The appeal of vintage timepieces

Space Traveller I © Sotheby's
The Space Traveller I fetched £3.6m at Sotheby’s in July

Collectable watches can sell for millions of pounds. The crucial factor determining the price is the story behind them. They often belonged to someone famous or were produced by a renowned watchmaker.

Very few owners of collectable watches are serving European astronauts. But all serving European astronauts are owners of collectable watches – or of at least one, to be precise. Sign up to fly with the European Space Agency and you will be presented with a standard-issue Omega Speedmaster Skywalker X-33. That’s a nice perk.

These Swiss-made titanium beauties normally cost £4,260. The longer Britain’s Tim Peake holds on to his, the more it will be worth. The value of vintage watches has risen by 73% over the last decade, according to the Knight Frank “Wealth Report 2019”.

In fact, the relationship between space and Speedmasters goes back much further than that – the astronauts of the Apollo 11 lunar mission 50 years ago, who became the first men to walk on the moon, were also wearing Speedmasters. Omega celebrated the historic event this summer with a run of limited-edition 18-carat gold Speedmaster Moonwatches.

The late, great British watchmaker George Daniels had also been inspired by the moon landing, creating the Space Traveller pocketwatch in 1982. So upset was he after selling it, he decided to make a second. No wonder. The original, Space Traveller I, fetched £3.6m at Sotheby’s in July.

Wear and tear adds value

But what if you should ding your watch on the International Space Station, or a passing asteroid? That’s no great bother – just so long as you don’t give in to the temptation to polish out the scratches.

Collectors actually like the tell-tale signs of wear and tear that hint at the stories behind them. Like jewellery, watches are very personal items. It’s the same with the parts. Watches that have been overzealously restored can shed their value. “I have had to tell [collectors] the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytonas they purchased for hundreds of thousands of dollars were previously relumed and worth less than half of their purchase price”, says expert Eric Wind in the Robb Report. “So it’s imperative to enquire about the dial, hands, bezel, movement and even the case before taking the plunge.”

A case and movement with mismatching serial numbers, for example, is a big red flag. It also helps to have the original box, bill of sale, and even photographs of the watch’s previous owners wearing it. There is a great photo of actor Marlon Brando wearing his Rolex GMT-Master during the filming of Apocalypse Now (1979).

The watch is going up for auction as part of the Game Changers sale with Phillips in New York on 10 December. Brando even scratched his name into the back of it, which, again, is now an important part of the watch’s story. It is expected to sell “in the six figures”.

Where to find them

Vintage watches can be picked up at any number of auctions held throughout the year. Phillips is one such specialist. While many of their sales are held in Geneva, you can, of course, bid online.

It was in Geneva in May that Phillips sold the “lost” Vacheron Constantin minute repeater with retrograde calendar, otherwise known as the “Don Pancho”. Revered by collectors for being, as Phillips put it, “a technical feat and masterpiece of human genius”, it sold for staggering CHF 740,000 (£583,000). But at the same two-day sale, you could have picked up a stainless steel Rolex Cosmograph Daytona for a little over £15,000.

There are also some reputable online watch sellers. Maidstone-based Watchfinder is perhaps the best known in Britain. It was bought by Swiss luxury goods group Richemont last year for around €200m. Chris Hall in Wired magazine also highlights Chronext and Chrono24. The burgeoning market in vintage watches has even given rise to watch funds. These are, of course, completely unregulated. But while certainly risky, they can be an interesting way to gain access to wide range of beautiful vintage watches.

The Watch Fund, for example, was founded in 2013 by Dominic Khoo, a former valuation expert at specialist auction houses Antiquorum and Spink. For a minimum $250,000 investment, you get access to the fund’s collection of watches. There is no membership cost, but there are 5% purchase fees, in addition to a performance fee of either 10% of profits or 5% of the total sale price, depending on which is higher. Since the fund’s inception, investors have seen “double-digit returns”,  Khoo told  The New York Times in March.

If you choose to buy a new collectable watch from a retailer, you will want to hold on to it for some time in order for the watch to appreciate enough to compensate for the mark-up applied when you bought it. Or you could simply become an astronaut, and receive one for free.