From the Medici, famous patrons of Renaissance art, to the Rothschilds, the collector’s eye gives a fresh perspective on styles and eras. Nothing defines the collector more perfectly than his or her eye; the eye that uncovers rare objects and, guided by the individual’s taste, assembles them into the “provenance” that bidders at auction so love. For over a century, watch collectors have made their mark too, and certain collections are now conserved at some of the foremost museums in the world. Lifetimes are spent in search of the elusive item, driven by the passion that transforms that “first encounter” into an intense yet indefinable emotion; a passion fuelled by the desire for excellence.
Auctions have long been the most spectacular means by which collectors can acquire all manner of treasures, as well as be remembered for posterity. Examples from the past half-century include the sale of King Farouk’s collection in 1954, that of the Time Museum at Sotheby’s between 1999 and 2002, or the collection of Lord Sandberg in 2001 by Antiquorum, a delight for admirers of enamelled watches. All these sales have shown how the collector helps fashion the “eye” and the taste of future generations. Take the example of the Mondani Rolex collection, which went on the block at Antiquorum in 2005. The prices then realised by certain items fall short of even half the current market value, proof that collectors such as Guido Mondani, an authoritative author on Rolex, are indeed precursors.
The "complete" collector
Of course, the collector’s aura owes much to the amount of media attention auctions receive. On this note, special mention must go to Patek Philippe which holds virtually every record there is, including the highest price ever paid at auction for any watch, a distinction won at Sotheby’s Geneva in 2014 when the Graves Supercomplication fetched in excess of $23 million. Let’s dwell a second on the fabulous destiny of this complication pocket watch by Patek Philippe. If we had to choose just one collector from the last century, that place of honour could only go to the New York banker Henry Graves Jr. His name alone evokes the extraordinary achievement of Patek Philippe in building what was the most complicated watch ever made, between 1929 and 1933. Graves’ collection of wristwatches and pocket watches no doubt constitutes one of the finest chapters in the Geneva firm’s history.
How, though, can we define the collector? A unique individual? An inspiration for generations to come? Maurice Sandoz assembled one of the finest ever collections of watches and automata, documented in a catalogue which quotes Alfred Chapuis, himself one of the early twentieth century’s great collectors and historians, and his apposite definition of the horological collector and the experts that accompany him. “There are collectors whose technical knowledge, alongside their artistic taste, is sufficient for them to show an interest in the object as a whole, and to grasp its very essence. Certain are practitioners; others are willing to examine and to study. They are able to describe a clock or a watch from within, its spirit. We shall call them not ‘true’ collectors but complete collectors.”
While auctions remain the tip of the iceberg, the web is evidently what is driving the "e-collector".
Make way for the "e-collector"
Clearly, this all-important knowledge is now greatly facilitated by the internet, which has become not just a source of information but a channel for sales. Now everything is just a click away. Huge changes are taking place online for watch collecting, as e-commerce sites take the lead over auctions. Chrono24 and Hodinkee, among others, are driving sales for an auction market in search of new outlets. And for good reason: an auctioneer can hope to assemble just a few hundred connoisseurs whereas a website can attract thousands, if not millions of people. This hasn’t escaped the major auction houses which are now stepping up their online presence with initiatives such as Christie’s Watch Shop.
While auctions remain the tip of the iceberg, the web is evidently what is driving the “e-collector”. This tentacular network can make or break the most peremptory declarations, but can also give the collector wings. A search will inevitably, at some point, lead them to the watch of their dreams. And so we must reinstate the collector’s eye, for its crucial role in grasping the coming years’ trends, avoiding pitfalls, and leading us to the “perfect” collection!