As we head into the crowded autumn auction season, we take a look at the major vintage watch trends of 2018, and consider what lies ahead
By Simon de Burton
To say the watch auction market is going through interesting times at present is a dramatic understatement. Where once Patek Philippe and Rolex seemed to be the only dial names worth collecting, now the roster of pre-owned marques achieving notably high prices is growing, with Omega, A. Lange and Sohne, F. P. Journe, Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet and several others now also among the ones to watch.
And, while the best vintage Patek Philippe wrist watches have traditionally attracted sums leagues ahead of the most expensive Rolex models, last year’s remarkable sale of the ex-Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona for a still scarcely believable $17.8m turned the tables dramatically, presaging the auction this June of a circa 1956 Submariner with ‘3,6,9’ ‘Explorer’ dial for an unprecedented $1,068,500 at Christie’s.
But is it possible that everyone is getting a little bit too excited? In my opinion, a hint that the auction houses might be in danger of getting above themselves is evident in the much discussed sale of the ‘Steve McQueen’ Submariner that was due to cross the block at Phillips in New York on October 28 with a pre-sale estimate of $300,000 – 600,000.
The watch has proved controversial due to questions over its authenticity (if you don’t know the story, the briefest of internet searches will soon have you up to speed). No one can deny that it defies virtually every major rule in the collecting book in terms of originality, authenticity, provenance and documentation, yet the auction house – doubtless buoyed by the effortless success of the Newman Daytona – saw fit to present the extensively restored Submariner as ‘The most important McQueen-owned timepiece.’ This now looks to have backfired somewhat as the auction house has had to remove the watch from its sale over concerns from the McQueen family.
Whether or not moneyed McQueen-loving horophiles would have agreed with Phillips’ description will now remain a mystery – but, in the more real world of watch auctions, buyers who ignore the aforementioned rules do so at the risk of losing out.
While prices across the board may appear to be climbing at a healthy rate, the reality is that, regardless of make or model, the vintage watches that are worth good money are the ones that are original, unrestored and have a known history of low ownership (preferably combined with an interesting story).
The problem is that the rising values of an increasing number of dial names means that an area of watch collecting that was comparatively free of pieces that had been tampered with is now attracting unscrupulous vendors who might be tempted to pass a watch off as a more desirable model having ‘intervened’ with a few appropriate alterations.
Those hoping to bag a bargain by buying a contemporary watch at auction, however, are probably entering less of a minefield. The majority of auction houses now cross-reference consignments with organisations such as the Watch Register, an offshoot of the Art Loss Register that attempts to reunite stolen watches with their owners (and is currently enlarging its database by a remarkable 10,000 lost or stolen watches per year).
That dramatically reduces the likelihood of bidding on a modern watch that has dubious history, and the vast amount of information now available about current models makes it relatively easy to ensure that whatever you buy is correct in terms of dial, hands, bracelet, movement etc.
Whether buying ancient or modern, however, the importance of condition and originality cannot be over-emphasised. Likewise, boxes and paperwork might not be important to you, but their presence could make the difference between recouping your money or losing out if you decide to sell.
Keep all that in mind and you should find entering today’s watch auction fray both fun and rewarding. More and more regional houses are establishing or strengthening specialist departments, meaning the choice in the lower to mid price range is increasing and bringing many interesting, formerly overlooked dial names out of the woodwork.
The currently hot market for vintage dive watches, for example, is causing interest in makes such as Yema, Dodane, Titus and Monvis that were previously unknown to all but hard core enthusiasts of the genre.
The challenge is to predict what will be the ‘next big thing’ in collectable timepieces. Some seem to think pocket watches are about to have their moment in the sun – but I seem to remember writing that in QP around 15 years back. Fortunately I neglected to back my sage prediction with an actual purchase…..