It was worth the wait. Christie’s former saleroom star, who had virtually dropped off the radar these past eighteen months, returned to the rostrum at Phillips on May 9th and 10th in Geneva, when he presided over the inaugural sales by the Anglo-American firm’s brand-new watch department. Aurel Bacs sealed his return to business (see below) with an extraordinary total of almost CHF 30 million, far outclassing the competition whose results – CHF 6.5 million at Antiquorum, CHF 9 million at Sotheby’s and CHF 15.5 million at Christie’s – pale in comparison. The impressive debut by this latest-comer to the watch auction scene was the highlight of the Geneva spring session. Never before has the balance of power shown such marked contrasts, clearly revealing, in the light of an irresistible strategy, the weaknesses of some and even the decline of others.
A dominant force
A single comparison suffices: over the course of this spring session, a total of 1,434 lots changed hands for CHF 60.7 million, or CHF 42,000 per lot on average. Per auction house, this average came to CHF 19,500 for Antiquorum, CHF 38,700 for Sotheby’s, CHF 52,200 for Christie’s and… CHF 103,000 for Phillips. Despite offering half as many lots as Antiquorum, Phillips realised a five times greater total. The number of lots that failed to find a buyer is another unmistakable sign: 33% at Antiquorum (168 out of 504), 30% at Sotheby’s (99 out of 332), 5% at Christie’s (17 out of 314) and just 2.5% at Phillips (7 out of 284).
Estimated CHF 1-2 million, it fetched CHF 4.645 million, setting a new record for a steel wristwatch sold at auction.
These figures highlight the extremely aggressive and efficient commercial strategy that Phillips has put in place. First, the number of lots. Aurel Bacs has repeatedly expressed his annoyance at the inflated amount of lots crossing the block. Unlike certain competitors, he chose to reduce their number to less than three hundred, with only high quality pieces making it through the stringent selection. The third ingredient in this recipe for success is the mix. Historic museum pieces, let it be said, are not Phillips’ speciality. Elsewhere, Rolex accounts for between 15% and 28% of lots; at Phillips the proportion climbs to a whopping 69%. Add the 16% of Patek Philippe, and the two powerhouses of global watch auctions accounted for 85% of the items proposed. Ingredient number four is clever staging. The session was divided between two evening sales, both short and to the point, including one dedicated to 60 examples of the Rolex Day-Date. An unusual dynamic, calculated to keep sales moving at a brisk pace. One last detail, not to be overlooked: both Phillips catalogues allocate a double page to each watch with numerous close-ups, when others group three watches per page. This was, many said, the best presentation they had seen in a long time.
Four lots over a million
This war machine is primed for battle, with Phillips (unsurprisingly) claiming the highest-selling lot of this spring session, namely one of the two known examples (the other is in the Patek Philippe Museum) of a Patek Philippe steel monopusher doctor’s chronograph with pulsometer from 1927 (lot 123). Estimated CHF 1-2 million, it fetched CHF 4.645 million, setting a new record for a steel wristwatch sold at auction. Three other watches broke through the million Swiss franc mark at Phillips: a 1948 Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 in pink gold with perpetual calendar, chronograph and moon phases went for CHF 1.445 million (lot 165, est. CHF 800,000-1.4 million); a steel Rolex Cosmograph “Albino” chronograph from 1971, formerly owned by Eric Clapton, flew off the block at CHF 1.325 million, the highest price ever paid for a Rolex at auction (lot 214, est. CHF 500,000-1 million); and a very rare, 1953 pink gold triple calendar with moon phases by Rolex went for CHF 1.001 million (lot 118, est. CHF 250,000-450,000). Of the other auction houses, only Christie’s managed to squeeze past the million mark with a platinum Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002P with twelve complications, manufactured in 2006. It realised CHF 1.085 million (lot 136, est. CHF 800,000-1.3 million).
The atmosphere was equally electric at the “Glamorous Day-Date” sale. In just over two hours and a buzzing saleroom, all sixty Rolex found buyers for CHF 6.2 million, which gives an average of CHF 103,000 each. The highest price was for a 1958 model known as “Big Kahuna”, one of just two made in platinum. At CHF 473,000, it set a new world record for a Rolex Day-Date at auction (lot 43, est. CHF 100,000-200,000).
The other houses failed to match this cut and thrust: half-empty salerooms at Antiquorum and Sotheby’s, and only a handful of lots exceeding their estimate at Christie’s which did sell, to the Audemars Piguet Museum, an exceptionally rare yellow gold minute repeater, reference 5528, from 1951 for the tidy sum of CHF 605,000 (lot 204, est. CHF 150,000-250,000). Watch auctions, if not in the world then at least in Geneva, appear to be cruising at different speeds. From everyday bidding on pre-owned watches to the millions paid for rare pieces destined for wealthy collectors, there is now something for everyone… at every price.