The Siren Song of Geneva: How Mega-Auctions negatively impact the vintage watch market

Someone paid over $5000 for this watch.  Photo courtesy of Christies.

Someone paid over $5000 for this watch.  Photo courtesy of Christies.

Whilst researching an upcoming article I decided to lurk online and watch the last thirty or so lots of the Christies Watch Auction. I've only watched one other auction online before, when the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication sold at Sotheby's for $24,000,000. It was the closest that I and many others would ever get to the watch and I'm glad I watched it, a true moment in watch history. 

In the eighteen months since that sale there has been a shift in the vintage watch market, especially at auction. Not only are we seeing the rise in popularity of themed mega auctions like Start Stop Reset but also the rise in prices of quite ordinary vintage watches. Universal Tri-Compax that were once $2500 four years ago now are reaching $7000, straight lug Speedmasters that were selling for around $3,000 five years ago are now pulling in $80,000 at auction. Nothing has changed about the watches yet everything has changed about the culture covering them. Every auction is historic, every auction is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, every auction is breaking sales records. Benjamin Clymer's own words about a 2012 Sotheby's auction (Where he won Pete Fullerton's Tri-Compax for $2750) are oddly prophetic for the future of Hodinkee's auction coverage, "If you haven't gathered by the amount of expansive, borderline embarrassingly hyperbolic tone we've used in the coverage of this historic sale, I was really excited about it.". 

A 1942 Rolex Ref. 4113 Split-Seconds that sold for $1,161,436 in 2013 and $2,405,000 last weekend. Image courtesy of Phillip's

I feel like I'm tied to a mast of a ship veering towards the rocks, a storm of banging gavels deafening me in one ear with the siren song of Hodinkee seducing me in the other.

It's important to note that these watches being sold at auction, especially high profile auctions covered by the greater watch media, are not worth the amount they hammer for. That Rolex Ref 4113 that sold for $2,405,000 at Phillip's is not worth that amount, that's just the price that someone was willing to pay for it and that is an important distinction to make. There is no blue book for vintage watches and this echo chamber of praise and esteem has only increased auction fever. Three years ago the same Rolex reference sold for $1,161,436 and in 2005 a Universal Geneve Split-Seconds chronograph sold for CHF 36,000 and sold for $197,000 over the weekend. Neither of these watches have changed since then but people's willingness to pay exorbitant prices for them has.

I'm never going to afford either of those watches and I don't care what those with the money do with it .What I do worry about how these results trickle downwards and affect everyday collectors. As prices of genuinely rare watches reach astronomical levels, the prices of 'regular' vintage watches start to rise (See the aforementioned Speedmaster) leaving us normal folk scratching our heads wondering when we got left behind. 

In the last few years a multitude of new online vintage watch retailers have been founded that focus not only on the sub $3000 range but also on the sub $1000/500. With even the most standard Rolex and Omega references commanding huge premiums at auction, these sellers have looked to 'lesser' brands to bring hold up the bottom of the market so that plebs like us can continue collecting watches. The boom in popularity in Seiko is the perfect example, a relatively cheap non-Swiss brand now being sought after by collectors. No Seiko is going to reach $1,000,000 at auction but the reason for their arbitrary leap in prices is something to consider.

A Lip, Tudor and Seiko all sharing the same space. Screenshot from Those Watch Guys.

A Lip, Tudor and Seiko all sharing the same space. Screenshot from Those Watch Guys.

Brands like Le Jour, Waltham, Vulcain and Tissot sit side by side to vintage Datejusts and Seamasters. These are cool watches and it's great that new dealers are focusing on watches that are somewhat obtainable but you have to wonder where do we go from here?

In a recent article for Hodinkee, Arthur Touchot reported that the niche brands like Eterna, Cyma and Junevia were selling for over the 15,000 CHF mark at the Start Stop Reset auction. Needless to say that these are going to be exquisite examples however how long will it take for dealers to source these niche brands and mark them up in response, inadvertently pricing first time buyers out? Pretty soon there will be no more good value brands left, the upper echelons of the market having reached down and plucked them from our wrists. We'll all be left as online voyeurs whilst Aurel Bacs hammers down the first Casio to sell for over a million dollars in another historic, one-of-a-kind, record breaking auction.

I'd like to heartily recommend the Instagram account auctionlytics who posts about watch auction sales from past and present. Also a round two man round table conversation posted to Watch Patina about the Phillip's Auction.