In Part Four of our Special Report on online retail, we look at the auction houses and dealers responsible for innovating in the digital sphere – and what it means for your next vintage Rolex purchase
By Chris Hall
Research by Caitlin McDonald
Every November, the big hitters of the watch world descend upon Geneva for Auction Weekend. All the elite auction houses hold blue riband sales on the second Saturday and Sunday in November, and it has become the ritual that records will be smashed. This year was no exception, as Phillips once again stole the headlines with a stratospheric sale, offering four Patek Philippe 1518 chronographs, and setting a world record price for any wristwatch when it hammered down on the steel reference at over CHF11m.
Top collectors fly first class in and out of Switzerland, stay at the Trois Rois hotel in Geneva, are wined and dined for days around the sales, and dozens more (reporters, dealers and general hangers-on) flock to the sale rooms for a chance to rub shoulders, share gossip, see which way the wind is blowing and just generally soak up the buzz of a big-money sale.
But increasingly, if you want the top lots there is no need to travel. All the major auction houses now offer online bidding as standard, and most will let you follow along with a sale with a high definition live stream (commonly powered by third-party platforms like The Saleroom). A significant chunk of the business is now done online, too: Bonhams reports that 25 per cent of bids across all its sales come through the internet, and a corresponding 23 per cent of lots are sold that way. CEO Matthew Girling told QP that “the size of the purchase is unlikely to matter to [buyers] any more than if they were bidding in person or on the phone. Recent successful online bids at Bonhams show that even high value can be acquired online. One successful bid was €1.5million for a Porsche 962 at the Spa Classic in Belgium in May 2015; another was for US$1,325,000 for an enamelled porcelain vase in June’s Chinese Works of Art Sale in San Francisco.”
“The size of the purchase is unlikely to matter any more than in person or on the phone… even high value can be acquired online” – Matthew Girling, CEO, Bonhams
Crucial to the success of online auctions is that online bidders feel as significant as a bidder in the room, and Girling is eager to see that is the case. “Our concerns are the same for someone bidding on a £10,000 object as on a £1million one. We ensure that the technology works smoothly, that bidders find it easy to follow the sale and that communication between the bidder and the auctioneer is clear and unhurried. All our auctioneers treat online bidders with the same courtesy as they do bidders in the room and on the phone. They give them as much time to ponder another bid as they would to anyone else.”
This summer, Bonhams conducted its first online-only sale, lasting two weeks and comprising lots drawn from a single collection (the European Nobleman collection, which is also selling via four separate traditional auctions). 100 per cent of lots were sold, and in total the sale far outdid its estimate. The majority of pieces were relatively small fry by Bonhams’ usual standard, but included watches from TAG Heuer and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Online-only auctions don’t have to be restricted to sub-£2,000 watches, however, as Christie’s has emphatically proven. It has now held eight online sales, and while in general prices stay below the $10,000 mark, some seriously heavyweight watches have changed hands as a result, including a Vianney Halter Deep Space Tourbillon, a Patek Philippe 5970P, a Paul Newman 6239 and a Daytona 6265.
Christie’s was also one of the first to embrace the idea of selling triple-A standard vintage pieces directly online, when it launched its Watch Shop in 2014. The idea was to put together a complementary experience to its online auctions; however the house found that sell-through rates were lower than those of auctions, prompting them to launch the online auctions instead. The Watch Shop has now been re-launched as a much more tightly-focussed outlet, a “sweet spot” selling “superb, higher-value vintage and modern watches”, according to the house. Currently around a dozen watches are offered at any one time, the majority of them rare Pateks but with pieces from Breguet, AP and others of a similar stature.
Others have followed suit: in June 2015, Antiquorum launched The Watch Boutique, an ambitious platform aiming to provide private sales (offering pieces sourced by Antiquorum as well as watches consigned by the public), after-auction sales and occasional curated sales which offer collectors “the chance to purchase timepieces from a curated selection of watches based on a thematic sale, private collection or partnership with brands, or a notable or influential figure.” The general Watch Boutique sales are intended to stay below the $5,000 mark so as not to compete too heavily with auctions, with “highlight” pieces up to $25,000 appearing from time to time. Closer to home, we can exclusively reveal that Fellows is planning to open an e-boutique in 2017; how the watches offered will relate to the auction house’s regular sales (which span a very broad range) is yet to be confirmed.
Refining the selection
This kind of diversification is evidence of a genuinely mature market; the internet has been the go-to portal for trading pre-owned watches for getting on for two decades, through forums, eBay and dedicated sites (Chrono24, which recently received $11m in venture funding, was launched in 2003). There is always a certain degree of caveat emptor, however, and the very best vintage pieces were always more likely to change hands offline even if the internet was what brought buyer and seller together. Nowadays, however, it is possible to buy the world’s very finest vintage pieces online. The outlets that offer them have trustworthy designs that equal (or surpass) those of major retailers or brands, and like a fine vintage dealer in Mayfair, they are very careful about their selection of watches.
A key mark of the online market’s evolution is the increase in high-end sales; it builds trust and acts as a rising tide for all sales. Reputation is key, of course, and for many of these sites it’s still about personal relationships with top collectors, but the six-figure watches are out there and changing hands: at WatchXChange it’s a George Daniels Anniversary piece for £235,000; over at WatchClub it’s a Richard Mille RM-022 Aerodyne Tourbillon for £249,995, and at Christie’s Watch Shop it’s a $625,000 Patek Philippe ref. 5016R Grande Complication.
And the outlets that do most of their business in the £2,000 – £10,000 market are also reporting rising confidence well outside of that bracket: Fellows recently sold an early Rolex GMT-Master (estimated at £4,000 – £6,000) for £23,000 plus premium, and at WatchFinder you can buy a Breguet Grande Complication for £49,950.
It’s the latest example in the blurring of the boundaries between editorial and retail – just as we mentioned in part three that the savvy retailers are now offering high-quality background information and editorial context around the watches, the better to keep the customer on your site and control their “journey”, it makes a certain degree of sense that if you’ve built up an audience interested in reading about the hottest vintage pieces, why not offer them the complete experience and sell watches under the same roof?
Another site where the choice watches don’t stay on sale for long is WatchXchange – one of the only places where you’re able to buy pieces by Voutilainen, Philippe Dufour, Laurent Ferrier and even George Daniels online (see box-out). Even Watchfinder is in on the action; last year it launched The Collection, a subset of higher-value watches currently including an IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater and a Breguet Grand Complication 3657.
And if you’re put off by the prices at WatchXChange and don’t like the idea of sifting through dozens of watches on Chrono24, there are well-curated specialist vintage sites at more comfortable prices too – one such is Black Bough, which at the time of writing had a refined range of time-only pieces, with Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Tudor represented alongside less common brands (in the vintage market) like Baume & Mercier.
The exception to the “tight curation” rule, however, is WatchClub. The Royal Arcade dealers have relaunched their website and will soon be commencing direct sales online; at the time of writing there were over 160 watches in stock, 95 per cent of them of unimpeachable quality and interest. Accumulating the pieces has been the work of several years, and we happen to know there are plenty more waiting in the wings. Watch our video with co-founder Danny Pizzigoni here, as we take a look at some of his personal highlights from the site’s range.