Pre-owned watches

Watch auctions: three decades of a legend (part II)


January 2018

Watch auctions: three decades of a legend (part II)

During the 2000s, the sector saw the arrival of so-called “modern” brands in the watch auction catalogues. Charity events began to emerge...


uring the 2000s, models by so-called “modern” brands, in other words belonging to recent or “open” collections, started finding their way into the feverish auction halls. In the meantime, Rolex was increasingly stirring the passions of collectors. It was the start of Rolexmania. This period also saw the arrival of one Aurel Bacs, who was working for Phillips in their new Geneva offices.

This Rolex Daytona Cosmograph crafted in steel, which once belonged to Paul Newman, sold at Phillips for the record sum of 17.8 million dollars.
This Rolex Daytona Cosmograph crafted in steel, which once belonged to Paul Newman, sold at Phillips for the record sum of 17.8 million dollars.

However, following Bernard Arnault’s decision to reduce LVMH’s stake, Phillips powered down its watch auction activities in Geneva. Aurel Bacs therefore joined Sotheby’s, where he pursued his stellar career in the sector. In April 2002, the Patek Philippe 1415 HU achieved 6.6m CHF under the Antiquorum hammer, sending all prices sky-high in the process and setting a world record for wrist-watches that would not be beaten for some time. We were in a period of euphoria.

In April 2002, the Patek Philippe 1415 HU achieved 6.6 M CHF.
In April 2002, the Patek Philippe 1415 HU achieved 6.6 M CHF.

Another phenomenon was gradually beginning to take shape, namely the staging of high added media value charity events. In 2005, Luc Pettavino, CEO of the Monaco Yacht Show, together with Antiquorum and under the distinguished patronage of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, set up the Only Watch auction, which would take place once every two years. It became a major institution in the sector. Taking advantage of the sudden surge in interest in watch auctions, it succeeded in raising considerable sums, while offering worldwide visibility to the brands participating with their one-of-a-kind creations. The event therefore played an introductory role for many of today’s brand names, given that a good auction result has the advantageous effect of immortalising the reputation and intangible value of a watchmaking brand for all eternity.

2007, returns and new records

2007, returns and new records The year 2007 marked the departure of Osvaldo Patrizzi and the takeover of Antiquorum. The modern-day artisan of watch auctions sold his business and hurtled headlong, unbeknownst to him, into a legal wrangle that would end in his favour only ten years later, in 2017. He bequeathed to the company a database of all the models sold since 1989, i.e. around 65,000 timepieces. Christie’s, in the meantime, mounted the first step of the podium.

“The year 2007 also saw the advent of the Omegamania themed auction in Geneva, the very first auction broadcast by satellite on a big screen in the heart of Baselword.”

2007 was also the year of the Omegamania themed auction in Geneva, the very first auction broadcast by satellite on a big screen in the heart of Baselword, in the presence of the late Nicolas Hayek Senior. Never before had an Omega watch reached such a price! The 413,700 CHF paid for the timepiece would make the Platinum Constellation Grand Luxe, a platinum model boasting a diamond index embellished dial and manufactured as a small series in the 1950s, an icon of the auction industry. Osvaldo Patrizzi, the architect of these themed sales, thus firmly established his historical reputation as a pioneer, immediately prior to his departure from the company he had created in 1974. Meanwhile over at Patek Philippe, which has been topping the record lists for years now, the most expensive watch ever sold in the United States (New York, Antiquorum), the Sky Moon Tourbillon, achieved 1.38m CHF on 14 June 2007. One of the only two ultra-complicated pocket watches known in the world, complete with double chronograph, flew off the blocks in Geneva in May for 928,000 CHF.

2007, the golden age

The Asian market, especially fond of enamelled timepieces, went from strength to strength, posting performances in June 2007 across all houses 20% higher than those recorded in November 2006. Since then, no watch auction could overlook the auction houses of Shanghai, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Then in Geneva, the autumn sale of the same year hit 20 million CHF and set eight records with, among other pieces, the Rolex Yellow Gold GMT, Master Perspex Bezel (ref. 6542), ref. 6239, a Doctors Cosmograph, which went for triple its original estimate, and a 1940 triple chronograph by Audemars Piguet, selling for 447,000 CHF.

Sotheby’s scored high in the satisfaction stakes, despite an 11% downturn. Geneva posted results of 13,507,403 CHF, New York topped the 12 million CHF mark, Hong Kong 9.6m CHF and London did well with 5,539,894 CHF. In other words, a total of over 41.4m CHF in sales, with a record model, the term now used in the sector to refer to a timepiece having beaten all previous records. In this case, it was The Franklin D. Roosevelt Clock, a table clock made by Pierre Cartier and given to the American president as a symbol of the European fight against Nazism. Dubbed “The Hour of victory in the world”, the splendid, magical five-dial desk clock was an eight-day timepiece crafted in silver, onyx and nephrite (Ed: a type of jade). Outside of the unstoppable Patek Philippe, other brands also played the game admirably well, including Vacheron Constantin, Breguet and Piguet & Meylan. Another highlight was that Antiquorum, the pioneer in wristwatch auctions, was knocked off the top spot by Christies’ performance. The sheer tenacity, impressive teamwork, reputation and international resources of the house, not to mention the amount of time spent on painstaking historical and cultural research, continued to pay off. Geneva, New York, Dubai and Hong Kong exceeded all expectations, reaching the unbelievable consolidated total of 103m CHF in 2007! And the variety of the lots on offer meant that Christie’s was able to uncover a few delightful rarities, a trend that was also confirmed among its competitors. These included the sublime ref. 4293 by Vacheron Constantin, whose movement was crafted in 1943 and whose rose gold case was made in 1957. The three-calendar minute repeater wristwatch had pulses racing high in October’s sale in New York when it reached a staggering 548,460 CHF. It was in November in Geneva that the leading house could legitimately claim to have sold the most expensive watches ever in the history of auctions. The lot in question, no. 223, comprised five watches.

Patek Philippe ref. 2499
Patek Philippe ref. 2499

Be that as it may, Patek Philippe enjoyed a considerable lead, mainly by nearly tripling the original estimate for its ref. 2499, a chronograph with perpetual calendar and moon phases in rose gold, sold by Gobbi Milano and manufactured around 1957. The auctioneer’s gavel sent this piece flying to the top of the list of the most expensive watches ever sold by Christie’s, for the sum of 3,283,560 CHF.

The future of the auction: mixed fates and promises

Today, however, some of the parameters have changed. How come, for example, the US dollar has remained the reference currency since 2002, while its rate against the Swiss franc continues to fluctuate? Just as factors such as rarity, seniority and quality determine once-stable prices, so do today’s trends fluctuate rapidly and influence new buyers with recently acquired buying power. All this has come about as a result of the activities not only of watchmaking specialists, but also bloggers, websites and those whom the trendies of marketing have dubbed the influencers.

The inevitable knowledge regression that occurs sometimes prompts the emergence of true connoisseurs. Such as when certain industrially manufactured pieces are as expensive as hand-crafted workshop pieces. The indefatigable expert, Dr. Helmut Crott, gives us his insight in no uncertain terms: “New collectors and buyers need to be taught more about the quality of the watchmaking arts and about the different levels and subtleties of quality that exist.” Basically, judging by the efforts undertaken to recruit the best experts, it would appear that the players in the field already know this.

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2017: the golden era of Aurel Bacs

The watch auction landscape in 2017 was chiefly dominated by the aura of auctioneer Aurel Bacs, the new star of the field. Bacs, the man responsible for giving Christie’s the top spot, also brought about the return of Phillips auction house to the stage in 2015 after a twelve-year absence. As well as remaining at the helm of his own consultancy and expertise firm giving advice to private collectors, brands in search of historic recognition and indeed horological museums, he also supervises and organises sales.

Bacs is a man who understands buyers’ tastes. He travels the world paying personal visits to the most seasoned connoisseurs, while tracking down rare pieces likely to bring about a bidding frenzy. Better still, insiders believe that he also has the capacity to influence the market. Be that as it may, in terms of results, he managed to put Phillips back in the limelight and in the process led a high-profile sale in November 2016 when the Patek Philippe ref. 1518 went under the hammer for 11m CHF. It’s a staggering amount. It stands out in letters of gold for all adventure-seekers looking to rise to the challenge and smash the record.