A blow-out month for watches

A changing market for watch collectors is putting new brands in the spotlight. Chris Carter reports

It has been a blow-out month for watch sales and the fun’s far from over. Christie’s and Sotheby’s in Geneva have sold CHF22.8m (£18.5m) and CHF15.2m (£12.3m) of collectable timepieces respectively. And Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo, a consultancy, stole the show with CHF68.2m (£55.2m) raised at its recent “Geneva Watch Auction: XIV”, almost doubling the previous record high for an auction total.

Several other records went along the way at the Phillips auction, including the highest price for a watch from an independent watchmaker – the Philippe Dufour Grande & Petite Sonnerie in yellow gold wristwatch sold for CHF4.8m (£3.9m). Watches by Omega, Roger Smith, and Christian Klings also all fetched record-high prices. All of the watches on offer found buyers – a rarity known in the auction world as a “white glove” event.

That could be because more are turning up, says senior consultant Aurel Bacs. “One sometimes wondered if the auctioneers weren’t on the tribune of a UN assembly, with 3,000 participants coming from 84 countries,” he said. “[It] felt from the rostrum that there is more volume and depth in the watch market than ever before, with competitive and active bidding coming in from all around the world.”

Collectors are also getting younger, notes Carol Besler in the Robb Report. Sotheby’s reported that 31% of its bidders were new faces, and 38% of the total were under 40 years. One effect of this demographic change is that what constitutes a “grail” watch, such as a Patek Philippe or a Rolex, is being redefined, with independent makers “starting to see soaring numbers”, some of which represent new designs.

What to bid for next

Patek Philippe “The Blue Royale” watch

© Phillips

Next up in the auction calendar this month is Phillips’ “The Hong Kong Watch Auction: XIII”, 25-26 November. The top lot is the unique Patek Philippe Ref. 3448/100 “The Blue Royale” platinum perpetual calendar wristwatch (pictured, top and above) with sapphire-set indexes and moon phases, from around 1973. Patek Philippe’s groundbreaking reference 3448 was first introduced in 1962 as the world’s first self-winding perpetual calendar wristwatch, a unique feature it claimed all to itself for the following 16 years. The watch for sale is the only known example to have sapphire-set indexes around the dial. It is expected to fetch HK$10m (£960,000). 

Another highlight from the sale is an auction debut for a Rolex Daytona reference 6241 yellow gold chronograph wristwatch with a “Paul Newman John Player Special” dial, known as “The French JPS”, from around 1968. One of the rarest Daytonas ever produced, it is valued at up to HK$9.4m (£900,000). On 27 November, in Hong Kong, Christie’s is auctioning a Patek Philippe split-second chronograph Ref. 1436 in yellow gold, made for US banker and watch collector Henry Graves Jr in 1946. It has been given a high estimate of HK$23.5m (£2.3m).

A watch for book lovers

1968 Omega Speedmaster Professional, owned by American novelist Ralph Ellison

© Phillips

A 1968 Omega Speedmaster Professional, reference 145.012-67 SP, worn by American novelist Ralph Ellison, will be auctioned in New York on 12 December with Phillips. Invisible Man was the only novel Ellison published in his lifetime, in 1952. In it, Ellison’s nameless narrator chronicles “the black experience in America of being ‘invisible’ to society at large – as if the black experience takes place in a parallel universe that only overlaps American society in acts of violence, oppression, and exclusion”, says Jack Forster on Hodinkee. The book is “one of the 20th century’s most revered works of American fiction”. 

And for lovers of literature, that only adds to the Speedmaster’s lustre. “Watches are terribly personal things,” says Gary Shteyngart in The Wall Street Journal. “How many times a day had Ellison looked down at the same dial and rushed toward an appointment, a dinner, a drink, or toward the humidor to light one of the cigars with which he was perpetually acquainted?”

Ellison owned the watch until his death in 1994, aged 81. The Speedmaster was resold in 2016, along with two other watches, at an auction in New York for $6,000. “That’s the sad part”, the watch’s consignor, collector Ted Walbye, tells Shteyngart. “If it was a major celebrity like Marlon Brando or Paul Newman, it would have so much cachet in terms of pop culture.”

For a watch owned by one of America’s greatest 20th century writers, you’d think it would command a high price, says Forster. But it carries an estimate of only $10,000 to $20,000. “It looks like there’s a chance that a Speedmaster with the most important literary provenance I can ever recall for a timepiece at auction might go for a song.”

Auctions

Going…

Check your change, says Marc Shoffman in The Sun. There are hundreds of online listings for rare Kew Garden-themed 50p coins, with some having sold for up to £700 on Ebay. The Royal Mint released 210,000 of the limited edition 50p coins, depicting the Chinese pagoda at Kew Gardens, in 2009 to mark the 250th anniversary of the Royal Botanic Gardens. Their rarity means they have topped the latest 50p scarcity index from tracking service Change Checker. By comparison, ten million Brexit 50p coins entered circulation last year, bearing the inscription “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations”. Other coins are also in demand. Last week, a rare Lord Kitchener £2 coin, from 2014, fetched £1,200. 

1882 “no H” penny

© Baldwin & Sons

Gone…

Rumours of the existence of a mint condition “no H” penny from 1882 had circulated among coin collectors for over a century, says David Brown in The Times. Some called it a myth. The Victorian penny’s (pictured) allure stems from a peculiarity in its design. Almost all pennies struck that year came from the Heaton Mint in Birmingham and featured an “H” for Heaton below the Britannia emblem. But a small number of “no H” pennies were also minted in London, with somewhere between 16 and 50 thought to exist. Most are in “fair condition”. However, in the summer, an elderly collector appeared at London auction house Baldwin & Sons, bearing the mint condition penny. It sold last week for £37,200. 

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