If New York’s boroughs were to start issuing dress codes, the one for Park Avenue would have tailored suits, crisp shirts and ties as de rigueur. What the well-dressed crowds passing, without so much as a glance, in front of Phillips auction house on this late October afternoon didn’t realise is that horological history was about to be written inside its four walls. Once through the door, sartorial stereotyping became more of a challenge, given the heterogeneous group of watch fanatics milling around. One young man, barely out of his twenties, was taking a wrist selfie in front of the Porsche that Paul Newman drove in his racing heyday. At the other end of the room, a woman was laughing loudly at an older gentleman’s bons mots. He sported a bespoke grey suit. She’d gone for a white evening gown as the backdrop for a scintillating diamond necklace. Elsewhere, a forty-something guy in sweatshirt and jeans chatted with friends in Italian. Nothing, it seemed, could have assembled such a group of very different people except the passion that had brought them there. And the burning question on everyone’s lips: how much would it sell for?
Ascending the staircase to the inner sanctum, attendees stopped to pick up the sale catalogue; a surprisingly hefty tome for the 50 lots about to cross the block – or not, considering each was an icon in its own right, hence the comprehensive essays and detailed condition reports filling the almost 170 pages. The most eagerly anticipated of them all, the subject of every conversation, accounted for some 25 pages alone. Not that there was time for closer inspection as we squeezed through the door into the “arena” where the evening’s other star, auctioneer Aurel Bacs, was about to work his magic. Row upon row of transparent chairs had “reserved” signs pinned to them. It was standing room only at the back, where the capacity crowd jostled for a better view, eager for the first lot, a 1970 Heuer Monaco, to set the ball rolling. An unreal atmosphere descended on the room. Voices dropped to a whisper, lights were dimmed.
A before-and-after moment
Aurel Bacs made his grand entrance to thunderous applause. He addressed a few words to the Newman family, who were in the room, and thanked them for their trust. Then, without further ado, he began proceedings. The Heuer sold for $42,500. More lots followed in quick succession, the audience bursting into salvos of excited applause at each thud of the gavel. The best, however, was yet to come. The room fell silent. The atmosphere was suddenly solemn. Aurel Bacs, who seemed almost moved by the moment, announced lot 8: Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona. A film tracing its history whetted bidders’ appetite, and we were off. Let battle commence! Bacs barely had time to announce the $1 million absentee bid in the books before one of the specialists at the phone banks was shouting out “ten million”. It took even Bacs a few seconds to regain his composure. And suddenly it was no longer a bidding war but a duel between two collectors on the phones, who pushed the price up million by million until the hammer sealed the final announcement: $15.5 million!
Needless to say, once the tension subsided the following lots didn’t have quite the same flavour. There was only sporadic applause, audible chatter among spectators, and the room began to empty, although enough people stayed behind to witness the last, and certainly not least, lot of the evening: a Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 which fetched $975,000. Walking back down Park Avenue in the dark of night, it felt as though some noticeable shift had taken place in the watch-collecting world. New records aren’t set every day, and certainly not of this calibre. The next probably won’t be for some considerable time. Unless, that is, Aurel Bacs turns up another watch that will set the saleroom alight.