Acting in a consultancy role, Osvaldo Patrizzi recently supervised a number of auctions in China, including one in Beijing last December. He shares his impressions.
I opened up the Asian market in 1979 when I organised the first auction in Hong Kong. Thirty years later and I’m trailblazing in China, the new eldorado for watches. The country has virtually unlimited potential. It has a long tradition of timekeeping instruments, enthusiasm for clocks and watches keeps on growing, and the Chinese have the means to pay for what they want. Auctions are new to them. They see them as a game, a game where you need money to play. They’re buying a lot of Chinese furniture and objets d’art, for example. Watch auctions might still be in their infancy, they already promise great things in a powerful, long-term market. Billionaires, and there are new ones every month, are busy building their cultural heritage and, in doing so, playing an increasingly active role in the fine arts and fine watch segments.
The sale, which was organised by Poly Auction at the Beijing Asia Hotel, comprised 5,940 lots, for the most part Chinese artworks. It was held over five days and realised a total USD 720 million (CHF 668 million/EUR 557 million). A clock made in 1790 in Canton for an emperor of the Qing Dynasty went to a Chinese collector for USD 6.7 million (CHF 6,5 million/EUR 5,2 million) excluding commission. This richly decorated automata clock thus achieved the second-highest price ever at auction for a timepiece, after the famous Patek Philippe “Graves” pocket watch with 24 complications.
The 238 wristwatches, pocket watches and clocks that were included in the sale can be seen as a very encouraging trial run. They also confirmed Chinese buyers’ love of either very recent or genuinely antique timepieces, particularly pocket watches, and their lack of interest in vintage watches. Among the Swiss brands on offer, Patek Philippe dominated the sale with some 50 lots, followed by Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Breguet, Ulysse Nardin and Jaeger-LeCoultre. A number of Patek Philippes reached high prices, for example a rose gold tourbillon Ref. 3939HR dated 2008 (lot 5831), which went for USD 576,000 (CHF 559,000/EUR 445,000). This was well in excess of its high pre-sale estimate. Some fine Chinese-made lots also performed well. The audience was exclusively Chinese, except for myself and a Canadian gentleman.
Beijing and Shanghai have got the hang of auctions, and collectors are familiar with when and how to bid. Some are prepared to go a long way for something they really want. However, it’s a different picture elsewhere. When the first ever auction, with 140 lots, was organised in the town of Shenyang, whenever a bidder raised their hand, everyone else raised theirs too… which made the sale something of a struggle and explains the mediocre results. But the Chinese are fast learners.
It’s still not an easy market for Westerners, for three reasons: wariness of Europeans, a different mentality, and the language barrier. Despite this, I believe China holds immense promise for the future, provided we can build trust. For the moment, the auctions sector is developing across the different Chinese auction houses, and there are hundreds of them, hence it is still very much a Chinese affair. The buyer’s commission is set at 12% and the seller’s commission is negotiable.
I supply pieces that are likely to be of interest, in particular pocket watches from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries that were made in Europe for the Chinese market and which had left the country. I also provide all the essential historical information. The Chinese read a lot online. They know me for my many books on timepieces and for the thematic auctions I’ve organised in the past. This facilitates contact.
My objective for the moment is China. Having closed my offices in New York and Milan, I now only have representation in Geneva and Hong Kong. I may open something in Monaco, but at 65 years of age, I don’t feel like starting again from scratch. The truth is I’d like to only do what I enjoy, such as delve deeper into the history of watches and share the experience of 50 years in horological circles. And most importantly enjoy life!