Auctions tend to be passion-fuelled events with a healthy shot of adrenalin thrown in, frequented by collectors bidding according to well-established codes. In the watch sector, these collectors are hardly legion but their number is growing. This is partly a consequence of the booming pre-owned market, which acts as a springboard towards the auction world, but also because “collector-itis” is catching…. and one of the ways it spreads is through specialist auction houses that are making their voice heard further and further afield. Phillips is one of them. Since the inaugural Geneva Watch Auction One in 2015, its sales have gone through the roof. In a pandemic-stricken 2020, Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo achieved a sale total of US$ 133 million. This is 20% up on 2019 and the highest ever annual total for a watch auction house.
This year promises more of the same for Phillips Watches Department, led by Aurel Bacs. In May, The Geneva Watch Auction: XIII “white glove” sale totalled CHF 38 million (US$ 42.3 million). The 233 lots included a Patek Philippe reference 2523 that went for CHF 7 million (US$ 7.8 million): the highest price ever for a yellow gold wristwatch at auction. The same sense of excitement galvanised bidders at The Hong Kong Watch Auction: XII. Another “white glove” sale, the 311jlots raised US$24 million, including a string of record-breaking prices. “Human interaction is a vital aspect of our profession,” notes Arthur Touchot, head of digital strategy at Phillips. “At Phillips, this begins with the personality of Aurel Bacs and extends into our team of specialists. These days, anyone with an interest in watches thinks they are an expert. Our role is to arbitrate this knowledge and, as an authority, provide real added value.”
The auction house is clear about the direction it is taking. “Of the 10,000 or so watches we are offered for consignment each year, we select only 1,200 for our various sales. We have no intention of increasing the number of watches we sell. On the contrary. We look for quality, which means rare watches in excellent condition. That the auction market has performed well in recent months reflects this tendency. The explosion in the price of certain collector’s watches also confirms that we are right to only present timepieces that should be considered as veritable works of art. Last year, for example, we staged highly successful cross-category sales that offered watches alongside contemporary art, jewels and design.”
These two online-only sales, the 2,300 online bidders at the last Spring season sale in Geneva and an online showroom for the auction house’s vintage watch boutique leave no doubt that Phillips has fully embraced the digital transition. “We started to develop a real online strategy in 2016 with the aim of become more visible online,” says Arthur Touchet. “Since then, Phillips has gradually and continually grown its online presence and now has a dedicated online team. Of course, there is no question of ending live sales. These will always be events in our calendar. At the same time, Phillips clearly intends to develop an online service as an effective and professional alternative. Collectors are no longer constrained by borders. They expect to be able to gather information and take part in a sale [anywhere in the world] through the channel of their choice. Online must be one of those channels. A practical, comfortable and trusted solution.”
So much for the infrastructure. What about the watches that will be crossing the block in the future? With some 600 brands on the market, and as buyers expand their horizons beyond the “old favourites” of Patek Philippe and Rolex to take in other storied names as well as the independents, the outlook for watch auctions is bright.