There’s nothing like a multi-record-setting auction to confirm watch sales in the secondary market are still soaring like a rocket ship to another galaxy—one where money is no object. Over the weekend, Phillips in Association With Bacs & Russo hit the $74.5 million mark in its Geneva Watch Auction XIV, the highest-ever total in watch auction history, nearly doubling the previous record ($41,496,000 for the Phillips Geneva Auction XII).
The top 12 lots in the sale sold for over $1 million, led by the star of the show, a Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch No.1 in yellow gold. It sold for $5,182,109, which represents a world record price for any Philippe Dufour and a world record amount paid for any watch by an independent maker. In fact, four Philippe Dufour timepieces were offered in the sale, all of them for the first time in any auction. In addition to the Grande et Petite Sonnerie wristwatch, they included a Grande et Petite Sonnerie pocket watch, a Duality model No. 8 and the Simplicity No. 57. The final total paid for the four was $12,448,800.
One of the most intriguing and surprising lots in the sale was a 64-year-old Omega Speedmaster nicknamed the Broad Arrow, with a tropical (patinated) dial, that sold for $3,399,633, a stratosphere away from its high estimate of $130,000. The room, which was filled with seasoned collectors who have a pretty good idea of what is on offer and what pieces are likely to sell for, was collectively aghast at the final price. Even auctioneer and company principal, Aurel Bacs, seemed surprised. “Did I expect a world record for a Speedmaster? Yes,” he told Robb Report after the auction in Geneva. “Did I expect a $1 million bid so early? No. And I did not expect the bidding to go so swiftly. I don’t even think there were 10 increments. I think it was 2 million, 2.5, 2.8, and then it sailed to the final price. Toward the end, the bidding increments became much slower, and it felt like somebody was squeezing out a lemon. But what was really amazing to see, and what’s quite rare, is when you have, at that level, around six bidders. Texas, Oman, Bahrain, Hong Kong…to see such broad interest is amazing.”
In the end, the Hong Kong bidder was triumphant, and that did not surprise Bacs. “For the last century in China, Omega has been the luxury watch. Chairman Mao wore an Omega…it has cultural roots,” he said. “And on top of that, next year the Speedmaster celebrates its 65th birthday.” It was the highest price ever paid for an Omega, beating the previous record of $1.8 million paid in 2018 for an Omega once owned by Elvis Presley.
In general, Bacs attributes the soaring interest in luxury watches to several things. During the pandemic, most activities were restricted, but interest in buying watches has exploded. “Watchmaking has once again reached a level where it is like art, or real estate,” he says. “There is a lot of wealth out there right now, and watches are seen as a reasonably nice place to put five, six and seven-figure amounts.”
He says the watch collecting community is growing larger every day. “And it’s young, lively, dynamic people, not elderly gray-haired gentlemen like I saw in the ’90s,” says Bacs. “The community is growing faster than we can connect with them. And clearly, there is more demand than supply. We have 250 watches in this sale and about 3,000 bidders, so that means 2,750 people will go home empty-handed.”
Rarity is a major draw. For example, the Roger Smith piece, a pink gold Series 2 model, was one of five, and made by a watchmaker that produces only 15 watches per year. It went for $715,478, tripling its pre-sale high estimate and representing a record price for any piece by the British watchmaker. Smith was a protégé of George Daniels, seen as one of the greatest watchmakers of all time.
A white gold time-only watch with superb guilloché made by Christian Klings was another notable example of skyrocketing demand for the work of independent watchmakers. It sold for $275,184, over an estimate of $43,500. Klings is a German maker known for his superlative timepieces made by hand using traditional watchmaking methods and he’s said to be bowing out of his career, which means getting your hands on one of his pieces will be increasingly rare as he was known for making just 33 watches over his 50-year-long career due to the craftsmanship he employed to make each one.
On the more expected front, two Patek Philippe models reached the top ten, including a mythical first series Ref. 2499 in yellow gold retailed by Serpico y Laino for $3,861,757, and a white gold Ref. 2497 perpetual calendar, one of only three known, selling for $3,069,545.
There was also a complete set of five F.P. Journe Souscription watches, No.1 in each series, which sold for a whopping $10,810,800. They included a Chronomètre à Resonance Souscription No.1 ($4,257,862); Tourbillon Souverain à Remontoir d’Égalité Souscription No.1 ($3,861,757); Octa Réserve de marche ($605,405); Octa Chronographe Souscription No.1 ($1,050,176); and the Octa Calendrier Souscription No.1 ($1,023,750).
Another $1 million-plus piece was Richard Mille’s Titacarb ref. RM27-04 tourbillon, number 21 of a 50-piece limited edition, for $1,882,608, a world record for the reference. World records were also set for models by A. Lange & Söhne, Audemars Piguet, Cartier, De Bethune, Grand Seiko, IWC, MB&F, Ming, Patek Philippe, Rolex, Ulysse Nardin, Kari Voutilainen, Zenith and for three important Vacheron Constantin models (a Ref. 4178, chronograph; Ref. 4737 Cioccolatone; and the iconic model 222).
There were more than 2,300 online bidders in the white glove sale, in which all 248 lots were sold. Around 400 bidders occupied the saleroom. Half the lots were sold to online bidders. Consider this a road map for your next big purchase.