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A new record for Rolex at auction

A new record for Rolex at auction

Friday, 17 May 2013
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Fabrice Eschmann
Freelance journalist

“Don't believe all the quotes you read online!”

“In life as in watchmaking, it takes many encounters to make a story.”

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5 min read

While Patek Philippe again claimed the most valuable lot at the spring auction session in Geneva, Rolex confirmed its ascension with a new world record at Christie’s. In contrast, several dozen lots went unsold.

A mixed bag is perhaps the best description of the spring session of auctions in Geneva, held May 11th, 12th and 13th, and this on more than one count. While several records and some strong results were seen for Rolex wristwatches, several others failed to find a buyer. This reflects reticence among bidders, particularly with respect to coloured watches whose authenticity can be difficult to prove. Eyebrows were also raised in the room among specialists who were surprised by the level of absenteeism among European investors and collectors. Nonetheless, this latest session produced impressive figures with a combined total for Sotheby’s, Antiquorum and Christie’s of some CHF 36.7 million. As for Auctioneers Dr. Crott, final results have yet to be published.

Leading the field

Taken individually, the Christie’s sale achieved CHF 21.57 million, followed by Antiquorum (CHF 7.97 million) and Sotheby’s (CHF 7.19 million). The three star lots for this session were, unsurprisingly, two Patek Philippe and a Rolex. The highly anticipated Reference 3448 by Patek Philippe sold at Christie’s for CHF 1,623,750, exceeding its pre-sale high estimate by more than CHF 200,000. This white gold, perpetual calendar wristwatch with moon phases, manufactured in 1981, features a leap year indication between 3 and 4 o’clock. Prior to this discovery, such an indication had only been known on perpetual calendar wristwatches manufactured by Patek Philippe as of 1982, when it was introduced on Reference 3450.

This detail was enough for it to squeeze home ahead of another Patek Philippe, Reference 5002, the most complicated wristwatch ever made by the Geneva Manufacture with 12 complications on two dials. Also known as the Sky Moon Tourbillon, this rare model found a buyer at Antiquorum for CHF 1,202,500, halfway between its low and high estimates. “Considering the specially ordered rose gold case, this watch could have sold for more,” commented Arnaud Tellier, founder of Tellier Fine Arts in Geneva.

The third most valuable sale concerned a Rolex split-seconds chronograph Ref. 4113. Officiating at Christie’s, Aurel Bacs brought the hammer down on this piece at CHF 1,107,750. In addition to being the second time a Rolex wristwatch has exceeded the one-million mark, this is also a new world auction record for the brand. The previous record for a Rolex wristwatch was for the same model, sold by the same auction house in the same city for CHF 1,035,000 in May 2011.

The highs

This spring session brought several more records, in particular for Rolex. At Antiquorum, the Rolex Ref. 6263 Gold Daytona Paul Newman with a prototype lemon-coloured dial and white markers almost tripled its low estimate when it fetched CHF 841,300. Under the hammer at Christie’s, a Submariner Ref. 6538 went for CHF 519,750, the highest amount ever paid for a model from this collection.

Of course, Patek Philippe is never far. The top lot at Sotheby’s was Reference 5029, a minute repeater wristwatch in a platinum hinged case, issued in 1997 as part of a limited edition of ten for the inauguration of the company’s new head office in Plan-les-Ouates. Estimated between CHF 350,000 and 450,000, it found a buyer at CHF 557,000. Alongside important vintage pieces, these auctions are indeed an opportunity for anyone with the necessary means to make a steal. For example, a Richard Mille RM025 in titanium and rose gold, the first ever Richard Mille dive watch and dated 2008, sold at Sotheby’s for CHF 227,000 (estimated CHF 180,000-250,000) compared with the recommended boutique price of CHF 586,500.

And the lows

While the hammer can come down at some unexpectedly high prices, auctions can be as much of a surprise for the lots that go unsold. A number of items that had every hope of inspiring bidders (see Geneva auctions: the relentless rise in the power of Rolex, HH Magazine, May 8th 2013) failed to seduce, such as an IWC Ingenieur SL from 1976, designed by Gérald Genta (estimated CHF 8,000-10,000) or, in a different vein, a vintage pocket watch made circa 1880 and signed William Ilbery (estimated CHF 120,000-180,000). Unappealing to today’s tastes or simply overestimated, for reasons hard to ascertain these lots sparked little enthusiasm.

Closer observation of unsold lots can sometimes reveal a common denominator, and this time Rolex is back in the spotlight. Despite some significant records for the brand during this spring session including, let’s not forget, the highest price ever paid for a Rolex at auction, several dozen lots left bidders cold, particularly ones with brightly coloured dials or straps. This can be attributed to the proliferation of so-called “customised” watches, adapted to buyers’ tastes by unauthorised companies and considered as counterfeits by the brand. To make matters worse, these items add to the already extraordinary diversity of models proposed by Rolex, which sells some 700,000 watches a year.

Christie's, lot 200. Extra-thin quarter repeater signed Hunt & Roskell, London. Unsold © Christie’s
Safe bets

Such a situation goes some way to explaining the relatively high proportion of unsold lots at Sotheby’s (24.4%) and Antiquorum (24.5%). Christie’s fared better with just 6% of lots unsold. The provenance of buyers may also have had its part to play in these half-hearted results. European buyers, who have a reputation as connoisseurs, were conspicuous by their absence with few making the trip to Geneva, despite the city’s central location in Europe. “It’s a tough market right now,” Arnaud Tellier observed. “Local buyers weren’t falling over themselves to place bids. Instead the sales were dominated by buyers from Asia, the Middle East, Russia and the United States.”

Could it be that European buyers had preferred Frankfurt where, as announced, Auctioneers Dr. Crott presented a carefully curated selection of vintage pieces. Lot 108, a gold pocket watch with an enamel miniature painting on the front and an enamel back, signed Jean Fazy & Fils, Genève, fetched EUR 260,000 (estimated EUR 66,000-80,000). The second highlight of the sale was a rectangular snuffbox in 20k gold, with engravings and enamel miniatures by the Parisian artist Pierre-Etienne Buron. It sold for EUR 230,500 (estimated EUR 160,000-200,000).

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