The secondary market for wristwatches is currently soaring, not least because the retail market is stronger than ever. But the prospect of buying a recent pre-owned wristwatch or a vintage model can be daunting if you don’t really know how to go about it.
The auction rooms often represent the most convenient route for both modern and vintage pieces. The main international players are Antiquorum, Bonhams, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s — although smaller UK houses such as Birmingham-based Fellows and London’s Watches of Knightsbridge are also excellent sources of pieces in the £200 to £50,000 range.
If you’re planning to buy at auction, the best starting point is to attend a sale with no intention of bidding. Go the first time purely to get a sense of what goes on, and when you are ready to take part in one with a view to buying, make sure you’ve done your research first.
Study the catalogue carefully and familiarise yourself with the terms and conditions. Be sure you understand the ‘buyer’s premium’, which can be as much as 25 per cent of the hammer price at the top houses. This means that your £100 winning bid will be translated into a final price of £130 — that’s £25 plus VAT. It might not sound much, but it makes a serious difference when you start bidding in the thousands or tens of thousands.
Remember, too, that there are rarely any comebacks if you buy from auction (although lot descriptions must be accurate and are legally binding). Avoid anything non-original, heavily restored or in poor condition. The current market is hot, but the majority of buyers want only those watches that are mint and unmolested.
If you don’t want to buy at auction, try a specialist pre-owned or vintage dealer, but expect to pay for their expertise. Most reputable watch dealers sell pieces which are in immaculate condition and which have often been freshly serviced. You might even get a year’s warranty and the offer of a buy-back or trade-in.
Certain dealers specialise in particular makes. David Duggan, for example, is the longest-established UK dealer in pre-owned Pateks; Somlo Antiques is the official vintage Omega dealer and firms such as The Vintage Watch Company and Kleanthous are renowned for their Rolex expertise. The major retailer Watches of Switzerland, meanwhile, has a vintage/pre-owned department offering a wide selection at all price levels.
A third option to add to auction houses or traditional dealers is the booming Kent-based company Watchfinder, which was set up in 2002 and now shifts around 1,200 pre-owned watches per month at an average price of £4,200.
The firm’s co-founder, Lloyd Amsdon, believes the past 15 years have seen a significant change in the perception of the pre-owned watch market.
‘The people who buy luxury watches today are completely different from those who did so in the past, when the watch they owned was the one they wore for 10 or 20 years,’ he says.
‘The modern buyer swaps brands and constantly wants to upgrade but, while watchmakers want us to buy endless amounts of new timepieces, most people can’t afford to do that so they turn to the huge amount of pre-owned product that is now in circulation as a result of the increase in first-hand retail sales. The easier it is for them to find and buy that pre-owned product, then the better the business for us.’
To that end, Watchfinder has gone from selling its watches purely online or by appointment at its headquarters in Maidstone to retailing them from a flagship store at the Royal Exchange in the City of London and a smaller boutique at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. Plans are also afoot for up to three further openings.
On certain popular models, Watchfinder even offers a guarantee to buy the watch back at the same price it sold it for, providing it is in similar condition — an indication, says Lloyd Amsdon, of just how confident the firm is about the future of the pre-owned market.
Of course the internet is perhaps the biggest instantly available source of vintage watches. But it’s a place where only the brave should venture. Unless you’re 100 per cent confident about who you are dealing with online — an established business such as Watchfinder or another reputable dealer — the perils of the world wide web are best avoided unless you want to risk landing something that’s fake, non-original, poorly preserved or with decidedly dubious provenance.
There are undoubtedly plenty of genuine watches floating around out there in cyberspace, and probably some genuine bargains to be had, too. But pinning them down might just make looking for a needle in a haystack seem easy.