The vintage watch market may be thriving, but so is the market for fakes and Franken-watches. QP asked a panel of experts for ten tips on avoiding the pitfalls.
By Chris Hall
We all lust after one priceless vintage watch or another. It could be an early Heuer Autavia, a Vacheron dress watch, or one of the many 1970s steel chronographs that have re-emerged in the last couple of years. But where there is money to be made, there are scams. Fakes and franken-watches are all over eBay and beyond, just waiting to catch out over-eager buyers. We asked some of the most knowledgeable vintage experts in the world for their quick and easy tips to avoid buying a fake.
Justin Koullapis is a founder and director of Watch Club in Mayfair (you can watch co-founder Danny Pizzigoni talking about his favourite vintage watches here)
Adrian Hailwood is a director at Fellows Auctioneers
Alex Barter is a consultant to Sotheby’s Watch department and co-owner of Black Bough
Nicholas Biebuyck is a senior specialist in watches at Bonhams, based in Hong Kong
1. Box and papers are essential, but do you trust them?
Justin Koullapis: “This is just one example, but if you go back a long time, not all Rolexes were chronometer certified. Those that were came with printed, perforated-edged certification; those that didn’t were often hand-written. If you see, for instance, a Submariner Date, which were all certified, with hand-written, non-perforated edge papers, you know someone is trying to marry genuine papers from elsewhere to increase the value.”
2. Know the market, because the fakers follow it
Adrian Hailwood: “If a certain watch sets an auction record, or comes to light for the first time, you’ll see similar watches suddenly appear, only with minor differences. Perhaps it’s not stamped in quite the same way, or the serial number doesn’t add up. There might be a good reason, but usually someone’s taken a similar watch and tried to pass it off as a super-rare reference.”
3. Be wary of restored dials
Justin Koullapis: “Don’t pay full price for anything that has been heavily restored, especially not if it’s the dial. While there are arguments to be made on both sides of the debate, we feel that restoration is only occasionally acceptable on very early, or very badly damaged dials. If you’re offered something with a restored dial, don’t pay over the odds or even close.”
4. Does everything match?
Alex Barter: The main thing is looking at the general condition. If the case looks very heavily worn but the dial looks perfect, with no oxidation or anything, you have to question that. Make sure the hands reach the minute tracks, and that they match one another.”
5. Get a Geiger counter (or at least, a magnifying glass)
Nicholas Biebuyck: “Make sure the lume shades on the dial and hands match. If the lume is particularly white it may have been recently applied. A Geiger counter can be useful when looking at early watches with Radium-based lumes, but there are ways of fooling a Geiger counter so take the whole watch into consideration.”
6. Tread carefully in the tropics
Alex Barter: “Some of the money that gets applied to tropical dial sports Rolexes can get really scary. If you want to buy a watch because you like a visual effect, you really need to see it up close, not in a photograph. You need to know what it looks like normally and when it’s aged, and whether you’re prepared to spend the extra money if you think it’s real.”
Nicholas Biebuyck: “There are certainly ways to give the impression of a tropicalised dial, but these methods of accelerated ageing always do some damage to the dial due to heat, or are done in such a way (painting, washing, staining) that it stands out.”
7. Look at the back of the dial
Nicholas Biebuyck: “The best fakes will use an original dial for a base to clean off and then refinish, so ask for a photo of the back of the dial, to see the correct makers’ mark.”
8. Has the movement been over-worked on?
Alex Barter: “You need at least to see photographs of the movement, to make sure it’s in reasonable condition and hasn’t been hacked around a lot. Look at the screw heads and inside the caseback – if there are a lot of marks from watchmakers’ tools, it may be that it’s really been problematic.”
9. Is it definitely the right movement?
Justin Koullapis: “Checking the movement can quickly reveal a franken-fake. We used to see a lot of Rolex Day-Dates which, on closer inspection, used Datejust movements crudely modified to incorporate a weekday disk – it’s a genuine Rolex movement so might pass light scrutiny, so you need to be able to recognise this, or know someone who will.”
10. Know your movement details
Adrian Hailwood: “If it’s a simple movement, say in an older Panerai, it can be hard to tell hard to tell an old Unitas from a good Chinese copy. It can come down to knowing what the regulator should look like, or the details on the shock protection. You need to get hold of official pictures, and get good at playing ‘spot the difference’.”
Want to know more about fake watches? Read about the time we got up close with some of the roughest fakes you’ll ever see…