By now most of us are preparing for the summer break and finally find the time to think about and analyze the state of the market for fine and rare collectors watches. First of all, I can hardly remember an auction season that has been so eagerly anticipated as the series of sales that took place in Geneva this past May. Not only were there really amazing and über-rare watches on offer (and also many not so good ones…) but for the first time there were four auction houses wanting a piece of the cake. Besides Antiquorum, Christie’s and Sotheby’s (in alphabetical order), Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo made its debut in the arena.

Let me start with the good news first: in terms of participation, sell-through rates and results, it was one of the most successful and animated seasons ever, with over US $ 60 million of sales and a number of new all-time world-records established. Many insiders who carefully studied the catalogues expected such positive results but a large number of players also wondered if the market was hungry enough to absorb the large number of watches on offer. Also, some observers asked themselves if the absolute number of watches coming to the auction market every season wasn’t too limited to properly fill four auction catalogues and hence diluted the quality of the sales.

Then, late April, some two weeks before the Geneva auctions, my dear friend, well-informed market observer and Hodinkee founder Ben Clymer asked openly in an article “Is now the best time to buy a 2499, or the worst?”, opening Pandora’s box and prompting one of the most animated discussions, on-line and off-line, about the state of the market. Unusually, the four auction houses each offered a Patek Philippe reference 2499/100 for sale, the last generation of the venerable manufacturer’s all-time legendary model. Would this be good or bad for the market? Were their enough bidders out there to bid, and to bid strongly, on all four of the watches? Opinions varied, with some saying that this is the beginning of the end, while others suggested that it is always good to buy a 2499, regardless of the circumstances.

Patek Philippe

Patek Philippe Ref. 2499/100 Fourth Series retailed by Tiffany & Co, sold by Antiquorum for CHF 471,750. © Autiquorum

With delight I can report that all four watches sold, and sold well above their estimates. Antiquorum sold their Tiffany-signed example for CHF 471,750 (estimated at CHF 300,000/500,000). Phillips achieved even more with the Beyer-retailed specimen fetching CHF 533,000 (against the same presale estimate). The next day Christie’s achieved a highly appropriate CHF 650,000 (against an estimate of CHF 400,000/800,000) for their mint example and lastly Sotheby’s sold their Gobbi-signed example for CHF 382,000 (against an estimate of CHF 200/400’000). Certainly, the four watches weren’t identical in terms of condition and completeness but with an average price of over CHF 500,000, one should rather think of all time record levels than crisis! It shows that the appetite for fine and rare vintage watches is greater than ever before and the political turbulences around the world aren’t stopping collectors from pursuing their passion. In fact, it is rather the contrary.

Consequently, we have seen at all auctions the same pattern. The greatest pieces were fiercely fought over by the world’s leading collectors and dealers while the average (and below-average…) quality struggled to reach the low estimate or even failed to sell. This may appear as bad news – but actually it isn’t. As mentioned in my past articles, collectors around the world are very well informed and do their homework before bidding. Since the offerings at the four auction houses weren’t at the same level of quality, we have seen mixed results. In terms of performance, we could observe sold-rates going from anywhere around 70% to close to 100%! Also, the different propositions meant that the sale totals and average lot values couldn’t be more different: Ranging from less than CHF 7 million (Antiquorum) in global sales with an average lot value of less than CF 20’000 to Phillips with sale totals at some CHF 30 million, averaging at over CHF 140’000 per watch!

The other good news is that we have seen beautiful results across the board, regardless of the maker, model, vintage or price level, showing it is no longer the classic “Federer-Nadal-Wimbledon-style final” between Patek Philippe and Rolex. Certainly, there were some results which stunned the market, be it the CHF 4.6 million paid for the spectacular stainless steel Patek Philippe single-button chronograph (Phillips) or the Audemars Piguet minute repeating wristwatch at Christie’s fetching over CHF 600’000. The new world-record for any Rolex ever sold at auction, the ex Eric Clapton “Albino” Daytona selling for over CHF 1.3 million (Phillips) made headlines but the General MacArthur Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso at Antiquorum reaching CHF 87’500 was a memorable moment, too. The pattern is always the same: collectors are seeking quality, expressed by condition, rarity, originality, provenance and freshness to the market.

Patek Philippe

1927 Patek Philippe single button chronograph, sold for CHF 4,645,000 by Phillips. © Phillips

Also antique (pocket-) watches enjoyed a solid performance with many notable results, demonstrating that we are not only looking at a phenomenon linked to wristwatches.

Certainly, Rolex continues to be the hottest name in terms of audience, as demonstrated by the themed Glamorous Day-Date Auction staged by Phillips where an exceedingly rare example in platinum (Ref. 6612 from 1958) fetched CHF 473’000, setting a new absolute world-record for any Day-Date ever sold at auction. But when looking at the top-ten lists published by the auction houses, one can spot a number of other names, showing that the market is more varied and open-minded than ever before.

So, we have all the good reasons to look forward to our summer holidays and expect an even more interesting fall auction season, as I expect all players (sellers, buyers, dealers and auction houses) will do their analysis and adapt their strategies to this 2015 reality – already understood by some, by others maybe soon.