ast September, Phillips held its “Geneva Sessions”, the company’s first exclusively online auction, organised by watch specialists in Geneva. Together, the 53 lots attained a total of CHF 2,664,774 – the flagship timepiece being a ref. 5980/1R Patek Philippe Nautilus in pink gold, which sold for CHF 252,000.
These results were, admittedly, far below the record physical sales achieved by the auction house in recent years – for example, its two-day session in Geneva last spring reaped in more than 60 million Swiss francs in one weekend (which included one day dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the Royal Oak). One of the flagship lots was a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar, a “pink on pink” reference 1518 in pink gold, which sold for CHF 3,297,000.
- Ref. 5980/1R Patek Philippe Nautilus in pink gold, the flagship lot of Phillips’ first online watch auction held in September from Geneva
But this first digital edition signals the arrival of online sales in the traditional world of watch auctions – even if the format of physical sales could already be regarded as “hybrid: at the spring session, 600 collectors were present in the sales room, while 1,800 bidders went head to head online.
It has to be said that online sales have truly exploded in a burgeoning secondary market – giving rise to unprecedented speculation in the watch industry. Admittedly, this growth has slowed after a slide in ratings for the more iconic models after the all-time highs attained in the spring (see the Morgan Stanley figures below).
- Point-to-point comparison: price evolution of flagship models on the secondary market since January 2020 and their boutique price (source: Morgan Stanley/Watch Charts)
But that’s not enough to dampen the optimism of Alexandre Ghotbi, head of Watches, Continental Europe and Middle East: “Good watches with the right estimates and sold via the appropriate platform always generate enthusiastic bidding”. We met him as Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, prepares for its Geneva auction, which will include a batch of exceptional lots by the British master watchmaker, George Daniels, on 5 and 6 November (you can read our article on the renewed ambitions of British watchmaking here).
- Alexandre Ghotbi, head of Watches, Continental Europe and Middle East at Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo
Europa Star: Since the spring, the secondary market has seen a correction in the market value of certain “iconic” items which have been subject to strong speculation (see graph above). Do you see a correlation with your own results?
Alexandre Ghotbi: As an auction house, we haven’t experienced the same kind of hype for vintage models as for modern production. Unlike with new watches, we work on watches that are not being produced – so they’re naturally rarer. We’re an auction house that focuses on outstanding models, our role is not to sell series-produced models.
Where we’ve seen prices fall is when private individuals or intermediaries had the most sought-after pieces and sold them at a premium, fuelling strong speculation. This kind of correction is quite seasonal in a highly speculative market. Some people are talking about a “crash” in value, but a new Nautilus or Royal Oak steel watch always generates a waiting list of several years and the resales price remains well above the catalogue price.
- A ref. 1518 Patek Philippe in pink gold from the late 1940s, a rare item that will be on sale at the Phillips auction in Geneva in November
A logical wave effect then?
What can’t go on forever is this phenomenon of speculation on series-produced watches. We saw the same speculation at work in fast motion at the end of this year’s Moonswatch, lasting two weeks. But watchmaking isn’t the stock exchange! It’s about passion, fine craftsmanship, the long term, not an immediate return on investment… Moreover you shouldn’t regard watches solely from the point of view of investment, even if that criterion has taken on greater importance.
“What can’t go on forever is this phenomenon of speculation on series-produced watches.”
If we look at it precisely from the angle of long-term value, what types of product are proving to be the most solid performers in auctions?
Beyond the Rolex and Patek Philippe duo that has dominated the market for a long time, over the past four or five years I’ve been seeing the emergence of a new Asian and Middle Eastern clientele seeking to acquire other types of design. It’s largely thanks to this new clientele that we owe the strong surge in value of Crash by Cartier, but also of Vacheron Constantin products – and not only the Overseas.
But since 2018, independent watchmaking is the sector that has really taken off: François-Paul Journe is certainly the most obvious example, alongside Philippe Dufour. That generated a whole movement: for example, last spring we sold a 2010 model by an independent German watchmaker, Christian Klings, of whom few people had ever heard, for more than 250,000 francs. What people like about independent watchmakers is that they work uncompromisingly and without marketing gimmicks, and you wear a part of the soul of the person who made the watch on your wrist.
- At the 2022 spring auction, this CK1 model in pink gold by the independent German watchmaker Christian Klings, was sold by Phillips for more than CHF 250,000.
After a three-year pandemic that forced virtually all the market players to go digital, how do you position yourselves between physical and online sales?
We’ve seen that you could never replace physical meetings in a profession like ours, which is about passion and not necessity. Passionate people need to meet. But you have to offer customers the flexibility to buy the way they want. In fact, there’s nothing really novel: the Internet has just joined the telephone as a means of distance purchasing.
“A new generation of Asian and Middle-Eastern collectors like designs with a difference – it’s to them we owe the strong surge in value of Crash by Cartier, for example.”
Even so, you’ve set up the first exclusively online auctions. What selection criteria do you apply depending on the distribution channel?
This autumn, we offered a selection of 54 items online. Most of them are perhaps more modern than those you find in our physical sales. But that’s not set in stone. The sales channel does not necessarily dictate the content.
- The work of the great British watchmaker George Daniels will be honoured in Phillips’ November auction.
- Courtesy of Roger Smith
How is your relationship with brands evolving? We see you collaborating more and more with certain watch companies for the launch of collector models –recently with Zenith and Voutilainen, for example (read about this here).
We’re solicited by the brands for our expertise in particular, but also for our clientele. I’d say there’s a relationship of trust between us, but that official collaboration remains the exception – for the moment…
- Presented in 2022, the Zenith X Voutilainen X Phillips limited edition of ten Cal 135-O platinum timepieces was an immediate success with collectors, selling in minutes. At its November auction, Phillips will be putting an eleventh up for sale, a unique item with a niobium case and a salmon guilloché dial. All the proceeds will go to the Susan G. Komen® Foundation for breast cancer.