Even though it’s only half-way through the year in terms of sales, it’s been a phenomenal one for watches as a whole, bought both online and at live sales. These hybrid sales have been the real winners. At The May Spring Hong Kong (live evening) sale, the ‘Legends of Time’ smashed a few records, with private Asian buyers contributing to 80% of the total sales of $34,850,855. The Dubai Edit sale in March-April for Watches Online also had 558 participants from 37 countries, and became the biggest sale in the region (totalling $14.1million), and establishing the city as a global hub for collectible watches.
“The top lot sold online in the first half of 2021 was Lot 1 of the Dubai sale: a Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon (Ref. 5002P-001; manufactured in 2004), for $1,590,000, setting two records—for the most expensive watch sold at an auction in West Asia and for any watch sold online at Christie’s,” says Nitin Nair, associate specialist, watches department, Christie’s.
“We have been working on our online-only sale platform and digital tools since 2011, and this helped us respond quickly to market changes,” says Nair. In the luxury group alone, Christie’s held 49 online sales in 2020, a 100% rise from 24 in 2019.
“As far as global sales go, in the first half of 2021 we registered participants from 79 countries with a total of 3,700 registrants overall (an increase of 28% against the first half of 2020), of which 1,300 were new registrants, 35% higher than a year ago,” he adds. The market is also opening up to a younger and more diverse profile. In the first half of the season, 39% of buyers at the watch sales were new to Christie’s, of which 40% were under 40.
In four months (March to June), watch sales in Geneva, Dubai, Hong Kong and New York totalled $93.7 million, giving Christie’s the leadership position in the auction market,” says Nair. “This record performance during the first half of 2021 exceeds the whole of 2020 and 2019.” According to Christie’s data, more than one in two bidders in traditional sales (53%) also bid online. Out of these, 41% are based in APAC countries, 28% in the Americas and 31% in Europe, West Asia, and Africa.
Watches that are rare to find, extremely collectible and in excellent condition, tend to do well at the auctions. Provenance is another important factor—watches with an interesting history of ownership are extremely collectible. “Our New York sale featured a Patek Philippe Ref. 570 owned by Andy Warhol (an artist and an avid collector of watches) that sold well above its high estimate in June this year,” says Nair.
“Of the 1,681 lots (watches) offered in the first half of 2021, 40% sold above estimate and 92% of all watches were sold,” he adds.
Which are the watches that interest collectors the most? Vintage Rolex and Patek Philippe tend to be the most successful brands at auctions — by most estimates, the big two account for more than half of the value of the lots sold at auctions. But this year has also seen a lot of interest in Cartier, Audemars Piguet, and F.P. Journe, to name a few.
“Prices for collectible watches will always be determined by demand and supply,” says Nair, “Right now, discerning collectors are focused on acquiring F.P. Journe timepieces from the ‘brass period’. These watches (from 1999 to 2004) are powered by movements made from brass. (From 2004 onwards, Journe crafted his movements in 18k gold. It is estimated that around 2,000 of the early Journe timepieces were fitted with brass movements.)
The record-breaking May Hong Kong live sale turned up some real stunners, mostly from Patek Philippe. Leading the sales was a 1970 18k (carat) gold automatic perpetual calendar Patek Philippe wristwatch with English calendar, leap year indication and ‘no moon’ (Ref. 3448 ‘Alan Banbery’), which sold for $3,759,755. Other highlights included a 1949 18k pink gold world time Patek Philippe with a cloisonné enamel dial depicting the eastern hemisphere (it realised a price of $2,284,326), and the Patek Philippe 18k platinum world time wristwatch with 24-hour indication that went for $2,051,364. One of the rare pieces was the Piguet & Capt. perfume flask-shaped watch made for the Chinese market, which fetched $1,585,439.
One timepiece that did exceedingly well at Christie’s Rare Watches New York: Online, in April, is the Cartier’s Mystery Clock, Model A, which sold for $562,500.
Sometimes it is owning a piece of history from an enigmatic personality that is the draw. “A watch belonging to an icon like Andy Warhol sits at the intersection where both art collectors and watch collectors meet, so there was bound to be a lot of interest,” says Nair.
The Cartier Crash, launched in 1967, is a very rare and unusual watch that has performed consistently well at auctions. It sold for $137,500 in the New York sale. “The Crash is a good example of how design-forward Cartier has been with their watches,” says Nair. “Launched in 1967, it was first available at the Cartier boutique in London. The curved case is one of the most recognisable forms in the watch industry.”
Luxury steel watches from the 1970s are also highly prized, because at the time, theirs was a radical concept, since haute horology brands (the absolute finest of high watchmaking) only made classically styled watches in precious metals.
“The Patek Philippe Nautilus, along with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, are two watches that every entrant in the luxury steel sports watch category, are measured against,” says Nair. “These two watches, both launched in the 1970s at a time when the Quartz revolution was wreaking havoc among the traditional Swiss watchmaking firms, have gone on to become totemic models for the brands.
The first Nautilus model, the Ref. 3700 when launched in 1976, had a distinctive shape and at 42 mm, it was even bigger than the Royal Oak (which was 39 mm), and was way ahead of its time in terms of design. “It was an expensive watch even then, the advertisements for the Nautilus even carried the tagline, ‘One of the world’s costliest watches is made of steel,’” says Nair. “The Nautilus Ref. 5711, discontinued this year, is probably the most coveted luxury sports watch around with waiting lists that run into years,” he adds.
But the crown goes to Rolex, as far as wearable investments go. “It’s one of the world’s most-recognisable brands, and its sports watches — the Submariner, the Daytona, the GMT-Master models — are true tool watches,” says Nair. “These were timepieces purpose built for diving, or timing measurements in motorsport, or enabling pilots on long-haul flights keep track of different time zones. Collectors love the of the various dials, bezels, and features that vary so widely even for specific models.” That’s why the red and blue ‘Pepsi’ Rolex, the Daytona Big Red, and the Submariner Green do so well at auctions. “Much like the Porsche 911s, the design of Rolex watches has seen incremental changes over the years,” adds Nair.
A rare Rolex would be the triple calendar chronograph, a mid-century timepiece, nicknamed Jean-Claude Killy, because it was often seen on the wrist of the Olympic skier. “It remains the most complicated wristwatch ever made by Rolex — it combines a chronograph with a triple calendar — the dial shows the day, date, and month indication,” says Nair.
“The triple calendar chronograph was manufactured in small numbers between 1958 and 1964, and includes the references 4767, the 5036, the 6036, and the 6236. A Ref. 6036 sold at the Dubai Edit for $350,000 in March this year,” he adds.
As the world adapts to a new normal, auction house Christie’s too, has had its teams adapt to embrace digital sales amidst the live ones. During the pandemic, this meant answering queries from collectors around the world. “Since a lot of our clients were unable to come down, they trusted the specialists’ advice and we shared detailed information like condition reports, macro images of the watches, videos and so on,” says Nair. Moving forward, it’s the hybrid model that appears to be a clear winner — depending of course, on the location, and the collecting field.