As prices climb, fake watches get broader and better

Rarer models are easier to imitate, but not everyone minds having a ‘Frankenwatch’
Frankenspotter: auctioneer Adrian Hailwood has a keen eye for a fake watch © Kalory Photo & Video

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Watches that might have been worth between £1,000 and £2,000 relatively recently can now fetch multiples of that as collectors look at more affordable, less appreciated makes. Vintage pieces by makers such as Longines, Tudor, Heuer, Breitling, Omega and Zenith are being fiercely fought over when they appear for sale privately, through dealers or in the auction rooms.

For owners who have kept genuine examples of such watches tucked away in drawers and in the backs of cupboards while they were hardly worth the effort of selling, the price hikes have brought welcome windfalls. But the buoyant vintage market is also proving a boon for fakers. They recognise an opportunity to make money from watches that, in many cases, have been cobbled together from diverse parts to create apparently collectable models — which are actually all but worthless.

“The geeks call them ‘Frankenwatches’ — watches that have been built from parts that didn’t start life together,” says Adrian Hailwood, head of the watch department at auction house Fellows in Birmingham. “It has long been a problem with popular makes, especially Rolex — but it is something that has extended to other names during the past couple of years, with the situation really accelerating within the last six months or so.”

Mr Hailwood notes Heuer is especially affected, as the growing values of well-known models such as the Autavia, Carrera and Monaco have been brought to people’s attention. “But it’s the less well-known pieces — the Cortina and Kentucky, for example — that can present real problems because people can build them using age-appropriate parts and bamboozle someone who doesn’t have the knowledge to see that they are not genuine,” he says.

Values of these models have certainly rocketed. In 2010, for example, a Heuer Autavia Reference 2446 — a popular driver’s chronograph of the 1960s favoured by the late Formula One star Jochen Rindt — was sold by Bonhams in London for £5,400. But late in 2016, Christie’s New York achieved $125,000 for an identical watch, albeit one that was in better condition.

The Heuer Autavia Reference 2446 is a desirable item to fake

The work of the fakers is often made easier because many vintage pieces were produced in relatively large numbers using generic movements and other components. Such parts can be gathered together easily and inexpensively before being combined to make a passable copy of a collectable model.

The publicity achieved by a particular watch selling for a high price often serves to fuel the market in fakes, says Mr Hailwood, citing the 2015 sale of a 1930s Breguet wrist chronograph for £15,000. Six months ago he was sent another one — a poor copy. “The engraving was wrong, the dial was clearly a confection and the whole appearance was that of a modern take on an early military watch.”

The most audacious attempt at fakery Mr Hailwood has seen, however, concerned a counterfeit version of one of the most collectable of all Patek Philippes, the Reference 3448 perpetual calendar model produced between 1962 and 1985. In December 2011, Christie’s sold one of only two known examples with a pink gold case, for SFr2.1m ($2.08m), so Mr Hailwood was amazed when what was apparently the second one was sent to Fellows for appraisal two years later.

“At first glance it could have been taken as genuine,” he says. “But a closer look revealed that the movement had been messed about with and had some very un-Patek screw damage, and the case, dial and hands were clearly not of Patek quality.”

According to Jonathan Darracott, global head of watches at Bonhams, however, there is less likelihood of buying a fake at auction. “When a client comes to us to consign a watch,” he says, “we tell them all about the checks it will undergo during the cataloguing process and explain that, in some cases, a watch will be dismantled and photographed piece by piece so that its individual components can be verified to the nth degree.”

The ultimate problem with fake watches is that they breed mistrust, Mr Darracott says. “Perhaps the worst consequence of fake watches appearing for sale on a regular basis, however, is that they eventually kill the market for the genuine article. People just become too nervous to buy.”

The growing number of vintage fakes is causing equal concern in the pre-owned watch trade. Justin Koullapis is a director of Watch Club, which has premises in Mayfair’s Royal Arcade from where it sells watches by a wide range of brands.

“Generally, watch collectors are very much more fussy than collectors in other fields, so anything that is wrong tends to be quickly filtered out,” says Mr Koullapis, also the Horological Journal’s technical editor. “But the problem of fakes in the vintage market undoubtedly exists, and it is growing.” He cites the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with the so-called Paul Newman dial: written about in great detail, they become easier for fakers to perfect a copy.

He adds, however, that the question of what is a fake and what is not is far from black and white. “There is the obvious ethical question, ie has someone set out to deceive by passing the watch off as something that it isn’t? Or, in the case of watches that were altered or modified many years ago before they became valuable, have they simply set out to preserve?” says Mr Koullapis.

“There is no accurate record, for example, as to which examples of the Cosmograph Daytona began life with a standard dial and which were originally fitted with the Paul Newman dial. Back in the 1970s, long before the watches were considered especially valuable, it was quite common for an owner to ask an independent watchmaker who had access to materials to change one dial for another — in that instance, I don’t think such a watch should be regarded as a fake.”

A Frankenwatch is not necessarily a bad thing, however, at least according to classic car authority Robert Coucher, who proudly sports a 1920s Patek Philippe which was transformed from pocket watch format to a wristwatch. “I wanted a vintage Patek Philippe wristwatch but the prices had become out of reach. I discovered, however, that Patek pocket watches are far less expensive — so I bought one and had it converted to wear on the wrist. I realise it isn’t a factory product, but it’s still a beautiful piece with a genuine Patek Philippe movement that keeps perfect time, and it was considerably more affordable than the ‘real thing’.

“So long as one knows exactly what one has bought, I don’t see any problem with a Frankenwatch.”

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