ithout a doubt the most iconic figure in today’s watch auction world, Aurel Bacs has been with several prestigious auction houses, each time leaving his own inimitable stamp on the industry: Sotheby’s (1995-2000), Phillips, for the first time (2000-2003), then with Christie’s (2003-2013), before returning to Phillips in 2015 with the stand-alone consulting firm Bacs & Russo, founded jointly with his wife. In May, the auctioneer packed a big punch with a Rolex ‘Bao Dai’ wristwatch, which went for over 5 million CHF.
You drove Christie’s ahead of Antiquorum, you are now driving Phillips ahead of... Christie’s. Is the success of an auction house mainly linked to the aura of the auctioneer – Osvaldo Patrizzi back then, now your good self? Is it really just a matter of personality?
At the risk of appearing provocative, I’d say that even if you start out with a McDonald’s logo, you can still make it to the top, if you build the best team! I’m no miracle-maker, or angel sent from heaven. Success is built on reputation, a good address book and a solid team. Whenever I’ve joined a house in the past, sometimes I’ve found a team already in place, other times none at all. Each time, we were either no.3, no.4, or nowhere in the ratings. On two occasions, I started from scratch at Phillips. But we’ve always been able to build a team and secure a leadership positioning.
Have your teams always followed you from one house to the next?
I’ve never taken any teams with me! You can find new talent everywhere. The man who currently manages the American market had never worked in a watch auction house before: he previously worked in defence... But he had what mattered most: passion, an address book and a reputation. You could call it obsession, love, the pleasure of dealing in fine watchmaking... We move in a world where there are no contracts to protect you, where you rely solely on a relationship of trust between the client and the auction house. That’s why our reputation must be flawless. And that’s the guarantee that also attracts the finest experts.
Have you noticed how your clientele has evolved since you first started out?
It has completely changed: only 10% of the clients I had in 1995 are still in business. If the top specialist a decade or so ago had fallen into a deep sleep and woken up today, he would never be able to organise a 10 million CHF auction sale. Firstly, we work with new players and the address book has changed totally: hugely wealthy clients with an interest in watchmaking are turning up from nowhere. Information is widely available, collectors are now acquiring an indepth technical knowledge of timepieces. Trends have also evolved: the square pink models with manual winding popular back then have been replaced by round steel automatic designs. And appraisals have become highly complex.
The current development in the vintage market is no doubt linked to the general resurgence in interest for watches after 2000. In that respect, your own fortunes seem to be inextricably linked with those of the contemporary watchmaking industry...
I’m indeed very grateful to those people who have never abandoned fine watchmaking at the manufactures, for example Messrs. Stern, Hayek, Cologni, Rupert and Biver. They have been responsible for giving millions of people the taste for watchmaking, and of course we also benefit. At the same time, globalisation has contributed enormously to the rise in popularity of watchmaking and watch auctions. Never would we have grown so fast if we had confined ourselves to Western, or, indeed, Japanese demand.
But the correlation with the current industry appears to end there: you are now achieving record sales, while modern watch sales are in decline...
There’s an easy answer to that: the demand outweighs the number of vintage watches that are actually saleable. No one’s likely to come across a safe containing a million rare watches. And lots of old watches are no longer saleable, they are either damaged, poorly restored, or altered almost beyond recognition. Consequently, the prices have necessarily risen. What to do if you don’t have the wherewithal to buy your precious Patek Philippe or Rolex? You look for alternatives. This explains the recent successes posted at watch auctions by brands such as Longines, Tudor, Omega and Heuer, and the “independent” watchmakers, such as F.P. Journe, Richard Mille, MB&F, to name but a few.
Occasionally, one hears criticisms that today’s boutique staff lack expertise. Does this also explain collectors’ current interest in the vintage watch world?
The subject of knowledge is a tricky one. If someone spends millions of CHF on watches, does it make him a specialist? For instance, I’m not a wine connoisseur, if I were to be handed a wine list the length of an auction catalogue, I’d tell the wine steward: “I’d like to enjoy some quality time in good company; I’ll leave it to you: this is my budget and my preference.” It’s also like that in the watchmaking world. It’s perfectly OK to not be a specialist, it doesn’t make you unworthy in any way!
The internet has nonetheless increased the amount and reach of information and knowledge available: we can find out anything we want about a particular model, old or new, whenever we want...
I’m still sceptical about the internet. Recently, Twitter’s founder apologised that what started out as an information dissemination tool has ended up being invaded by fake news, to such an extent as to even influence the election results... We shouldn’t bury our heads in the sand: much of the stuff written on the internet about watchmaking is fake! We use the web for our communication and people can now bid at our auctions via the internet, but there are some experiences that technology cannot replace, such as talking with people face-to-face... And 95% of our clients bidding on the internet have already seen the timepiece in the flesh.