I went to my first watch auction, here’s what I found I went to my first watch auction, here’s what I found

I went to my first watch auction, here’s what I found

Nick Kenyon

I was equal parts excited and curious when a package from Sotheby’s Australia landed on Felix’s desk last month. Upon opening, it revealed a catalogue for their upcoming Important Jewels auction, and while the jewellery portion of the catalogue was full of fabulous gems and precious metals, I was obviously much more interested in the wristwatches on offer.

Sotheby's Australia
A golden bird, studded with diamonds and perched on a very large citrine stone. Somehow, this was not the lot I was most excited about. Image: sothebysaustralia.com.au

While reading the catalogue I noticed that despite watch lots being comparatively few in number, there were several great pieces, including representation from Rolex, Patek Philippe, Cartier, and Heuer. One of the rarer pieces heading for the block was a Heuer Autavia “Jo Siffert” Chronograph ref. 1163, so named because it was worn by the racing champion in the late ’60s. Astutely, this was selected as his pick of the lots by the owner of the catalogue I was reading; however, I fell in love with a yellow gold Cartier Tank Américaine.

Sotheby's Australia
My favourite, a Cartier Tank Américaine. Image: sothebysaustralia.com.au

I got in contact with the man responsible for the auction, Hamish Sharma (who has the best job title in the world — the Head of Jewels at Sotheby’s Australia), and he was kind enough to meet with me and show me the watches that had been consigned. I went to the exhibiting space at the Sotheby’s Australia building at the Paris end of Collins Street, and browsed my way through the brightly lit counters of jewellery till I got to the row of watches. Hamish talked me through the different lots, including the Tank Américaine and a single-owner Rolex GMT-Master II “Coke” he was selling with box and papers.

 

On the night of the auction I arrived at the exhibition space and registered my details for a paddle. I wasn’t intending to bid on anything, but I wanted to get the full experience, and didn’t feel like I would have really been there unless I had the ability to spend thousands of dollars very quickly. I made my way to the fourth floor of the building where the auction was being held, and found myself in a room filled with chairs facing the rostrum. Along one wall was a bank of 10 suited Sotheby’s Australia employees, representing phone and internet clients who weren’t bidding in the room that evening.

Sotheby's Australia
My catalogue and paddle, ready to go.

The room was almost full, with around 30 bidders ready to battle it out for the 159 lots in the catalogue. As the auction got underway, I was surprised at the speed of the auctioneer as he moved through the lots, managing both the room bidders and the bids coming via phone and internet. He controlled the pace with a sense of urgency, but avoiding pressure on any individual. The audience was captivated by him on his rostrum, calling the lots with a clipped British accent that spoke to the international history of the auction house. Each lot would begin with an unembellished description of the item, before getting the bidding underway in a confident escalation of easily calculable denominations, offering “fair warning” if the pace dropped, and delivering a finishing blow with a crisp knock of his gavel.

Sotheby’s Australia building, with the auction room illuminated against a chilly Melbourne night.

Almost all of the watch lots went for above their top estimates, with the interesting exception being the hero of the night, the “Jo Siffert” Heuer. As the auctioneer called it onto the screen there was a brief flurry of bidding before the room quietened and the auctioneer looked around the room for further indications of interest. He found none, and was forced to drop the hammer at a price of $8800 (without buyer’s premiums), just below its low estimate of $9000. Someone picked up a bargain.

Sotheby's Australia Important Jewels Auction
The Heuer Autavia “Jo Siffert” Chronograph. Image: sothebysaustralia.com.au

All considered, it was a very interesting event to attend, with both Hamish Sharma and the Sotheby’s Australia Media Manager, Thomas Austin, offering fascinating insights into the world of watch and jewellery auctions. While I didn’t walk away with a lighter pocket and a heavier wrist, I’ll certainly be back for their next watch and jewellery auction in December, if only to see what gems they have uncovered in the meantime.