Ask a non-horophile to guess the highest price ever paid for a wrist watch, and the chances are they will respond with a figure in the low hundreds of thousands. News that the actual record is an eye-watering $17.7 million paid in 2017 for a Rolex that originally belonged to the late Hollywood star Paul Newman is usually met with incredulity.
But while the price of the Newman was an exception (it was the actual watch which, more than 40 years ago, led collectors to nickname similar models ‘Paul Newmans’) sums in the millions have become increasingly commonplace since the turn of the millennium – the ten most expensive Patek Philippe wrist watches sold at auction this year, for example, realised close to £20m between them.
There are several reasons for the surge in both values and interest, not least being the arrival of the internet as an instant source of information that might previously have taken weeks of research to uncover. The web has also brought enthusiasts together through single-brand forums, collectors groups and specialist watch web sites such as U.S. based Hodinkee which, despite only being founded in 2008, was recently valued at $100m.
Pitiful savings rates have also played their part, encouraging people to sink their cash into watches which, unlike other tangible assets such as classic cars, wine, works of art or gold bullion, are easy to house in quantity, easy to transport and, if correctly stored, don’t deteriorate. Indeed, the ‘transportability’ of a valuable vintage watch means it can even be moved around the world for re-sale in order to take advantage of international currency fluctuations.
But perhaps the most appealing aspect of collecting watches is that they are fungible, meaning prospective buyers can assess the value of a particular piece against identical others and base their decision to invest on how they have performed financially – unless they want to own a certain model for the best reason of all: because it’s their dream watch.
Inevitably, the widespread surge in values has resulted in a market that’s awash with watches that are stolen, fake, badly restored or made-up from unrelated parts (so-called ‘Frankenwatches’). As a result, it’s easy for the uninitiated to lose a fortune very quickly.
For that reason, it’s best to buy from established specialist dealers or auction houses (although there is no guarantee that either won’t knowingly or inadvertently sell you a ‘wrong’ watch) and to avoid buying privately via the internet – although ebay, for example, has recently introduced an authentication service for any watch valued at $2000 up.
This year, the watch auction market has almost universally adapted to the Coronavirus situation by shifting bidding online – with Sotheby’s proving to be the keenest adopter by staging as many as three weekly sales run out by its respective watch departments in Geneva, Hong Kong, London and New York.
And, if you’re looking to buy a special vintage or pre-owned watch at auction in time for Christmas, it’s not too late – here are our picks from the remaining Sotheby’s sales taking place in New York and Hong Kong, both of which offer online bidding.
1. Sotheby’s New York. Live sale on December 15 (with online bidding) sothebys.com
1981 Patek Philippe Reference 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph with Tiffany signed dial. Estimate $500,000 – 800,000. Lot 33 (pictured above).
1967 Jaeger-LeCoutre Memovox Polaris. Rare dive watch one of only 1,714 made during a four-year production rub. Estimate $15,000 – 25,000. Lot 56
1969 Omega Speedmaster yellow gold limited edition chronograph, made in 1,014 examples to commemorate the Apollo XI moon landing. Estimate: £25,000 – 50,000 Lot 77
2. Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Online only sale ending December 21
1980 IWC Da Vinci perpetual calendar, tourbillon chronograph with moon phases and digital year display.Made to mark the millennium. Estimate £16,000 – 24,000 Lot 8037
2006 F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain. An example of one of the most collectable of all modern wrist watches. Estimate £90,000 – 120,000. Lot 8001 (pictured above)
1978 Rolex GMT-Master. A dual time pilot’s watch in steel and gold with so-called ‘Root Beer’ bezel finished in gold and brown to represent day and night hours. £80,000 – 110,000. Lot 8031