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May’s Geneva watch auctions should provide a barometer of the pre-owned watch business in the face of a decline in new retail sales and general feelings of economic uncertainty. Here, experts from the five leading specialist auction houses give their opinions on the state of the collector market.
Phillips/Bacs & Russo, Geneva
There will be watches with estimates from SFr3,000-SFr500,000 ($3,000-$500,000). And I think that says something about the way we need to view the current market — that quality can actually be accessible.
Bidders will range from students to billionaires, and they will all be there to buy an epic watch. But to be “epic”, a watch no longer needs to have a seven-figure value. It needs to be in great, original condition and have a name that resonates.
Watch to watch: Breitling Duograph presented to Jack Brabham for winning the 1960 Formula One championship. Estimate SFr30,000-SFr60,000. May 14, Geneva
Christie’s, New York
It is clear that the world of watch auctions is becoming more and more about vintage, even in Hong Kong, where the sales have traditionally been dominated by modern pieces.
Many collectors are asking themselves why they would consider spending $5,000 on a Patek Philippe Calatrava [a simple three-hand watch] with a repolished case and a refurbished dial when that same $5,000 could buy something such as a Universal chronograph in superb, original condition.
Watch to watch: 1817 Breguet pocket watch formerly owned by Charles-Louis Havas, founder of Agence France-Presse. May 16, Geneva
Speaking to people in other areas of the pre-owned business, there appears to be a lot of inventory out there. But I think the auction houses have several advantages, not least in the fact that we don’t have to lay out large sums of money on stock. We can also be selective about what we consign and can advise sellers of values based on current market conditions.
I think the future lies in smaller, very well-curated sales, and while major pieces will continue to come to auction, the market is not likely to be flooded with them. As with the art market as a whole, I think people are feeling cautious about spending bigger sums.
Next sale: May 14, Geneva
We’re heading towards our big May sale with a realistic attitude — there’s a definite uncertainty in the world right now, and I think we’re feeling that in the auction market.
Interestingly, however, we are noticing that collectors are looking harder to find vintage brands that are on the rise — prices of some watches by makers such as Universal and TAG Heuer, for example, have doubled, tripled and even quadrupled during the past three years.
We’re also seeing an increase in demand for dive watches from the 1960s and 1970s by previously overlooked manufacturers such as Yema, Elgin and Benrus. Not long ago, when they could be bought for $200, collectors would scarcely look at them. Now they are fetching $1,000-$2,000.
Watch to watch: Corum ‘Buckingham’, originally owned by Elvis Presley. Estimate $10,000-$20,000. April 13, New York
We hold regular auctions of more affordable watches [from £500] at our Knightsbridge rooms . . . but none of the Knightsbridge lots sold for an exceptional sum — bidding seemed very controlled, and buyers had clearly done their research and set limits on the amount they were going to spend.
I think the biggest threat to the watch business as a whole is probably from the grey market. If watches don’t sell at retail and end up in the salerooms, they inevitably fetch one-third to one-quarter of the new price. We wouldn’t turn new watches away, of course — but we’re conscious that, when retailers resort to selling at auction, it’s usually the start of a downward spiral.
Watch to watch: Rolex ‘Comex’ Submariner dive watch. Estimate £40,000-£60,000. June 22, London