KEEPER OF TIME. Pick up the finer points of collecting vintage watches with insight from the ex-head honcho of Christie’s watch department: Auctioneer-extraordinaire Aurel Bacs
For the first time since its debut in 2005, the biennial Only Watch auction will be held in Geneva, the Mecca of fine watches. Only Watch is so named since watches auctioned at the event are quite literally the only one of its kind. A prototype, perhaps; or the first very first specimen in a limited edition. More than 40 brands will also donate timepieces specifically created for the event. There will the In The Pocket watch from Hermès, the Patek Philippe 5016A with its beautiful blue enamel dial, the Tudor Heritage Black Bay ONE Reference 7923/001 and many more.
Naturally, an event of this scale—and of this nature—will attract watch collectors, and the focus of these connoisseurs will squarely fall on the rare vintages.
In a way, it makes perfect sense. Beyond the appeal of owning a piece of history in the form of decades-old mechanical wonders, vintage watches can also make for a solid investment option. Now, collecting vintage watches isn’t exactly a sound strategy if you’re thinking about, say, your retirement plan. Still, old and rare watches of some significance (say, a brand’s first true dive watch) will generally appreciate in value quite fast. Last year, the Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch was auctioned off at Sotheby’s for a mind-boggling US$24 million, clearly beating its own record set in 1999 at US$11 million. This is obviously an extreme example, but it nicely highlights the value of aged but momentous timepieces.
Besides, you can’t exactly wear stocks and bonds, no? And this is something that you instantly show off to your close friends.
For some people, the hunt is the most enjoyable part of collecting, and the thrill of finding a rare vintage sitting between common antiques in some obscure pawnshop is every collector’s number-one fantasy. The number-one problem, however, is that the market for vintage watches is rife with unscrupulous (or otherwise uninformed) dealers offering fakes or what some in the business refer to as “frankenwatches”—motley constructs assembled from an assortment of genuine and replica parts.
Major watch auctions by major auction houses represent the other end of the spectrum. The timepieces being auctioned are all genuine articles verified by teams of experts, and represent the rarest of the rare, as well as the occasional prototype that the world has quite literally never seen before. This also makes auctions the perfect training ground for novice collectors looking to get a feel for what separates old watches and vintage timepieces.
And there are plenty of major watch auctions to either join or observe. The aforementioned Only Watch is, of course, a definite must-see; and earlier this year Phillips held two inaugural auctions in association with Bacs & Russo. Leading the “action” at the latter was esteemed auctioneer, watch expert and seasoned collector Aurel Bacs. DA MAN Caliber chatted briefly with the Christie’s auction veteran who now runs Bacs & Russo to gain better insight into the world of watch auctions and vintage watch collections. Here’s a list of several important points that we have learned from the auction maestro himself:
1. SEPARATE THE PAST FROM THE PRESENT
This year started off rather unfavorably for the Swiss watchmaking industry as a strong Swiss franc caused a decline in global buying power. Bacs, however, believes that this will not affect the value of vintage timepieces. “I do not think that there is a strong correlation between the level of global sales of contemporary watches and the level of interest in beautifully preserved vintage watches,” he said prior to the auction in Geneva last May. “The initial feedback I have
received from collectors around the world is that they are enthusiastic about the selection that Phillips has on offer.”
2. SEPARATE THE PAST FROM THE PRESENT, PART 2
One might be forgiven to assume that if a brand held a special exhibition or some other event close to the start of an auction, then the value of the brand’s pieces being auctioned might go up. Case in point for last May’s auction by Phillips was Patek Philippe’s exhibition in the same month. But, once again, when it comes to the highest tiers of watchmaking, present events have little effect on the value of past vintages. “Our collectors know that,” Bacs asserts, “not Just since yesterday but also since years and decades ago.”
“Believe me, watch collecting would be twice as fun if one in two collectors would be a lady”
3. QUALITY IS KEY
Rarity can’t always make up for quality. “I can see one main trend of the market for vintage watches and that is the ever increasing preference for all original and excellently preserved watches,” confirms Bacs. When especially well-preserved specimens are brought to the auction block, expect the bidding to be particularly fierce.
4. WHAT’S IN A NAME? PLENTY
Much like investing in vintage cars or stocks, vintage watches from the most renowned watchmakers will always be the safest path to value appreciation. “I have the highest hope for top quality brands and excellently preserved watches,” says Bacs. “Consequently vintage rare and well-preserved Rolex and Patek Philippe watches are excellent candidates and predestined to do well.”
Furthermore, the auctioneer also notes that he “can hardly think of an all-original and well-preserved vintage watch by any known maker that will not be worth more in the years to come.”
While this might sound like stating the obvious, too many collectors fall for the trap of trying to discover a diamond in the rough from some second-string manufacturer that turns out to be groundbreaking in hindsight. It does happen once in a blue moon, but as with many other heritage-based collectibles, pieces from the biggest players will always fetch the highest prices and—more importantly—the highest price appreciation.
5. KNOW YOUR TERRITORY
The basic rules of supply and demand still apply in the world of auctions, particularly in what sells where. According to Bacs, “European collectors prefer a well-pronounced patina to a dial whereas Asian collectors are more perfectionists.” So, be mindful of regional preferences and adjust your expectations accordingly.
6. IT’S A MAN’S WORLD
One piece of solid advice for those looking at vintage watch collecting as a possible longterm investment: Stick to men’s watches. The reason behind this has nothing to do with gender roles, but is determined by size. “For obvious technical reasons one can never build into a smaller watch the same number of complications,” Bacs explains. “This is one of the reasons why, if speaking of a trend, ladies watches are considered less collectable.” And this becomes doubly true for vintage watches made in an era where miniaturization technology was still in its infancy.
For those of you bummed out by this condition, take heart: Even our expert agrees with you. “Believe me,” Bacs confides, “watch collecting would be twice as fun if one in two collectors would be a lady.”
“The best way to understand the performance of vintage watches is to follow auction houses”
7. STAY CLOSE TO HOME
There are no standards, indexes or publications that you can follow to learn about the valuation of vintage watches. As each vintage watch is unique, the value of these time-tested timepieces is usually established at auction. As Bacs puts it, “The best way to understand the performance of vintage watches is to follow closely international auctions houses, attentively study their catalogues, attend previews and compare results.” One thing to remember is that bidding at these auctions is a transparent process, and the results will become accessible to anyone bothering to look. So, even if you
have no plans to immediately start your own collection, keeping tabs on major auctions held by the likes of Phillips, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and so on might be worth more than you can imagine.
8. LEARN FROM THE BEST
Following a major vintage watch auction is as simple as Googling “vintage watch auction”; following major players of said auctions, however, is a whole different ballgame as they tend to be extremely discreet. “What they have in common,” Bacs discloses, “is that they have all knowledgeable advisors close to them and that they are not shy to follow their instinct and passion instead of listening to what the crowd may say.”
WHEN THE PRICE IS RIGHT
Collecting luxury items as a form of investment has always been an iffy proposition—as any serious diamond collector can probably tell you point-blank. So, the big question that some are dying to ask, can accumulating vintage timepieces actually become a profitable investment or will it forever be a really, really expensive hobby? “Collecting fine watches is one of the few hobbies that has been really rewarding in the last few years,” Bacs concludes on a positive note. “It offers two tendencies: The first is a nice increase in value and, secondly, the pleasure of collecting wonderful handmade watches.
AUREL BACS is an independent advisor to private collectors, manufacturers, and museums in the field of high-end collectors’ watches and co-founder of Bacs & Russo SA. In this capacity, he is partnering with Phillips as exclusive consultant for their newly created watch department. Bacs has 20 years of experience in this particular field.
This article was first published in DA MAN Caliber 2015.