The Value of Provenance in Vintage Watches

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When discussing vintage watches, especially those claimed to have been owned by notable figures, the notion of provenance should always be kept at the forefront of your mind. Far more important than condition or value, provenance is the term used to describe the legitimacy of recorded ownership for a particular item. Whilst for many vintage watch purchases it is condition and value that are of primary concern when considering watches that  are claimed to have belonged to an important figure, provenance is the most important factor.

One of history's greatest minds

A set of naive eyes looking upon the first watch in the video would widen with excitement at the prospect of touching a watch belonging to Isaac Newton. As one of history's greatest minds the notion of holding an object that is so personal and connected to science as a pocket watch, is extraordinary. The watch looks sufficiently old enough and it even has an engraving on the back "Mrs Cath Conduit to Sir Isaac Newton Jan 4th 1708". A quick Google search would reveal that Cath Conduit was Isaac Newton's niece and suddenly those wide eyes are now filled with dollar signs for those inclined to sell it. All those years traipsing through estate auctions and yard sales have finally paid off!! Upon closer inspection however a hallmark on the dial dates this watch to being made after the death of the British scientist. Suddenly this watch is the 18th Century equivalent of a Date-just from the sixties reading "To Jack Love Marilyn" on the back. It's still an important horological artifact however as collectors and historians aren't exactly tripping over solid gold pocket watches from the 1700's but it never was held by Sir Isaac. It's funny to think that a seller trying to con any potential buyers with false provenance is just as prominent today as it was three hundred years ago.

Provenance comes into play when discussing watches that saw limited release as well, especially military issued watches or those released to a very small set of people, a Comex Submariner or Mil-Sub for example. There are thought to be around 2000 original Military issued Submariners in existence and with small supply comes big demand and the rise of shady characters creating their own Mil-Sub for profit. Papers can be easily forged, hands swapped out and bezel replaced and a standard case back is a blank canvas for any would be anachronistic engraving. Suddenly provenance becomes very important with the most reliable documentation trumping condition or heroic stories from the seller. If a genuine Rolex Submariner, with genuine Rolex parts, has been altered to look like a Mil-Sub, does it lose all value? It's still a vintage Rolex after all but what it's claiming to be is a falsehood. Seasoned collectors will know where to look and what to see on a genuine Mil-Sub however to a novice the prospect of getting conned can be very worrying. 

"Consigned by the original owner" seal

This is why at auctions it's always nice to see the addition of "consigned by the original owner" along with original receipts included in the description. No matter what might have been done to the watch during it's ownership you'll have confidence knowing that what it claims to be is genuine. Each scratch on the case or polished lug is just another experience this watch has had. This might put a lot of people off but for those more interested in knowing for certain that a Mil-Sub was actually a Mil-Sub from conception then knowing who the only owner was is of great importance.

It is a strange thought to think that a watch with a brazen lie engraved on it's case back is valuable only through the passage of time. Maybe in three hundred years that "100% original very very rare Datejust worn by J.F.K given by Marilyn Monroe" that you see on Ebay will be actually worth something. Not because of the provenance but in spite of it.

Newton Timepieces - Objectivity #67.