March 26, 2014 9:05 pm

New generation of watch collectors sets the pace in the saleroom

Watches by Richard Mille, Ulysse Nardin, Girard Perregaux and Patek Phillippe

Watches by Richard Mille, Ulysse Nardin, Girard Perregaux and Patek Phillippe for auction in Hong Kong

While some believe Asia’s voracious appetite for buying luxury watches at retail might be receding, there seems little sign that the regional auction market for pre-owned pieces is in anything but rude health.

Last year, Sotheby’s Hong Kong watch department recorded its best performance, shifting a record $58.8m of timepieces in four sales. On April 8, the house hopes to set the ball rolling on an equally impressive run of auctions, when it stages its first event of 2014 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.

The blockbuster catalogue contains 480 lots with a combined value of more than $12.8m, among them a broad selection of complicated pieces including tourbillons and minute repeaters carrying six-figure estimates.

Rival house Antiquorum tested the waters in Hong Kong last month with the first major international watch auction of the year, an event that grossed $5.3m for the 200 watches sold. Among timepieces crossing the block was a 2009 Patek Philippe tourbillon minute repeater, which went for $798,000.

The results gave Sharon Chan, the recently appointed head of the Asian watch department at Sotheby’s, good reason to be quietly optimistic for her sale on April 8. It is replete with the type of contemporary, high-end watch that holds strong appeal for the region’s collectors.

The star of the show is set to be a platinum-cased Patek Philippe minute repeating tourbillon with perpetual calendar, and day-and-night indication – the third most complicated wristwatch the prestigious maker has produced, and one that is virtually impossible to obtain new. The example on offer is a year old and has been consigned in its original, sealed packaging with a $790,000 high estimate – more than $100,000 below the retail price.

Sharon Chan

Sharon Chan

The piece is expected to be hotly contested, as is one of three platinum Breguets made in 1997 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Abraham-Louis Breguet’s birth ($280,000-$410,000), a 2003 Girard-Perregaux Opera Two minute repeating tourbillon ($180,000-$260,000) and a six-year-old Greubel Forsey tourbillon, one of 11 white gold versions, which could realise $320,000.

“Increasingly, people are coming to our auctions in search of the very rare and very valuable pieces that even the absolute VIP clients can no longer get hold of direct from the brands,” says Ms Chan.

“The group of such collectors has become pretty large, but we are also seeing quite a few new clients in the middle and lower ranges. Asian buyers are now realising that it’s possible for a watch to be second-hand but still in excellent working order.

“Most, however, only want pieces that are in pristine condition. If they are buying for themselves, then they will accept watches that do not have packaging, but if they are buying for a gift everything has to be as it was when the watch was new.”

Ms Chan expects about one-third of the lots to be bought by local bidders, with a significant portion being snapped up by clients from around the world using Sotheby’s online bidding system.

“Many of the people who buy in this way are highly experienced,” she says. “As well as reviewing the large-format, high-resolution images [in] our online catalogue, they frequently ask for more pictures of particular details. They are very knowledgeable in terms of design and technology.”

Ms Chan says she is seeing a marked rise in female bidders buying pieces for themselves as a result of the drive by high-end brands to increase their offerings of mechanical watches for women.

“Included in the April sale, for example, is a 2009 ladies’ Richard Mille tourbillon with a diamond-set dial in the shape of a celtic knot. It’s a design that symbolises longevity and the endless cycle of life, something that appeals to the Asian culture. Sophisticated women seem drawn to watches with complex movements, and we’re confident that this piece will fetch upwards of $180,000.”

According to Ms Chan, the buyer demographic is also changing.

“Until quite recently, I would say that buyers were invariably in the 40-plus age group,” she says. “Now, however, there are many more in their 20s and 30s who are buying out of an interest in horology rather than as a means of investment.

“One couple in their early 30s, for example, have consigned part of their collection of modern watches, which is made up of pieces by independent brands such as Urwerk and MB&F that are notable because they display the time in unusual ways. They now want to sell some of them in order to be able to buy others.

“It’s likely they will lose money on some of the watches they have decided to sell, but they don’t regard that in a negative way. They simply see it as the price that has to be paid in order to gain knowledge.”

Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Important Watches: on view April 3-7 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, 1 Expo Drive, Wan Chai, Hong Kong; sale April 8

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