“Instead of $90,000, the Daytona now cost almost a million. I still bought it” – The crazy life of super-collector Eric Ku

“Instead of $90,000, the Daytona now cost almost a million. I still bought it” – The crazy life of super-collector Eric Ku

Luke Benedictus

Outside the weather was freezing with temperatures down to minus 10°C. But in the driver’s seat of the hire car skittering over the icy roads, Eric Ku was sweating.  At stake was a huge opportunity that could kick-start his career as a watch dealer. But only if he made it in time.

It was 2002, or as Eric describes it, “the dawn of that first mania for Rolex sports watches”.   At 22-years-old and still a rookie in the business, he’d engineered the chance to buy a valuable collection. It comprised of some 25 sports Rolex watches, including literally handfuls of Daytonas and Submariners alongside several Comex Sea-Dwellers. Better still for the budding watch dealer, all of the pieces came complete with box and papers.

The problem was that this enviable haul belonged to a man in rural Iowa and it was the middle of winter. Worse still, the seller was actively soliciting other offers on the collection. Eric didn’t hang about. He immediately sped to San Francisco, even resorting to the expense of valet parking (something he never did) in order to save precious minutes. He then flew to Des Moines, before hiring a car to try and convince the man to sell him the collection.

Eric Ku
Picture Credit: @fumanku

“I got really lucky because I beat one other person there physically by one day,” Eric recalls over the phone. “That was one of the deals that kind of put me on the map, so to speak. It taught me a lot of lessons that I still heed today. As a watch dealer, you have to be quick and decisive. If you hesitate, you lose.”

Ever since, Eric has continued his impressive winning streak.  Referred to as a “super dealer” by Hodinkee, his current horological interests include his new auction site, Loupe This, the Vintage Rolex Forum; 10 Past Ten (his online retailer that sells vintage Rolex), and a company in California called Los Angeles Watch Works that specialises in servicing and restoration.

One happy side-effect of being a watch dealer for 20 years is that Eric has also built a magnificent personal collection. Pieces in his watch-box include a a complete set of the Cartier Crash, an Heuer Dark Lord in mint condition, a LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm, a Philippe Dufour Simplicity… Frankly, the list goes on and on.

Over the years, Eric has also become renowned for his depth of knowledge with Christie’s routinely using him as an expert on vintage watches. Consequently, he’s built up special relationship with certain brands that enables him to request special favours (see below). “I love Cartier and have been a big proponent of the brand for many years,” he explains. “And I’ve been very fortunate to have a relationship with the manufacturer that allows me, on occasion, to order kind of bespoke pieces.”

Eric ku
Picture Credit: @fumanku

Developing this sort of credibility in the watch world didn’t happen overnight. Eric started to dabble in watch trading while he was studying at UC Berkeley in 1997.

After a disastrous foray into the stockmarket left him broke, he was forced to sell his Rolex Air-King on eBay and his red Submariner on one of the early watch forums. Slowly he began to engage more with collectors online and through the rest of college, began buying and selling to make a bit of pocket-money. When SARS hit Hong Kong, he made some prudent buys at a Sotheby’s auction that few other customers attended, buying $30,000 of modern pieces like Subs and GMT Masters that he subsequently made a tidy profit on.

Eric Ku
Picture Credit: @fumanku

From there, Eric enjoyed a few strategic wins that helped him to rise to the next level – including that Rolex bonanza in Iowa – and, in 2005, he launched his 10 Past Ten website. “The first person to buy a watch off the website was John Mayer and it was a red Submariner,” Eric says. “I was amazed that with very little press, when I’d just launched my site, that somebody like him, who is now regarded as obviously a very important and knowledgeable collector, was able to find me and then buy a watch from me.”

Another career-defining trade came in 2014. The “Albino” Daytona Reference 6263 is one of the most valuable Rolex watches in the world, made famous by Eric Clapton when his sold at auction for $505,000 back in 2008. Extremely rare with only three pieces in existence, the albino tag comes from the watch’s pure silver, monochromatic dial.  Yet again, however, Eric somehow managed to buy one and sell it onto a very important collector. “That was another deal that came together very quickly,” he says. “Many people were chasing it, but again I was the first one to pull the trigger.”

Clearly the buyers who are able to spend the mind-boggling sums necessary to acquire such pieces, belong to the hallowed ranks of the ultra weatlthy. Eric is therefore understandably reluctant to discuss his clientele – one of whom, for example, he sold the Rolex “Paul Newman” reference 6263 that would later appear in Crazy Rich Asians.  But when pressed, he offers a carefully vague story that conveys the power and influence of his elite customer base. Eric recalls flying to an unnamed South-East Asian country to meet “a very important collector” to sell them a piece.  “When we landed, before we got to the gate, all these armed guards suddenly got on the aeroplane and announced they were looking for me. I was like, ‘Shit! What the hell is going on? Did I somehow mess with customs?’ All sorts of things were going through my head.”

Eric Ku
Picture Credit: @fumanku

Eric was escorted off the plane into a Mercedes limo waiting on the runaway. There, his passport was stamped and a side gate opened, so he could be whisked straight onto the highway to get to the buyer’s house. “I didn’t even go through the airport,” he laughs.

Inevitably, however, as for any watch dealer there are the ones that got away – or at least evade capture for a price that doesn’t make you weep.  Fifteen years ago, Eric remembers circling an ultra-rare Rainbow Daytona with a Zenith movement that was made in the ’90s. “The person selling it wanted $90,000, and I offered $82,000,” he says. “For whatever reason we couldn’t come to terms on a deal. I really wanted that watch but I lost it, and it just disappeared. And I was really devastated about that.”

One of the reasons Eric hesitated was that, at the time, he wasn’t 100 per cent convinced that the watch was a genuine model. But then, in 2012, Rolex re-released the Rainbow Daytona and the pain of losing out flooded back. “The watch had obviously been legit and I was just even more devastated,” Eric says.  “After a while, I got another opportunity to buy that watch again. But instead of $90,000, it now cost almost a million dollars. I still bought it.”

Eric Ku
Picture Credit: @fumanku

That’s the life of a super dealer – wild highs, occasional crushing lows and exposure to occasionally absurd levels of opulence. “Generally I feel like I win more than I lose, and I’m very fortunate in the deals that I’ve done, so I don’t really dwell on missed opportunities too much,” Eric insists.

But given all the legendary watches that have passed through his hands, does he still have any horological itches left to scratch?

“I don’t think the grail watch concept necessarily applies to me, because the nature of my business is to buy and sell watches for a living,” he admits. “I feel more like Indiana Jones always on the search for the next thing. Every time I find something, even when it’s a holy grail, I’m like: ‘What’s next?’ The unknown is what really excites me is.”

This article first appeared in the issue 4 of NOW magazine. To buy your copy click here