Watch Collecting Gone Crazy

By Roberta Naas.

Just a couple of months ago in late December, Phillips in Association with Bacs and Russo auction house held its final sale of 2021 – and realized $35.9 million in sales of vintage and pre-owned watches via 165 lots. The achievement marked the most successful watch auction in American history. Additionally, just like all of the house’s 2021 sales, every lot in the December New York Watch auction sold – bringing the year to a “100 percent sold” status (never accomplished by an auction house before) and setting a milestone record for annual sales of $209.3 million.

Lot 1T was the biggest sale at the Phillips New York Auction. The brand new stainless steel Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A-018 with a Tiffany Blue dial was created to commemorate the long-standing partnership of the two brands , The watch (supposedly the last Ref. 5711 the brand will make) sold for a whopping $6.5 million, despite its original estimate of $50,000. The proceeds from this sale go to The Nature Conservancy as per Tiffany’s request.

This sale from just a single auction house is representative of the current state of the watch market. The pre-owned marketplace is on fire now and the incredible feeding frenzy among collectors and connoisseurs looking to snap up certain watches for their investment portfolios has led to a shortage of watches and huge hikes in prices, with certain pre-owned watches commanding higher prices than brand new watches.

Lot 102 was a George Daniels watch, circa 1971, that is a twin barrel one-minute tourbillon pocket watch chronometer. It was sold with a handwritten letter by the master watchmaker and inventor extraordinaire and a double-ended key. Expected to fetch between $600,000 and a million dollars, it sold for $1.6 million.

”There are a lot of parallels between the car and watch markets. These are enduring objects that will last an eternity, but the supply is just too little to meet the demand and the values continue to grow,” says Paul Boutros, Head of Watches, Americas. “The market is the strongest it has ever been for collector watches because there are so many new people discovering and buying exceptional vintage and modern pieces as they look for ways to have fun with their cash.”

While buying watches at auction has always been hot, the pandemic helped fuel the fire as more and more people stopped traveling and started investing in their passions. In fact, the year-end results from Phillips indicates that sales are up 89 percent from the pre-pandemic levels in 2019. Additionally, with the wealth of information available online, it’s easy to self-educate about what watches are a good investment and why.

As with so many Rolex watches at auction, Lot 41 -- the 1969 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6241 – sold for more than $1 million. The very rare yellow gold chronograph Paul Newman watch (nicknamed after the watch Paul Newman owned and that sold for $17 million at auction a few years ago) boasts a black “John Player Special” black dial and features a gold bracelet. It sold for $1.2 million.

So, for those looking to get in on the long-term profits of a good watch investment, the first rule of thumb is to buy the so-called “Holy Grail” brands like Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Rolex, A. Lange & Sohne and a few others that are always in high demand and never seem to lose their value.

Similarly, some of the top independent watch brands like Richard Mille, F.P. Journe and MB&F are so rare and hard to find that when one does pop up at auction, heated bidding is sure to ensue. Be prepared and have a budget pre-planned. A look at some of the top lots from the December auction will give you a rough idea of how much you might have to spend to own one of the world’s most expensive pre-owned timepieces.

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