Interview Thursday, June 7th 2012
A portrait of Julien Schaerer, managing director of Antiquorum Geneva since end 2010, fresh from the auction house's two spring sales, which garnered a total CHF 13.8 million.
Watch expert and auctioneer Julien Schaerer, now 37, already had a long career behind him, with Sotheby’s, Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, and Bonhams, when he joined Antiquorum in 2005. Cool, calm and collected, and impressively efficient, he admits to being in love with watches and Art Deco desk clocks, as well as vintage cars. An interview with a man who cultivates an art of living with the utmost simplicity.
When did your passion for watches begin?
Julien Schaerer, Managing Director, Antiquorum Geneva: At birth, because my father was a collector. My godmother gave me my first watch, an Enicar, when I was ten years old. I still have it. At 16 I started collecting Rolexes, saving every penny I had. This is also when I started assisting with watch auction previews at Sotheby's in my spare time. I built up my collection with Tudor watches and several Art Deco desk clocks. My dream, maybe an impossible one, is to own a Cartier mystery clock. They're so beautiful.
What do you like about your job?
Everything. There's contact with the customers, previews held all over the world, and the fact that every day I get to work with clocks and watches dating from 1650 to 2012. I'm constantly adding to my knowledge of the field by reading specialist magazines and visiting online watch forums at weekends. Then come the sales themselves, the culmination of several months' work.
What's your most powerful memory?
The sale of personal possessions of Mahatma Gandhi, in New York in March 2009. Pressure from the Indian government to call off the sale meant that until the very last second, we didn't know if we would be going ahead or not. We'd received death threats via the website, which meant we were given FBI protection. The room was packed and as you can imagine, emotions were running high. Estimated USD 20,000-30,000, Gandhi's wire-rimmed spectacles, Zenith pocket watch, leather sandals and bowl sold for an incredible USD 2.1 million. This shows how much bearing emotion has on auctions such as this.
And your greatest disappointment?
When in November 2010 in Geneva, five Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches belonging to Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to conquer Mount Everest, were removed from the sale. There was talk of pressure from the New Zealand government. In fact, these historic watches had been consigned to us by Sir Edmund's widow and second wife Lady June Hillary, but his children from his first marriage claimed rightful ownership. The day before the sale, the watches were withdrawn. They would have realised a very high figure for sure, maybe even a record. They're now in a museum in New Zealand.
How do you prepare for a sale?
First we valuate the items proposed by our clients, around 80% of which will be rejected. Of the remainder, two-thirds are from collectors who regularly buy and sell, and the rest from consignors who come to us in Geneva or at one of the valuation days we organise around Europe. I don't do any particular physical preparation for the marathon that lies ahead, bearing in mind a sale can last up to eight hours. Because my throat and voice will be under a lot of strain, I do start sucking throat sweets a couple of days before, and drink a lot of water. Adrenaline takes care of the rest!
Has the market changed a lot?
The Internet and specialist reviews mean clients and collectors are far better informed. They're aware of the value of items and know their history. As a result, they are more demanding as to quality, provenance and price. The market has grown steadily since the 1980s, with a few readjustments in 2008 before taking off again the following year. Right now the market is evolving fast and become highly selective. The finest lots are selling for their maximum price. The ones in the intermediate ground are fetching very decent prices, provided the quality is there. Chinese buyers have become more difficult, as we saw first-hand with pocket watches in May. As for supply, there's little room left considering that Christie's, Sotheby's and Antiquorum alone organise some twenty sales a year.
What about brands?
Patek Philippe has been leading the field for more than twenty years, with Rolex just behind. Nor is there any chance of toppling them, because they have the largest following among collectors. After them, among others, are Vacheron Constantin, F.P. Journe, Audemars Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre.
Any words of advice?
Don't rush in! It's better to buy a watch with a lower rating and be attentive to quality. Choose well, and its value will increase.
Which watch are you wearing?
A steel Rolex Daytona reference 6263, so part of the first series of this watch which premiered in the 1960s. ■
1975-2000 - Born in Morges, Switzerland, to an English mother and a Swiss father. Studied in Morges, Geneva and Boston, earning a BSBA in marketing
2000-2001 - Worked in advertising in New York
2001-2003 - Watch expert at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg
2003-2005 - European head of watches at Bonhams
2005-2007 - Watch expert at Antiquorum New York
2007-2010 - Director and auctioneer at Antiquorum New York
2010 - Managing Director, Antiquorum Geneva