Why You Should Stock Vintage Watches

The astonishing price paid recently for a 1933 Patek Philippe is a dramatic sign of the growing demand for old quality watches.

It was the sale of the century for vintage watches. What has been called the world’s most important watch was sold for the highest price ever paid for a timepiece–and it took just minutes. The object was the exquisite 1933 Henry Graves supercomplication pocket watch, created by Patek Philippe of Geneva, Switzerland. The sale took place last December at Sotheby’s in New York City (Up Front, JCK, February 2000 p. 25).

Bidding opened at $2 million and quickly passed Sotheby’s presale high estimate of $5 million. “The mood in the room was amazingly electric,” recalls Hank Edelman, president of Patek Philippe USA, an unsuccessful bidder who hoped to win the watch for his company’s Geneva museum. As bids accelerated, “people were standing up, holding their breath.” Many of the world’s top collectors were in attendance, and others conveyed bids through a bank of 25 telephones, five times the usual number.

When the final bid–a jaw-dropping $10 million from an anonymous bidder–was hammered down after less than five minutes, there were gasps from the audience. The price of $11 million (the $10 million bid, plus Sotheby’s commission and taxes) had set a new record, tripling the previous alltime high of $3.2 million, paid in 1989 for Calibre 89, another supercomplication by Patek Philippe.

A unique masterpiece. Why such a high price? “It’s simply the most important watch ever made,” says Daryn Schnipper, director of Sotheby’s watch and clock department.

Some might argue the point. A recent panel of watch experts, for example, called 1933’s Rolex Oyster Perpetual the watch of the century, while others consider Calibre 89, with its 33 complications, the most intricate watch of modern horology. But there’s no argument that the Graves is one of the world’s most unusual timepieces and a masterpiece of Swiss craftsmanship. “It’s the Mona Lisa” of the watch world, says Bruce Shockey, editor of the Vintage Wristwatch Report.

The sale also illustrates the high regard watch connoisseurs have for Patek Philippe and caps a decade of record prices for the company’s vintage watches. Those records include the most money ever paid for a wristwatch, $1.9 million (from an anonymous Middle East collector) for a 1922 18k men’s watch (the first with a split-second stopwatch controlled by the crown); and a record $1.7 million in 1966 for the 1939 Calatrava platinum astronomic wristwatch with minute repeater (i.e., the watch strikes hours, quarter hours, and minutes when activated by a pushpiece).

Customers of the 151-year-old Geneva firm have included Queen Victoria and Albert Einstein; the company was experimenting with quartz watch technology as early as 1948. It’s precisely handcrafted watches tend to hold or increase their value more than most other fine watchmakers’ products. One new Calatrava, Patek Philippe’s best-selling model, for example, sold at a 1999 Hong Kong auction for much more than its original retail price.

The Graves sale, while unique, isn’t isolated. Other high-priced and record-breaking sales of antique timepieces indicate that interest isn’t limited to a single brand. “History tells us that every time records are broken, it affects prices for better stuhrling womens watches review watches,” says Edelman. Shockey agrees. “We’re seeing drastic increases in value for the creme dela creme in watches,” he says.

In the past six months alone, an extraordinary 1820 Piguet and Meylon heart-shaped musical automaton watch sold for $1.4 million, a world record for such timepieces, and an 1835 automatic Symparhique clock by Breguet, one of the greatest clockmakers in history, sold for $5.7 million, three times its pre-auction estimate and a world record for any clock.

Other established and admired brands–such as Rolex, Gerald Genta, Vacheron Constantin, Breitling, and Universal-also are doing exceptionally well. A rare Lange & Sohne platinum wristwatch with tour-billon escapement, made in the 1990s, recently sold for $72,900. Although not a record, that was double its pre-sale estimate. Even timepieces by newer luxury watchmakers like Franck Miller (1983) and Christian Bedat (1996) are doing well at auction and “should become even more important in the future,” notes watch expert Ovaldo Patrizzi, chairman of Antiquorum Auctioneers.

Growing demand. “The [vintage timepiece] market has been strong” since the late ’90s and is getting stronger, says Schnipper. Recent high-profile sales are one reason. “The more prices go up, the more people’s consciousness is raised, the more collectors come out, and the more interest there is in collecting [fine timepieces],” she notes. A sign of that ongoing growth is the Graves sale itself. “It’s questionable whether we would have gotten $10 million a year ago,” says Schnipper.

Economic factors, too, are spurring this market. The strong economy (reminiscent of 1989, the last time vintage watch sales surged), booming stock market, and growing prosperity have created nouveau riche collectors who can afford these mechanical marvels.

Patrizzi points out that many of the newly affluent made their fortunes in electronics, computers, or the Internet and are fascinated with the origins of today’s technology. Collecting handcrafted mechanical timepieces is a natural outgrowth of that fascination. “Horology was the beginning of our modern technology,” Patrizzi says. “Automation began in the 14th and 15th centuries, with clock mechanisms that struck hours and showed dates.” Owning vintage and antique watches is like owning pieces of the history of technology, he notes. Collectors also appreciate the artistry of unique timepieces, the horological equivalents of rare Rembrandts.

World arena. Today’s rapidly evolving technology is turning the vintage watch market into an international arena. Web sites, e-mail, telephones, faxes, and TV make it possible for both domestic and foreign connoisseurs to participate in today’s major watch auctions, whether they live in Dallas, Milan, or Tokyo. More than 1,000 viewers, for example, see reviews akribos watches, followed live broadcasts of Antiquorum Auctioneers’ year-end, record-breaking auctions in Geneva. Antiquorum’s Web site provides direct access to its computerized catalog of collectors’ watches and up-to-the-minute sales information. Vintage watch e-tailers, such as Ashford.com and Miadora.com, are also doing well.

Patrizzi believes internationalization is a healthy trend for the vintage watch market. “Due to strong, ever-growing interest from collectors in the Middle East, the United States, and Europe, the watch auction marker is on an excellent path [of growth], with high-end pieces commanding exceptional prices and even middle-priced ones in demand,” he says.

The media spotlight on record-breaking sales affects the vintage watch market in other important ways. Schnipper notes that some impressive watches are coming to marker as “more [collectors and connoisseurs] bring fine timepieces our of vaults and safety deposit boxes.”

Shortly after Sotheby’s history-making auction last December, for example, Patrizzi received “three important pieces, worth $500,000 to $1 million each” for Antiquorum’s April 2000 watch auction. “People hear the news, discover they have a fine watch, and ask us, ‘Is this for collectors?'”

Some luxury watchmakers want to influence future collectors and auctions. “More and more, the watch collection business starts the moment a watch leaves the factory,” Patrizzi notes. “The orientation of more luxury [watch] companies is to produce limited series of under 1,000 pieces–not 20,000–so you have something rare on your wrist immediately.”

The impact of record sales on collectibles’ prices dissipates at the $1,000 to $10,000 level, Shockey notes. Still, the value of timepieces in this category, too, is rising 5% to 10% annually. In a recent interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, Robert Fraga, owner of Precision Time stores in Salt Lake City, noted that vintage and antique timepieces have become increasingly popular. Classic “tank watches,” introduced by Cartier during World War I and copied by others, are frequently sought, as are men’s watches from the 1930s and ’40s, Fraga said.

News of record-breakers even aids retail sales of luxury watches. Says Edelman, “It makes people think when deciding whether to buy a fine upscale watch like Calatrava, telling them they can get something that lasts 30 years and keeps its value.”

The Time Museum

The Time Museum in Rockford, Ill., the source of the Graves super-complication, was open for only 28 years, but it possessed one of the world’s great timepiece collections.

Documenting 3,000 years of progress in measuring time and developing timekeeping devices, it was founded in 1971 by industrialist, financier, and watch expert Seth Atwood, who had been fascinated with time since college. Atwood noted that he’d traveled to “hundreds of places … [many] not found in tourist guidebooks … gathering time-related artifacts.” His collection, housed in the basement of a Rockford resort motel owned by an Atwood firm, rivaled the British Museum’s clock room as well as famous collections in Europe.

The museum closed in March 1999, and in October almost 1,500 of its artifacts were sold to the city of Chicago, which will display them in its Museum of Science & Industry and Adler Planetarium. The rest- 91 masterpieces like the Graves watch-were sold at Sotheby’s last December. The auction, which saw multiple records shattered, was the greatest watch sale of the 20th century, a tribute to Atwood’s vision and collecting genius.

The One-of-a-Kind Henry Graves Supercomplication

By the early 20th century, Swiss luxury watch firm Patek Philippe, founded in 1851, was world-renowned for the quality, precision, and craftsmanship of its watches. Its many clients included two competitive U.S. watch collectors, banker Henry Graves Jr. and auto maker James Packard. Fascinated by fine horology, each sought to outdo the other with their watches, says Alan Banbery, curator of Patek Philippe’s museum in Geneva.

Packard kicked off the competition in 1916 with a pocket watch with 16 complications. He upped the ante in 1927 with a watch that had 10 complications and a star chart. Unwilling to be outdone, Graves secretly contracted with Patek Philippe in 1925 to make “the most complicated watch [ever made] … and in any case, more complicated than that of Mr. Packard!”

It was the horological equivalent of ordering the first flight to the moon. Although Patek Philippe was one of the world’s finest watch firms, it “had never been tested like that before,” says Daryn Schnipper, director of Sotheby’s watch and clock department. Its master watchmakers spent three years in research and five years designing, producing, and assembling the one-of-a-kind watch. It was delivered to a delighted Graves on Jan. 19, 1933. Graves died in 1953, and the watch eventually was acquired by the Time Museum in Rockford, III.

The sleek, slightly plump pocket watch weighs 1 lb., 3 oz. and has some 900 parts, including 430 screws, 110 wheels, 120 movable parts, and 70 jewels. In addition to hours, minutes, and seconds, it has 24 horological complications. Among them are hours, minutes, and seconds of sidereal time (based on the earth’s rotation in reference to a fixed star); sunrise, sunset, and star charts for the night sky over New York City, Graves’s home; day, date, and month; moon phases; perpetual calendar (to 2100); chronograph, with split seconds and 30-minute and 12-hour recorders; striking mechanism; and–the piece de resistance–a Westminster chime based on the fifth bar of the aria from Handel’s The Messiah, “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth.”

The $11 million sale of Henry Graves’s supercomplication pocket watch (shown here with its mean time dial) makes it the most expensive timepiece in history.

This rare 1923 men’s gold wristwatch, the first with a split-seconds chronograph, was sold for $1.9 million in November by Antiquorum Auctioneers, setting a new world record price for a wristwatch. It entered the Guinness Book of Records on Dec. 6, 1999, as “the world’s most valuable wristwatch.”

The Calibre 89, developed over a nine-year period by Patek Philippe to mark its 150th anniversary in 1989, is the world’s most intricate watch, with 33 complications. Patek Philippe purchased it at auction in 1989 for its Geneva museum for $3.2 million, making it the second most expensive timepiece in history.

The strong interest in vintage and antique timepieces isn’t limited to one brand, as evidenced by a number of sales in December. “Le Coeur,” an extraordinary 1820 Piguet and Meylon heart-shaped musical automaton watch (top), sold for $1.4 million, a world record for such timepieces. An 1835 Breguet Sympathique clock (center), made for the Duc d’Orleans and containing his original pocket watch, sold for $1.5 million, three times its pre-auction high estimate and a world record for any clock. A rare Lange & Sohne platinum wristwatch with tourbillon escapement (below), made in the 1990s, sold for $72,900.

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