The secondary watch market is red hot: sales by the three main auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo) for 2018 totaled an estimated $300-million (Christie’s has not done a final tally), a resounding confirmation of the fluidity of luxury timepieces. But not all brands or models are hot. The perfect value formula for a vintage watch is: big names, rare editions and proven, consistent quality.
Patek Philippe and Rolex rule the auction market. With Rolex, the Daytona, particularly the Paul Newman Daytona, is king. And Patek’s early perpetual calendar chronographs top that brand’s sales: this year, all four Patek Philippe pieces in the top ten were Ref. 2499 models, from the second series of Patek’s six vintage perpetual calendar chronograph references. Of the five Rolexes in the top 10, four were Daytonas and one was a “Stelline” Ref. 6062, a rare triple calendar.
Here is a look at the top 10 watches sold in 2018, and a forecast of what might top the list next year:
“The Unicorn” Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265
The top lot this year at auction was the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265, known as “The Unicorn”, which formerly belonged to John Goldberger, a well-known watch collector. It sold in the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum sale in Geneva last spring for 5.9 million CHF (over $6 million at current exchange), the second highest price ever paid for a Rolex, second only to Paul Newman’s $17.7 million Rolex Daytona.
Rolex has typically only produced manually wound Daytonas in stainless steel or 18-karat yellow gold, with select 14-karat yellow-gold pieces for the American market. This unique white-gold reference 6265 Rolex was made by special order in Germany in 1970 and delivered to the client in 1971 and is the only white-gold vintage Rolex Daytona known to exist.
Goldberger donated the proceeds from the sale of the watch to Children Action, a foundation committed to aiding neglected children and adolescents and their families.
Patek Philippe “Asprey” Ref. 2499
The second highest watch auction sale of the year was $3,915,000 for the “Asprey” Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph, sold by Sotheby’s. Made in 1952, it was originally retailed by Asprey of London in 1956 and constituted the most complicated Patek ever sold by the retailer. The watch is a first series and houses a dial signed by both the Patek Philippe manufacture and Asprey (similar to the Patek Philippe co-branded by Serpico y Laino sold at Christie’s), as well as a caseback engraved with Asprey’s hallmark, Patek Philippe, and London import marks.
It was previously sold in 2006 at a Sotheby’s auction for $2,207,460, which was the highest price paid for a Ref. 2499 at that time. Sotheby’s second time auctioning off this important timepiece made it their highest priced watch sale of the year.
Patek Philippe Serpico Y Laino Ref. 2499
Originally retailed by Venezuelan jeweler Serpico Y Laino in the ’60s and sold at Christie’s in Geneva this fall for $3,234,905 ($752,500 over its top estimate), this Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 commanded the third highest price for a watch at auction this year due to its unique provenance. Aside from the fact that Patek Philippe’s Ref. 2499 is considered a holy grail timepiece among collectors, this is the only Ref. 2499, known to exist, bears the Serpico y Laino marking. The watch is also an 18-karat-gold first-series. It was originally expected to fetch somewhere upwards of $1.6 million, but ultimately soared well above that figure.
“The Neanderthal” Rolex Daytona Ref. 6240
A 1966 Rolex Daytona Ref. 6240 nicknamed the “The Neanderthal” because of its pre-Paul Newman style dial sold for 3,012,500 CHF (or $3,061,125 at current exchange) at the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction in Geneva last May. It is unique for its particular dial configuration, including the color combination, the oversized subsidiary dials that nearly touch the outer white seconds track, the black outer seconds marks, and the omission of any Cosmograph or Oyster designation. Made in 1966, it was the first Cosmograph model equipped with screw-down chronograph pushers. The visible patina on the brass pushers adds to its authenticity.
Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 in Pink Gold
This Patek Philippe Reference 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph in pink gold, fetched $2,998,800 at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong, representing a world record price for a pink gold Reference 2499. What makes this holy grail Ref. 2499 special is that not only is it a first-series, but its 18-karat pink gold casing is extremely rare. Only four have ever come to auction—the last one in 2004.
Further nuanced details on the case sets this Ref. 2499 further up on the pedestal. Its 37.5 mm case was made by Wenger and features more rounded lugs and a larger diameter than other 2499s that come fitted with a 36.2 mm case by Vichet and downturned fluted lugs. Believe it or not just a 1.5 mm diameter difference on a case is the kind of thing that only true watch connoisseurs and collectors can appreciate and it is just one of the above reasons this watch sold for almost $3 million.
“Arabain Knight” Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263
Commanding 1,932,500 CHF (or $1,963,487 at current exchange) on the auction block, this Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263 “Arabian Knight,” a unique piece with a black dial and white Arabic-Indic numerals, sold at the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction in Geneva. Rolex has been creating custom pieces for the Arab states in the gulf since the ’50s and this piece is thought to be a custom order placed by a member of a royal Middle Eastern family. This piece dates to circa 1974 and is believed to be unique as no other watch of its kind has ever come to auction. The only time this watch has ever been known to the public, prior to its debut at Phillips, was in the book Ultimate Rolex Daytona by Pucci Papaleo Editions.
Elvis Presley’s Omega
An anomaly that demonstrates the power of provenance, this watch was once owned by Elvis Presley and was a gift to the king of rock n’ roll by RCA Records in 1960 for selling 75 million records, hence the $1.8 million price paid at Phillips’ spring auction in Geneva. On the back of the dial the manually would Omega caliber 510 timepiece is engraved, “To Elvis 75 Million Records RCA Victor 12-25-60.” It is the highest price ever paid for an Omega watch at auction and was purchased by Omega from the owner to reside permanently in Omega’s watch museum in Switzerland. (To put 2018 watch auction prices into perspective, Omega purchased John F. Kennedy’s well-worn Omega timepiece for just $350,000 in 2005.)
Fun fact: The owner of this timepiece received the watch from Elvis himself, when the king spotted the owner’s Hamilton watch in a casino and offered to trade him for his Omega. Now that’s a good deal.
“Oyster Sotto” Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263
Another Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263, the “Oyster Sotto,” an extremely rare early Paul Newman Daytona made in 1969, sold for 1,662,500 CHF (or $1,689,412 at current exchange) at the Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction in Geneva. There are less than 20 Oyster Sotto Paul Newmans known and only a handful have sold at auction. This particular Oyster Sotto is considered one of the most immaculate to ever come back on the market. It is in pristine condition having never been polished with razor-sharp (like new) edges.
Other small details which set this watch above the rest is its Mk 1 classification, denoted by a small “R” in Rolex and a slightly slanted “H” in Cosmograph. The “Oyster” designation comes without serifs. It has an Mk 1 bezel, a 5-point Rolex crown, and first generation “millerighe” pushers.
The watch comes with a guarantee stating it was bought on November 22, 1972 in Rome, Italy on Via del Corso 140 from the jeweler Pelloni.
Another Patek Philippe Ref. 2499, one that Phillips describes as “probably unique” because of its yellow gold case and champagne dial, sold at the Phillips Geneva: Seven auction in May for 1,572,500 CHF (or $1,597,932 at current exchange). While any Ref. 2499 is a collector’s dream, this particular model is special for its unique champagne dial, mint condition, certificate of origin, and the fact that it comes with a rare collection of correspondence letters between the owner and Patek Philippe.
The original owner and the watchmaker wrote a series of letters to each other between 1979 and 1981 regarding the strap. It turns out this particular watch was delivered with its strap mounted back to front and the owner was none to pleased. As a result, the timepiece was never worn and came to auction as fresh as the day it was delivered.
“Dark Star” Rolex Ref. 6062
Rounding out the 10th spot for this year’s top grossing auction timepieces was a 1952 Rolex Ref. 6062, nicknamed the “Dark Star” Stelline for its gold stars for markers and dark patina on an 18-karat gold case. It sold for $1,572,500 at Christie’s New York. This 35 mm 6062 timepiece is an automatic triple calendar with moon phase in solid yellow gold. Around 670 yellow gold 6062s are said to have been produced in yellow gold, with only a very small amount with star dials. But what makes this watch truly special is its unique patina developed over time by oxidization of its yellow gold case. Its dark coloring is considered a sign that this particular watch has not only gone unworn, but unpolished for years.
What to Look for in 2019:
So what are the top lots of the future? The Paul Newman Rolex Daytona remains the hottest watch on the auction market, purely for design reasons. Of the six references made between 1963 and the late 1970s, the most valuable are the Ref. 6241, the second in the series, particularly those with black (John Player Special) or lemon dials, according to Paul Boutros, head of Watches in America for Phillips. He also cites the Ref. 6263 or 6265 with “The Legend”-type PN dial, with Rolex Oyster Cosmograph at 12 o’clock – “utterly rare with less than five examples known.”
John Reardon, head of watches at Christie’s says prices are heating up for the so-called “Killy” Rolex models, a triple calendar chronograph model once worn by skier Jean-Claude Killy. From Rolex’s current collections, he would bet on the hard-to-get Daytona, GMT-Master II, and Daytona Rainbow models. At a recent Phillips auction, for example, a Rainbow Daytona introduced early in 2018 at $96,000 retail sold for $241,400, and a 2018 GMT-Master II retailing for $9,250 sold for $21,050.
Although Rolex and Patek Philippe dominate auctions at the highest price levels, other brands are also good bets. Boutros recommends: “Audemars Piguet, especially the Royal Oak “Jumbo” Ref. 5402 and any of the vintage chronographs; Vacheron Constantin chronographs Ref. 4178 and 4072 and triple dates Ref. 4140 and 4240.” Vintage Breitling Navitimers also make his list, as do the Cartier Tank Cintrée, Maxi Baignoire, and Crash watches.
Sotheby’s New York specialist Nate Borgelt says vintage sports models designed by Gerald Genta are hot, including the aforementioned AP Royal Oak and the Patek Nautilus. “The most important factor for vintage is condition,” he says, “with emphasis on factory fresh condition. These can be steel chronographs with interesting dials from brands such as Universal Geneve, Rodania, Longines, and the established collector watch from Omega, the Speedmaster (Refs. 2915, 2998).”
Above all, any of the six vintage Patek Philippe series of perpetual calendar chronographs are solid investments, and especially the first two references, 1518 and 2499, which were made in very limited quantities. Daryn Schnipper vice-president and chairman of Sotheby’s watch department likes the Ref. 5970, the final vintage model in Patek’s perpetual calendar chronograph series, made between 2004 and 2011, but her Holy Grail Patek Philippe is the Ref. 2499 in steel, which she says would easily fetch between $5 million and $7 million at auction today.
From the current Patek collection, references 5270 and 5204 perpetual calendar chronographs are the hot modern watches. Also, any Nautilus model, but especially the new Ref. 5740 perpetual calendar. Introduced this year at a retail price of $90,000, it is now selling on the secondary market for nearly triple that price.