 July, London
Watches of Knightsbridge
10 March, London
12 May, London
14 July, London
22 September, London