Watch auctions are widely seen as a reliable indicator of the state of the sector as a whole, and 2020 was no exception. As reported by The Mercury Project, sales by the five main houses – Antiquorum, Bonhams, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s – realised CHF 316 million (including buyer’s premium). This is 19% down year-on-year or roughly the decline in Swiss watch exports (-21.8%) for the same period. The number of watches sold fell by a smaller amount, down -10% with 9,400 lots sold at an average price of CHF 33,600. After disastrous first and second quarters (-28% and -59% in value compared with 2019), business more than picked up in the third quarter (+259%) but failed to maintain this momentum for the final quarter 2020 (-19%).
This underperformance is despite the best efforts of the big five auction houses, which organised 189 sales in 2020 compared with 66 the previous year. Sotheby’s alone hosted 129 online sales, accounting for a large part of the 260% surge in total value for this channel at CHF 64.7 million. However, this wasn’t enough to offset the 32% drop in live sales which fell to CHF 251.3 million. These in-person sessions remain focused on Geneva which, despite losing 15% in 2020, is still the main city for watch auctions, outpacing Hong Kong by some ten million Swiss francs and ahead of both New York and London.
Phillips stole the top spot from Christie’s, realising a total CHF 122 million in 2020 (+11%). This took its market share from 28% in 2019 to 39%. The remaining four big names all reported a fall in business: Sotheby’s (-15%), Bonhams (-21%) and Antiquorum (-34%). Christie’s took the biggest hit at -43%. Phillips can thank a carefully curated selection of fine quality timepieces from leading names. It also ramped up its digital innovations with customer experiences geared towards the millennial market. As a result, the auction house achieved an average price per lot sold of CHF 105,000. This is virtually triple that of its closest competitor. In Christie’s defence, at its 2019 Only Watch sale it auctioned the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A-010 for a phenomenal CHF 31 million; a figure that would have been hard to match in 2020.
Twenty-two of the watches crossing the block in 2020 exceeded CHF 1 million, making CHF 42 million in all or 13% of total sales. Unsurprisingly, Patek Philippe is firmly ensconced at the top. Its name was on the dial of 13 of these watches. Rolex came second with four watches. This left one (or two) each for Heuer (6th place), Breguet (8th), F.P.Journe (12th and 20th) and Philippe Dufour (13th).