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Mixed fortunes for the Geneva auctions
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Mixed fortunes for the Geneva auctions

Monday, 16 November 2015
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Pascal O. Ravessoud
Watch specialist and collector

“Luxury is the absence of constraints.”

“Watches, watches and more watches. Knowledge feeds on immersion and passion”.

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6 min read

Each spring and autumn, for one week the capital of Swiss watchmaking becomes the capital of auction sales. An unusually warm November sunshine welcomed bidders to the latest sessions. Phillips presided over two sales: the now famous Only Watch and Two. Antiquorum was also present, along with stalwarts Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the latter for its unique History of Swatch Design.

The scene was set for this twice-yearly ritual. The economy being what it is, observers were eager to see what signal the auction market would send; a market that represents barely a few percent of global watch revenue yet remains a showcase for high-end brands and an important vehicle for their image. Results, as it turned out, went in all directions.

Only Watch, launched in 2005 as a fundraiser for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, confirmed it is a one-of-a-kind event for one-of-a-kind modern watches. Each year brands rival with imagination, and with the 44 lots in the sale garnering more than CHF 11 million in all, the 2015 edition was clearly a huge boost for the charity in question, Association Monégasque Contre les Myopathies, but also for those brands whose timepieces exceeded their pre-sale estimate, such as Laurent Ferrier, Louis Vuitton, Urwerk and François-Paul Journe.

The real stars of the show, however, were elsewhere. Patek Philippe, unsurprisingly, was one. More surprising is the price fetched by its very lovely Reference 5016 Grande Complication, a unique tourbillon, minute repeater and perpetual calendar in steel. It sold to an English buyer (apparently) for over ten times its estimate at CHF 7,300,000. Quite simply the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch at auction. It alone accounted for three-quarters of proceeds from the sale.

Vente de charité Only Watch : la Tudor Heritage Black Bay One s’est envolée pour CHF 375’000

Back in the spotlight in recent years, Tudor came with its one-off piece: a Heritage Black Bay One that reprises the design of the Tudor Submariner from 1954. It has a specific bezel, crystal, dial and hands compared with the series-produced Black Bay, making it a highly anticipated lot among collectors. Given that it is the only one-of-a-kind watch ever made by Rolex and/or Tudor, expectations were high for it to go above its estimate of CHF 3,500-4,500. Even so, at almost 120 times the pre-auction estimate, the final price of CHF 375,000 amazed everyone. A result worthy of the event and all for a good cause!

Phillips’ sale, The Geneva Watch Auction: Two, confirmed “Magic” Aurel Bacs’ incomparable talent for assembling an outstanding catalogue. Such an impressive collection in both number and quality, and the presence of seasoned collectors ready to snap up the most exceptional lots at prices that bear no resemblance to any other type of context, generated a total CHF 28 million, with 95% of lots sold. Collectors were particularly drawn to the most outstanding pieces in terms of rarity and quality, including the highlight of the sale. Lot 169, a Patek Philippe split-seconds chronograph Reference 1436 in steel from 1945, one of only two known examples, went for CHF 3.3 million.

These figures made for a stark contrast with the rest of the week’s sales whose catalogues were unable to rival with that of Phillips and which, though certainly prolific, fell somewhat short of previous results.

Rarity and provenance, inscriptions that render the item unique, or an unusual history.

Here again, there was a definite tendency to focus on lots with a particular point of interest, be this rarity and provenance, inscriptions that render the item unique, or an unusual history. Examples include a Vacheron & Constantin pocket watch from 1945 depicting the Shah of Iran, estimated at CHF 8-12,000 and selling for CHF 50,000 (lot 153, Sotheby’s); a fine Audemars Piguet chronograph with complete calendar, manufactured in 1942, estimated at CHF 80-140,000 and selling for CHF 353,000 (lot 84, Christie’s), and a 1937 Omega Aviator, estimated at CHF 8-12,000 and selling for CHF 43,750 (lot 8, Antiquorum).

For many other items of more “ordinary” provenance, in less than impeccable condition, or lacking any particular interest, the hammer hit the rostrum at a much lower price, sometimes even failing to make the reserve. The same fate awaited many of the modern watches on offer. A full-set steel Rolex Daytona from 2008 is a striking example. Estimated between CHF 8,000 and CHF 12,000, it failed to find a buyer… a turn-up for the books, considering this was for many years the most sought-after sport watch.

After climbing to dizzying heights, the market for vintage Rolex watches now appears to be slowing down. Such icons as the single and double red, certain GMT models and even some Daytonas fell within their estimated price range, in certain cases towards the lower end. Only a handful of Daytonas went above estimate, and sometimes only by inches. The times they are a-changin’?

It has earned the esteem of serious collectors.

Other brands fared better. Universal Genève, which is creeping back into the spotlight, Angelus and certain Heuer watches managed to produce satisfactory results while Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms confirmed it is the star of dive watches. Note also a strong performance by the various Vacheron Constantin watches offered up for sale, at Phillips in particular, and those from Piaget, especially the 1970s women’s watches that have become a hallmark of the brand. Among the more contemporary pieces, François-Paul Journe showed that it has earned the esteem of serious collectors.

The History of Swatch Design at Sotheby’s presented four thousand items combined into one single lot that traced Swatch’s different styles throughout the 1980s. They included technical drawings, prototypes and over a thousand watches from the collection of Marlyse Schmid and Bernard Muller, the two designers who were instrumental in the brand’s artistic development. It sold for CHF 1,330,000.

Planet Watch has reinvented itself more than once !

What could be seen as an underperformance can be partly explained by the lack of Asian and Russian bidders. This new state of affairs reflects the delicate situation within major markets that were, until recently, still extremely active. And so it appears that the spread of economic slowdown is affecting not just sales of new watches, but auction results too. How much this trend digs in will be seen at the next session’s sales.

In the meantime, satellite initiatives are emerging with the launch of online watch stores, including at Antiquorum and Christie’s, and the arrival of new players such as Iconeek (www.iconeek.com) whose catalogues of less “out of the ordinary” models, more affordable prices and lower commissions could well provide an interesting alternative.

Planet Watch has reinvented itself more than once; there can be no doubting that this time, as always, it will bounce back.

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