The C&TH Guide To Watch Auctions
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The C&TH Guide To Watch Auctions

On the market for a watch? Our guide to the best investment pieces...

Investing in watches could be a canny move. But how to spot the best models in the business? Simon de Burton asks the experts. 

According to the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index published in March, watches (and wine) proved to be the equal best place to put your cash during the last quarter of 2021, with ‘average growth’ of 16 per cent. That figure certainly beats the still-measly interest rates being offered on savings by even the more generous banks – but does it mean that all you have to do to make your money grow is to buy a watch and sit back as its value outruns inflation? Er, no. And the reason is that such ‘indexes’ invariably fail to paint a full picture. True, certain watch models did soar in value throughout the pandemic, but many were driven by a combination of hype and lack of availability at retail – Rolex Daytona, Patek Philippe Nautilus, for example – while others were produced by ‘independent’ makers in minuscule numbers and were already way beyond the amount that any rookie collector would be willing to pay – George Daniels, Roger Smith, Philippe Dufour. Even if you add in a few other makes and models that soared in value (Rolex Oyster Perpetual with brightly coloured dial: Audemars Piguet Royal Oak; various Richard Mille references) the percentage of watches showing true ‘investment’ value compared to the myriad available – and, of course, the number that fall in value as soon as they leave the shop – is almost incalculably small. And if you got caught-up in all the hype and ‘went large’ on a Nautilus, Royal Oak or Daytona, you may now be licking your metaphorical wounds: according to a report published by industry news site WatchPro, the prices of some once red-hot models have now dropped to half what they were at their peak. The benefit of this cooling, however, is that it creates far more of a buyer’s market – but the question is, what to buy? To find out, we spoke to four people whose livelihoods depend on knowing the business inside out…

Experts weigh in on how to find a good investment at a watch auction

Danny Shahid

Danny Shahid is from the new generation of young watch dealers who buy, sell and source using social media channels. He, too, has a store in Burlington Arcade.

‘We really have entered a buyer’s market. In reality, prices haven’t fallen dramatically – what has actually happened is that many people who have been able to buy sought-after watches from authorised dealers (ADs) have discovered that people won’t pay hugely inflated prices, so they are being forced to offer them more realistically. That means it’s not entirely accurate to say the market has ‘gone down’, because those heavily over-priced watches were never going to sell in the first place. There is also a lot of talk about waiting lists at ADs and people being given preferential treatment because they are long-standing customers. I’m not sure I believe that now – it’s more to do with being in the right place at the right time, and I have seen many instances of that. Far from wanting to deter the ‘flippers’ [people who buy a watch at RRP and quickly sell it on for profit] I think the AD’s are actively encouraging them. My advice to anyone starting a collection would be to look towards true vintage pieces and, if they can afford them, genuine rarities. Independent makers such as F.P. Journe and MB&F should also be considered but, above all, condition is vital – don’t worry too much about boxes and paperwork. Worry about condition, originality and provenance. Don’t follow the crowd and don’t buy a watch simply because you see prices rising. Wait, and buy when the price goes back down.’

Adrian Hailwood

Adrian Hailwood has a wealth of experience in the watch business, having been the manager of a Breguet boutique before moving into the auction world with traditional firms such as Fellows, Dreweatts and Woolley & Wallis. In 2020, however, he was instrumental in setting-up online auction site, which promises a ‘fresh approach’ to buying and selling.

‘We have a blanket ban on the use of the word ‘investment’. That is because we don’t regard watches as investment vehicles, and we don’t want people to think that, because they buy a watch and see it rise in value,  they are therefore expert investors. If that happens, lovely. If not, the fact that you have bought something that you enjoy looking at, wearing and using and which you can probably leave as an heirloom should be regarded as your ‘return’. The idea of buying a watch simply because you think some mythical person in the future might want to pay more for it is depressing – it’s an old adage, but just buy what you love. In my opinion, the very best way to buy a watch is to completely ignore the name on the dial. Look at what you’re getting for your money, the fit, the finish, the material, the level of complication. Right now, I would say Vacheron Constantin is a make to look at – excluding the steel sports models which are having a moment in the sun – and, in particular, anything by Jaeger-LeCoultre. Cracking value at the moment.’

David Duggan

David Duggan is one of the most respected watch dealers in Europe, if not the world – he has been buying and selling top quality timepieces since the 1970s and his shop in Mayfair’s Burlington Arcade has become a mecca for discerning collectors on the hunt for the best of the best from a trusted source.

‘The market is definitely settling down and that comes as no surprise, because the values of certain watches had become so inflated that a correction had to happen. For that reason I would always advise people not to follow the crowd – if you are lucky enough to buy at a fair price before a watch becomes hyped, that’s great. Otherwise, look to the models that other people are ignoring. At the moment, I think Patek Philippe perpetual calendar watches and other complicated models look like very good value. They are made from precious metals and they are almost invariably rare, but they seem to have been left behind in the favour of the steel Nautilus and Aquanaut. As a general rule, I would always recommend people buy watches that need a lot of labour to create – and a perpetual calendar model in gold clearly takes a lot longer to make than a time-only Nautilus in steel.’

Paul Boutros

Paul Boutros has been collecting watches for more than 30 years and was appointed US head of watches for auction house Phillips in 2016. He has since overseen the sale of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona for $17.8m (the most ever achieved for a wristwatch at auction), the sale of Marlon Brando’s Rolex GMT-Master, worn in Apocalypse Now, for almost $2m and, last year, the charity sale of a new Patek Philippe Nautilus ‘Tiffany Blue’ for $6.5m.

‘The sector I always recommend considering is vintage – historically, vintage watches have returned slow, steady growth but have lately been overshadowed by the shift towards more modern, steel sports watches. As a result, vintage dress watches now seem hugely undervalued. Time-only Patek Philippe Calatravas from the 1940s to the 70s are exceptionally well made and offer tremendous watchmaking for the money. Likewise time-only Vacheron Constantin pieces are rare and beautifully made and designed. It’s important to remember, however, that tastes do change. The rectangular Rolex Prince, for example, was a collector’s favourite 20 years ago, but there has been a decline in interest for such shaped dress watches  – but a Prince in excellent, original condition is still a fabulous watch. Prices have levelled, too, for many Heuer models, although the best Monaco and Autavia pieces remain very sought after. When buying such sports watches of any make, I recommend looking for a minimum case size of 35mm.’ 

On 5 and 6 November, Phillips will  auction near-unique pieces such as a trio of George Daniels rarities headed by the one-off yellow gold Spring Case Tourbillon (over CHF 1m), remarkable Patek Philippe models including a unique, steel ref.530 chronograph from 1945 (CHF 500,000 – 1m), several rare Rolex Daytona Cosmographs with Paul Newman dials, including a 1969 ref. 6264 in yellow gold with famed ‘lemon’ dial (CHF 550,000 to 1.1m), and superb pieces from independents like Philippe Dufour, F.P.Journe and Vianney Halter. On view from 2 November,

The watches that sold at auction for mega-money

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The MB & F Starcruiser

The MB & F Starcruiser, on sale at Phillips Geneva in November for CHF 30,000 – 60,000.

Karl Lagerfeld’s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak

Karl Lagerfeld’s Audemars Piguet Royal Oak reached £771,000 at Phillips Geneva in May 2022.

Steve McQueen’s Heuer Monaco

Steve McQueen’s Heuer Monaco brought home $2,208,000 at Phillips in 2020.

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Complications Saatchi 175th Anniversary Limited Edition

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Complications Saatchi 175th Anniversary Limited Edition, £82,950 at Chrono24.

Richard Mille 27-04 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal

Richard Mille 27-04 Tourbillon Rafael Nadal, sold for CHF 1,663,500 at Phillips Geneva in November 2021.

Pilot Amy Johnson’s Longines Wittnauer Siderea

Pilot Amy Johnson’s Longines Wittnauer Sidereal, sold for £88,200 at Sotheby’s.

This article is from our Watches & Jewellery Collector’s Issue 2022. Buy here.