In Time of Pandemic, Auction Houses Cash In Big on Watches

The world may be in a state of Covid-19 chaos, with growing unemployment, a spiraling death rate, and no vaccine on the immediate horizon, but someone just paid $3.6 million for a pre-owned wristwatch,


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 $9.2 million for a fancy blue diamond ring,


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 $84.6 million for a painting,


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and $795,000 for a rare bottle of whiskey.


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And $615,000 for a pair of used Nike sneakers worn by Michael Jordan in 1984.


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While retailers across America shutter their doors or open them only to serve a disappointing trickle of customers, auction houses have become virtual one-stop shopping destinations for people buying luxury goods across all categories, thanks to Zoom previews, online video condition reports, and easy online bidding. 

One particularly hot category is watches. 

Last week, Sotheby’s reported an increase of 30% in new bidders and buyers across all sales categories so far this year, saying that 30% of all bidders are now under 40. The company’s online auctions for 2020 have exceeded $285 million, three times its full-year online results for 2019. Its live, streaming auctions in June and July achieved $1.2 billion in sales, and the category attracting the highest number of new clients, at 42%, has been wristwatches.

In July alone, Sotheby’s sold a Rolex Daytona “John Player Special” Ref. 6264 for more than $1.5 million, a record price for that model, and Christie’s sold a rare Patek Philippe Ref. 5033 minute repeater for $1,95 million. In June, Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, drew $3.6 million for a Patek Ref. 1518 from the collection of watch industry titan, Jean-Claude Biver. 

At that sale, a live auction held in Geneva, seven watches sold for more than $1 million, including another John Player Special, for $1.1 million. (A John Player Special is a rare Rolex Daytona in yellow gold with a black dial, made by Rolex from the 1960s to the ’80s to commemorate John Player & Sons’ sponsorship of the Lotus F1 racing team.) The record price for a watch sold at auctionis $31 million. 

“In general, prices all over are strong—but watches in particular,” says Sotheby’s Geneva head of watches Mikael Wallhagen. “We have reached a lot of new clients with our smaller online sales and made our sales more accessible. And,” he concludes, “to be honest, bidding in auctions can be an addiction.”

Especially in a time of pandemic. Participating in a virtual auction is a way of relieving the boredom brought on by social isolation, and it’s a chance to catch up on retail therapy. “Under the global lockdown situation, people have had more time to explore new fields of interest and spend more time behind the screen to bid in auctions,” says Wallhagen. 

Also driving the boom is a rising level of enticing inventory, as enthusiasts cull their collections, resulting in the availability of long-sought-after pieces that, despite the times, are coveted by collectors at any cost. (The industry calls these “grail” watches.) All this dovetails with the growing number of younger auction clients, who are quite comfortable bidding online, even for high-ticket items. 

Aurel Bacs, who runs the watch department at Phillips, says the pandemic has given people more time to ponder and restructure their collections, resulting in the availability of pieces that rarely hit the market. Phillips has corralled some of the more modern into an upcoming sale to be held Nov. 7-8 in Geneva, in which it will offer examples of masterpieces made in the past 20 years. The sale will pay homage to the modern, mostly independent watchmakers who have revolutionized the field over the past two decades.

“The watchmaking industry changed more in the last 20 years than in the previous 200 years,” says Alex Ghotbi, head of watches in Europe for Phillips. We can expect to see rare pieces from the likes of MB&F, Laurent Ferrier, Richard Mille, and Urwerk, as well as important modern pieces from the usual suspects, Rolex and Patek Philippe. Highlights so far include an F.P. Journe Resonance, a Laurent Ferrier Gallet Traveler in platinum (one of only five pieces made), and a De Bethune Titan Hawk.

To judge by Phillips’s live watch auction in Geneva in June, the sale will be a smashing success. That one totaled over $31.7 million, with a 100% sell-through rate. “It was the highest watch auction total in history (excluding charity auctions) and the first-ever white glove auction for a various owner, non-thematic auction,” says Paul Boutros, head of the watch department in the U.S. (White glove auctions are when all lots sell.) “Over 2,000 people registered online to bid, with even more watching the sale live,” he adds.

Are there some good deals among the blockbuster pieces? Sure. To find them, Bacs recommends keeping an eye out for rare pieces from independent makers that are “often sold out or have long waiting lists” for new versions. 

“I think younger brands with sometimes-high retail prices can offer good opportunities,” Bacs says. “Such as the Greubel Forsey Signature 1 (60,000 Swiss francs to 120,000 Swiss francs [$66,000 to $133,000]) or the now-discontinued Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Equation of Time (25,000 to 45,000 Swiss francs).”

Sotheby’s weekly online sales in each market are also rife with bargains, because not everything that comes to auction is a grail piece. A recent New York sale included an assortment of prized nicknamed Rolexes, including a Hulk (a Submariner with green dial and bezel) that sold for $22,500; a Batman (GMT-Master II with blue and black ceramic bezel) for $17,500; a Batgirl (A newer Batman with a dressier Jubilee bracelet) for $18,750; and a Double Swiss Underline (a 1963 Daytona with two Swiss designations) for $31,250. 

Coming up at the onlineNew York auction from Sept. 15-22 is a rare, 1975, yellow gold skeletonized Audemars Piguet estimated at $4,000-6,000 and a Christiaan Van Der Klaauw planetary complication for $12,000-18,000. 

In the showstopper category, aSotheby’s sale in London on Oct. 28 will offer a collection of watches from the collection of David Salomon, an early 20th century British industrialist and world-renowned authority on Breguet. They are being sold by the L.A. Mayer Museum in Jerusalem. 

Leading the sale are: a double-movement Resonance watch made for the prince regent (future King George IV of the U.K.), estimated at £400,000-£600,000 (about $514,000-$771,000); a minute repeater made for the French Duc of Praslin, estimated at £250,000-£350,000 and a thermometer watch made for Princess Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, estimated at £200,000-£300,000. 

All three were made by the master himself, Abraham Louis Breguet, during his most active period, from 1790 until he died in 1823. 

At Christie’s, look for a Patek Philippe Reference 570G, an Audemars Piguet “Super VZ,” and a Rolex Cosmograph Ref. 6265 from auto-racing legend Carroll Smith inits online sale, from Sept. 29 to Oct. 13. 

Also worth tuning into will be the Nov. 30 “Ruby Collection,” a Hong Kong sale of Patek Philippes from a single-owner private collection, highlighted by a pair of possibly unique (no one has ever seen them before) models: a perpetual calendar and minute repeater/tourbillon, both with ruby hour markers and estimated to sell for less than $1 million each. The collection also includes astronomical watches, including the ultra-complicated Sky Moon Tourbillon ref. 5002, with 12 complications, estimated to fetch from $1 million to $1.5 million.

 

A Patek Philippe Ref. 1518, at Phillips.

A ring by REZA, with a flawless fancy blue diamond and a clear diamond, at Christie’s

Francis Bacon’sTriptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,at Sotheby’s.

A Yamazaki-55, the oldest Japanese whiskey, at Bonhams.

At a Christie’s auction in August

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