'Twas the night before Sotheby’s Hong Kong Important Watches Auction, all lots shiny and full of hope. I sat with Sotheby’s Senior Watch Specialist Rich Lopez to go over some of the most impressive pieces of the sale.
I wanted to get deep into the psyche of the fabled watch collector. I wanted to understand the emotional satisfaction that is derived from winning a bid. I wanted to know how these timepieces could afford a single human so much clout and prestige among other watch geeks.
Rich assured me that the auction model wasn’t just for the watch savant, nor the one percent. “With online sales, it means there are now price points for everybody, you can start bidding on watches with no reserve and set your price point between one and five thousand,” he explained.
So, watches are for (almost) everybody, but why is the second-hand watch market exploding so rapidly? Why, for instance, is the market value of an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak at an all-time high? Why are people giving away firstborns for a Patek Nautilus? Why can nobody get their hands on a new Rolex?
I wanted to find out more about the inner workings of today’s second-hand watch market straight from the source. As enticing as the pre-owned market may seem, I felt the need to get some basic facts straight before sending fellow readers to make a bold foray into the auction world.
Rich talked me through his top picks at the upcoming auction.
Lot 2208, Patek Phillipe 5004 Platinum (sold for [US] $986,570)
We’re starting big with the Patek Phillipe 5004 Platinum. Even before talking to Rich, I was intrigued by this rare premium lot. My never-ending research into the dark depths of the watch space previously led me to speculate about a return to the perpetual calendar.
Please, no more AP Royal Oaks or Patek Aquanauts! Show me something complex. Something on a leather strap. Something a discerning collector would see the value in. “Everything goes in cycles," said Rich. "Years ago you couldn’t give a steel Nautilus away, but I feel the perpetual calendar will cycle back to the front."
Rich continued, with sheer frankness, that this was due to supply and demand. There are not enough Nautiluses in the world to supply everybody’s needs and wants, so if a customer has $100,000 to burn, they may divert their attention elsewhere and look for the best quality perpetual calendar they can buy. And so the cycle continues!
Previously owned by Eric Clapton, this Patek 5004 comes with a custom blue dial, possibly the only one of its kind. Anything that Patek makes with a blue dial in this current market is known to double or triple in price.
This year has also seen the rise of the green dial, with Cartier, Hublot, Omega, and basically every watch brand all offering their take on green mania. I predict the mass market rise of the salmon-colored dial. I will also add that the salmon Royal Oak could potentially sway me back to the steel watch monopoly.
Lot 2095, F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain "Souscription" (sold for [US] $2,043,950)
Next in Rich’s picks, and his favorite of the sale, was the F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain "Souscription." F.P. Journe is the new kid on the block in the auction world. The brand has exploded in the last year, adding to the intrigue surrounding lesser-known, independent watchmakers.
Journe’s subscription model was truly unique: If you bought a watch and he made another in the same series with the same number, he would offer it to you later free of charge. It was an unusual business gimmick that paid off down the line. The number one in the series of this watch is up for auction with a competitor and is estimated to sell for at least $4 million. The moral of the tale? Do your reading and keep an eye on the smaller brands, kids!
Lot 2255, Rolex Day-Date, Reference 1803 (sold for [US] $501,960)
“Time to bring Rolex into the conversation” announced Rich. This Day-Date Reference 1803 is what connoisseurs would call a pièce unique. It’s the only Day-Date with a special-order black dial that typically belongs on a sports model (such as the Rolex Submariner). People were out to hate on this watch. “Nobody wanted to believe it was real, people were destroying it until we produced the papers stating that Rolex had serviced the watch," explained Rich. He continued that the way the market is going, it really is the time to sell pièce uniques and special editions.
Rolex still reigns supreme in the watch world - it’s the most recognizable of all the brands and commands 25 percent of the global luxury watch market. But even if you have the cash, you’d be hard-pressed to get your hands on a brand new model right now. There’s a Rolex drought! The scarcity of these watches at retail comes down to the uneventful issue of supply and demand, so off to the secondhand market we go.
Lot 2242, Patek Philippe Reference 5307 (sold for [US] $1,655,209)
I wasn’t ready for the 5307, a platinum and diamond-set perpetual calendar tourbillon. I even let out an audible gasp over the phone to Rich. “THIS IS FACTORY SET?!” I screamed. I’ve seen diamond and sapphire set Nautilus bezels, but a baguette diamond set “Grande Complication” feels like a cut above the rest. I thought the diamond set Patek was a job solely for the aftermarket guys on 47th Street. High jewelry watches are my favorite kind of watch specimen, reserved for the super-wealthy and famous. They are a perfect hybrid of mechanical intelligence and stupidly expensive rare gemstones. They are Tutankhamun levels of regal.
The main takeaways
The more I got into things with Rich, the more this was beginning to feel like the watch fan’s equivalent of the Olympics. The auction starts at 2 p.m. HKT (2 a.m. EST) meaning people have to stay up late for the results. I'm not sure I have that same level of commitment to the cause, but this is a global market and competition is fierce, so serious bidders have no choice but to stay awake no matter the time zone.
Does all of this hysteria point to the fact we are living through [another] mechanical watch renaissance? The uptake in frenzy surrounding the preowned market and the steep rise in value of many iconic timepieces is pointing to a cultural wave of watch fandom. But for many people purchasing a high ticket watch, the functionality comes second to aesthetics. From a sociological standpoint, watches are the postmodern signifier of wealth. In the same way jewelry served as a status symbol for monarchs and clergy, a Rolex President distinguishes your high-earning “tastemaker” from your everyday millennial.
Rich and I finished our conversation on the topic of accessibility at auction. “You no longer have to feel intimidated by the retailer, you don’t have to worry about the salesperson judging whether you’re going to actually buy or not buy," he told me. "You can log on and see the collection of watches we have from every price point."
You also don’t have to go into this blind: you can usually preview pieces in the months leading up to an auction, and if you can’t make it to a physical viewing, there are specialists available for questions online or over the phone.
Sotheby’s offers two parts to their watch sales. Part one is important watches (live bidding with prices from 20k to sky’s the limit), and part two is fine watches (online bidding with watches at set no reserve and usually capped around $100,000). Part two sales go for two weeks so clients have enough time to do their due diligence; they can research items and contact specialists in the lead time.
While we can all marvel at the spectacle of a diamond-encrusted Nautilus going under the hammer for millions of dollars, this is no longer just a game for the one percent. Go forth I say, and start your journey at a moderate price point. Happy Bidding!