Strategic auctions

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January 2008


We won’t go into detail, in this column, about the dramatic shockwaves travelling through the world of watch auctions. We are not looking to weigh the good and bad points or to sort out the complex tangle of recent events. We are also not going to accuse or exonerate the players. The Antiquorum affair is too confused and still too ‘hot’ to try and draw any definitive conclusions.
But there is a lesson in all of this: watch auctions have become one of the central tactics used by the world of timekeeping; they are one of the principal places where brands’ reputations are made and unmade. Similar to what is happening in the world of art, where the value of an artist is judged by the rising or falling prices of his or her pieces at auction, the absolute ‘value’ of a watch brand is more or less tied to its products’ bidding performance at auction.
Is this reasonable or fair?
We can legitimately ask this question, and for several reasons. First of all, by wanting to imitate the world of art, watchmaking forgets that it is only partially an art. If subjectivity is an essential part of the appreciation of art, closely linked to the tastes of the times and to fashions, it is not the same for watchmaking. (In this regard, we should remember that the two big winners in art auctions, Van Gogh and Gauguin, both died in the most miserable of conditions. And it is perhaps a safe bet that one of the current darlings of the art world, the American kitsch artist Jeff Koons, will not be worth much in a few decades.)
We don’t ask an artistic work to be, above all, ‘well made’. It must be strong, powerful, representative of its epoch, and a witness to its times while being at odds with it. On the other hand, we ask a watch to be, most of all, technically irreproachable, aesthetically appealing, meticulously crafted, and as precise as possible. A watch is essentially an artisanal product, not an artistic product. A timepiece is also always, or nearly always, the fruit of a joint collaboration. In this sense, the quoted value of a timepiece listed at auction is somewhat misleading because it gives too much importance to an aspect, which although significant, should remain secondary in determining the value of a watch - its subjectivity and irration-ality. Secondly, in trying to make its auction prices rise, watchmaking runs the risk of artificially inflating its value and thus exposes itself to the fatal bursting of the bubble it helped create. After the bubble bursts, the highest prices at that moment will thus see their real value decline below what is rational.
Although auctions have, over the last ten years, greatly contributed to the recognition of watches as objects worthy of being collected by a growing number of people, they have, in a way, reached their limits. Auctions have thus become a weapon that could very well turn against the industry as a whole. This was shown by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. Although strongly contested—and contestable on a number of points—this article casts suspicion on the transparency of watch auction sales, claiming that they are manipulated by the brands themselves.
But as the proverb says, ‘mud sticks’. By trying too hard to raise prices, watchmaking risks one day to see itself in trouble, for the best or worst reasons.
So, let us return to good sense: watches are not made by cursed, impoverished, or impassioned artists. Watches are made by meticulous artisans and smart businessmen—but this does not take away one ounce of the passion that timekeepers deserve.

Source: Europa Star December-Januar 2008 Magazine Issue