Phillips held the first live watch auction of the year this weekend with its Geneva Watch Auction: XI at Hôtel La Réserve, and if the figures from the sale say anything at all it’s that even during one of the biggest global health and economic crisis of the century, collectors are still willing to shell out astronomical sums for rare vintage timepieces.
The total tally for the sale was CHF 30,072,875 (approximately $31,595,486) for 215 lots, all of which sold, with seven resulting in prices over CHF 1 million each. The top lot was a rare Patek Philippe Ref. 1518, which came to auction from industry titan Jean Claude Biver‘s personal collection, selling for CHF 3,380,000 (approximately $3,549,158, over $1 million above its top estimate of CHF 2,400,000 or approximately $2,520,144). It is one of only 13 known Ref. 1518 models with a salmon dial, is in superb condition and has only been seen once before at auction in 2011, when it was sold by the original family who had purchased it from Patek Philippe’s Geneva boutique in 1950. But what makes this piece truly unique, and what likely sent it even further into the million-dollar stratosphere, is its blued steel hour and minute hands—a customized order from the client for better legibility. That’s watch collecting for you—the devil, that will ultimately drain your pockets, is always in the details.
It was just one of many rare models from the 70-year-old Biver’s collection that went on the block, all seven hammered in for above $8.67 million. Runners-up to the Ref. 1518 include a Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 yellow gold perpetual calendar chronograph for CHF 2,600,000 (approximately $2,731,207) and a Patek Philippe Ref. 1579 platinum chronograph with blue enamel markings and spider lugs for CHF 1,940,000 (approximately $2,037,836). Parting with such rarities must have been sweet sorrow for Biver, but he’s no doubt flashing his famous toothy grin all the way to the bank.
Someone else that had plenty of reason to celebrate was independent watchmaker François-Paul Journe, who was front-and-center on the auction floor, to see two of his very important watches, “Souscription” series Tourbillon Souverain and Resonance models, sell for a combined total of CHF 2.4 million (approximately $2,521,754). F.P. Journe watches are skyrocketing on the secondary market and the “Souscription” series are the most covetable and important watches made in the last two decades. The platinum Tourbillon Souverain, number 14 of just 20 pieces in existence, sold for almost four times its top estimate of CHF 300,000 (approximately $315,152) for CHF 1,400,00 (approximately $1,470,711). It is one of only a handful of “Souscription” Tourbillon Souverain watches by François-Paul Journe, made for his close friends and VIP clients to help finance the start of his namesake brand, to ever appear at auction and an extremely rare opportunity for its buyer to purchase the timepiece under the gaze of its maker.
The Chronomètre à Resonance, sold, incredibly, for nearly seven times its top estimate of CHF 160,000 (approximately, $168,059) for CHF 1,040,000 (approximately $1,092,387), of which less than 20 “Souscription” versions are thought to have been made. It is one of Journe’s crowning career achievements—the first wristwatch to ever feature the phenomenon of resonance wherein the movement has two balances, beating in opposition, which naturally work together to improve each other’s accuracy. Prior to Journe’s feat, the function dated back to the 18th century, when watchmaking master Antide Janvier implemented the effect for the first time in a pocket watch.
Both Souscription watches came to market from Lorenz Baümer, a Parisian jeweler and friend of François-Paul Journe. It was, no doubt, a poignant moment, for both Baümer and Journe, to see some 20 years later, how friendship, faith and sheer watchmaking talent delivered not just an incredible return on investment, but ultimately the recognition and value Journe so richly deserves.
(And it doesn’t hurt to have a rainmaker, like Phillips auctioneer Aurel Bacs, waving his gavel like a magician’s wand when you want to turn the fruits of decades-long labor or investment into a gold mine in mere minutes.)