Hammer Time – The success of watches at auction

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Find out about the watch brands winning the bids across the world.

At the end of last year a collection of 4,300 Swatch watches sold for more than £4 million at auction, an incredible price for a hoard of plastic quartz watches. But luxury watch auctions have also been having a boom time as a revived passion for timepieces push prices up under the hammer, as Kathryn Bishop finds out.

When Swatch first appeared on the scene in 1983 as a slimline plastic watch of 51 components, it arrived just in time to save Switzerland’s watchmaking industry, which was struggling to compete with Japan’s determination to be the leader in all that was new and innovative in watchmaking technology.

The Swatch was revolutionary at the time of its launch: it was an affordable yet sturdy watch that was bright, fun and wearable day to day. Now, almost 30 years later, the brand remains fashionable and in demand. Its artistic collaborations have led to many exciting and playful watches, while its ongoing work with fashion designer Jeremy Scott and recent collaboration with world-famous photographer Rankin have been cause for celebration among fashion conscious trendsetters in 2011.

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At the end of November an auction was held in Hong Kong, selling of one of the vastest collections of Swatch timepieces ever recorded. The hoard of watches was known as the Blum Collection and had been built up since the early 1980s by Swiss businessman Peter Blum and his wife Linda Blum. Described as “passionate collectors” of Swatch watches, the couple amassed a total of 4,363 watches that sold at auction for a record £4.2 million by auction house Phillips de Pury & Co.

The collection included prototypes and many rare Swatches from the early 1980s, as well a number of designs by the famous 1980s artist Keith Haring. To draw attention to the sale, an exhibition of the Blum Swatches toured the world, drawing the attention of Swatch and watch enthusiasts in New York, London and Shanghai.

But it’s not just the novelty of a high-profile auction of plastic watches that is attracting bidders; luxury watch auctions are enjoying a boom time too. Judging by the final few months of 2011 it would seem that watch auctions are giving their jewellery counterparts a run for their money.

Phillips de Pury managing director Finn Schouenborg Dombernowsky says that watch auctions are growing following an increase in consumer interest in timepieces. “Watches have become more fashionable in the past decade,” he states.

Dombernowsky believes the success of the Blum Collection and watch auctions in general could be down to several factors. “[It may have been] initiated by Swatch in the 1980s, the Blum Collection, the increase in luxury brands producing high-end watches aligned with general increase in public appreciation of watches over the same period, or indeed a combination of all of these factors.”

He also argues the provenance of a particular timepiece or lot will make a difference to the eventual outcome and says that the Blum Collection, with its many rare and prototypes timepieces, teamed with how renowned Peter and Linda Blum are as watch collectors almost certainly boosted the sale price.

But Phillips de Pury is not the only auction house to be celebrating successful, large-scale collector-focused auctions.
At Bonhams in New York last month, 163 luxury watches including a Patek Philippe chronograph and rare 1960s Rolexes sold for a total USD $1.58 million (£1m), with the Patek Philippe model achieving a world record at auction with a top bid of $338,500 (£216,937).

Jonathan Snellenburg, director of watches at Bonhams, says the sale room was attended by an animated crowd. “We were pleased to have such an enthusiastic presence in the auction room as well as from online bidders,” he says. “A lot of interest was generated during our preview tour of highlights in Hong Kong which was reflected in our results.”

As with most jewellery or art auctions, the more unusual watch lots are the ones that get bidders’ attention and mean higher prices when the gavel falls. At the Bonhams watch auction a striking Ulysse Nardin automatic watch with a planispheric astrolabe achieved USD $27,500 (£17,600) while two Daytona Paul Newman Rolexes from the 1960s sold for a total £94,735.

Dombernowsky also found that a fever swept the room at the Blum Collection auction and the bidding escalated quickly, pushing many bidders out of the competition in the first few minutes. “As is often the case with auction lots of such value some potential bidders will not show their intentions or interest before the auction,” he says. “From the moment Simon de Pury started the auction for the Blum Collection, three bidders set a rapid and assertive pace for the bidding which may
have left behind some potential bidders altogether.”

In November Paris’ Artcurial auction house offered 565 Jaeger-LeCoultre timepieces at auction, retracing nearly 180 years of the brand’s history. It was dubbed the most important auction in Artcurial’s history and is said to have taken two years to orchestrate.

The Jaeger-LeCoultre auction achieved €1.9 million (£1.6m) representing 95% in terms of the lots’ value and again the more unusual timepieces such as military watches, those with hidden crowns and small clocks proved to be popular. One item, an Atmos Ambrolite clock, sold for €48,200 (£40,768), four times its estimate of between €10,000 and €15,000 (£8,470 and £12,700).

Evidently, demand for watch auctions appears to be on the rise. Artcurial, for example, says that the auction – its second dedicated to Jaeger-LeCoultre in eight years – was a “response to the demand of the brand’s fans and lovers of haute horlogerie”.

Online auctions also appear to be on the rise and rather uniquely Artcurial broadcast its Jaeger auction live via Twitter, uploading photographs to the social networking site, documenting the day.

Similarly Antiquorum, a specialist watch auctioneer based in Geneva, had more than 350 people register to bid online alongside the more traditional room-based and telephone bidders at its recent end-of-year sale.

Bids totalling USD $3.5 million (£2.24m) for modern and vintage timepieces were recorded that day. Charles Tearle, watch director for Antiquorum USA said that, at present, exceptional examples of timepieces are what draw bidders from around the world to its auctions, while Evan Zimmerman, Antiquorum’s president and chief executive, says that the auction house expects interesting watch auctions in 2012, including its first auction of the year based in Hong Kong and featuring a number of unusual Patek Philippe timepieces.

Whether watch auctions will continue to keep pace with the rate of success that jewellery auctions boast is something to keep an eye on in 2012. With the growth of the pre-owned market through the likes of WF&Co in the past six months in the UK, there is certainly scope for second hand and rare timepieces to achieve good prices at auction, making it a great time to buy and sell vintage watches.

This article was taken from the January issue of WatchPro. To read the magazine in full online, click here.

 

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