INSIGHT: How to lose at Geneva watch auctions – a handy guide

Editor’s Note: In this special guest post, Time+Tide reader Julian Sack recounts his experiences of trying to buy a watch at the recent Christie’s and Phillips auctions in Geneva – and the lessons he learned along the way. Julian is a collector with many years’ experience, with a penchant for the Rolex Prince and Patek Philippe. If you ever plan on buying at a big-budget auction, this is a must-read.

Aurel-Bacs-Geneva-Auction

Aurel Bacs of the Phillips Watch Department holding court.

I’d never before attended any of the big Geneva watch auctions, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. My first stop after clearing customs was Christie’s, to get a closer look at some lots I had my eye on. The atmosphere was busy, but calm.

An hour and some 15 watches later, I had a better idea of what I wanted to bid on. Some watches that I liked from pictures didn’t deliver in the flesh, so I’d already had my first lesson – that it’s essential to see the pieces in real life.

Next stop was Phillips. I’d missed the epic Start-Stop-Reset, but the place was still buzzing about the record prices reached, the tropical Paul Newman that sold for over 1 million, and the Rolex ref. 4113 split-second that breached 2 million. I inspected another 10 watches here, and while a few didn’t make the grade, I thought I’d have a chance on two of them.

LESSON 1 – If there are Bentleys in the carpark, get your hopes down

The McLaren, the Bentley and the Morgan parked outside should have been an early warning of what I was up against. The hotel that Phillips had seconded for the weekend was crowded with dealers with big money to spend. They were mostly European, but there were plenty of Japanese and Americans as well. It was easy to spot the Italians thanks to their uniform of blue jacket and white runners.

LESSON 2 – Even if you miss out in the auction, you might be able to pick up a great deal in the lobby

While the auction room might have held the big ticket items, the real horse-trading and side-dealing happened in the lobby, where everyone seemed to have pockets full of plastic wrapped watches. The air was heady with smell of money and expensive cigar smoke.

LESSON 3 – It’s not a good sign if the reserve price is smashed with the first watch

Auction-Rolex-Explorer

Lot 102 sold at Phillips for 28,750 CHF.

When, straight out of the blocks, a Rolex Explorer ref. 5500 sold for 28,750 CHF I had a feeling I knew where the evening was going. My heart sank further when a Rolex non-Oyster triple calendar ref. 4768 hammered in at twice the reserve, achieving a final price of 233,000 CHF.

LESSON 4 – Don’t take the estimates as gospel

Rolex-Prince-Auction

Lot 127, a Rolex Prince, sold at Phillips for over 56,250 CHF.

I tried to console myself by thinking that maybe all the big money had been spent the night before. Ha. The unbelievable prices continued; an untrendy Rolex Bubbleback sold for 25k, a mint Rolex Prince sold for 56K. There was no way I was going to buy anything that night. Every watch I’d highlighted went way over my personal reserve, as well as the reserve set by the Phillips. All I could do was look on in amazement as the records were broken.

LESSON 5 – Being priced out doesn’t stop you enjoying the show

Patek-530-auction

Lot 135, a Ref. 530 Patek from 1941 sold for nearly 1.5 million CHF.

I watched as the Patek ref. 530 I’d tried on earlier that day sold for almost 1.5 million CHF. An amazing price, but I can honestly say it’s the best looking time-only watch I’ve ever seen.

LESSON 6 – Selling at auction can make you a smarter watch buyer 


I shared a cab back to my hotel with a very happy German dealer who’d sold some watches, and was in the mood for giving sage advice. He told me that I too should sell some watches, because nothing can teach you what to look for when buying quite like having a room full of highly critical potential buyers examine your own watch. Good, if brutal, advice.

LESSON 7 – The Swiss make terrible coffee

The next morning I negotiated the twin horrors of an unexpected public holiday combined with terrible Swiss coffee and made my way to the Christie’s auction. I consumed the most expensive croissant and espresso of my life, and like that, I was ready for battle.

There, I ran into friends and quickly fell to discussing the state of vintage collecting. A few were despondent at the unobtainable prices and the theories were rife – it was either dealers buying on behalf of clients or increasing corporate intervention in the form of hedge funds. A good theory, but not one I have any evidence of.

Regardless of the rumours, I was still reasonably confident. The auction started slowly and my chosen lots inched closer. Prices weren’t spectacular, aside from some Rolex sports models with perfect dials. Then the first watch I’d planned to bid on came up and I didn’t even get to lift my paddle before it sky-rocketed beyond my budget.

breguet-et-fils-paris-no-217-with-opened-cover

Breguet number 217, sold at Christies for 3,245,000 CHF.

Meanwhile, one of the most interesting lots was number 123 – a complicated pocket watch from Abraham Breguet. This piece sparked a bidding war between two corporate giants: the Breguet museum versus the Patek museum. Patek won.

LESSON 8 – You can still find the occasional *bargain*

Patek 3939H

A Patek ref. 3939H, similar to this example, sold for 305,000 CHF. Bargain!

Believe it or not, there were some ‘reasonable’ prices in the mix. For example, a Patek ref. 3939 – a minute repeating tourbillon with a beautiful white enamel dial sold for 250k. That’s not bad when compared to a black dialled time-only piece that sold earlier for 270k.

LESSON 9 – Condition is everything

I headed to the airport empty handed, but wiser. My conversations with dealers, collectors and auction-house staff had definitely broadened my perspective, and at the end of two (very long) days, I’d say the key take home points are that condition really is everything, and that if you’re unsure of what to buy that’s OK, but make sure condition is your primary concern. Oh, and remember it’s not all about the dial.

I’ve also got a greater position of how important the auctioneer is in this circus (Aurel Bacs certainly manages to make bid increments of 50,000 sound much more romantic in Italian and French). If you’re serious about collecting, it’s worth trying to get to one of these big auction weekends, as it gives a valuable perspective into the industry. And, unfortunately for hobbyist collectors like me, that’s exactly what it is – an industry.

Words by Julian Sack.