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Christie's Storefront

Chinese Wealth Shows in Higher Watch Auction Prices

New York Times, September 16, 2012

NEW YORK — The day after Christie’s New York concluded its blockbuster sale of Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry and haute couture collection, the auctioneer Aurel Bacs took over the showroom at Rockefeller Center for a formidable follow-up act.

“They were popping up like mushrooms,” Mr. Bacs, international head of Christie’s watch department, said of the bidding war that erupted last month over Lot 108 of the Important Watches sale, a rare Rolex triple-date moonphase.

“It was a time-warp piece, every component original,” Mr. Bacs said recently by telephone. “We offered it at $150,000, the highest estimate anyone had ever placed on that model.”

When the final fees were assessed, the 1952 Rolex, reference 6062, sold to an anonymous buyer for $542,500, confirming an axiom familiar to those with experience in the secondary market: “Once you have the perfect watch, liquidity is there,” Mr. Bacs said.

Judging by Christie’s 2011 results, the market is more fluid that ever. The New York sale earned $8.5 million, capping a year in which the auction house’s watch department achieved sales of $116.3 million globally. The total set a record for any auction house in the history of watch sales.

“Fast and furious — that was our leitmotif for the fall season,” Mr. Bacs said.

He attributed the results to the explosion in scholarship that has taken place in the three decades since people began buying pre-owned wristwatches, and the class of so-called Medici collectors spawned by the phenomenon. Willing to pay dearly for exceptional examples of horological history, these collectors have shaped the market in surprising ways.

In the case of Rolex reference 6062, what made the model so desirable was not its make, nor its rare-for-Rolex complications. The eyebrow-raising sum was, according to Mr. Bacs, the result of the fact that the watch had never left its presentation box, although its 18-karat gold case was black from oxidization.

“In car terms, it was in ‘delivery mileage condition,”’ he said.

To Benjamin Clymer, founder of Hodinkee.com, an influential watch blog, the Rolex sale was a referendum on what really matters at auction. “After a certain point, it comes down to condition,” he said.

A dial, case and movement bearing signs of neglect are inevitably relegated to second-class status by those in the know. So are pristine watches that show evidence of tampering, for condition goes hand in hand with another factor prized by collectors: original parts and paperwork.

“If a watch has accessories with the original guarantee and the original box, it will be 10 to 20 percent more expensive,” said Osvaldo Patrizzi, founder of the Geneva-based Patrizzi & Co., an auction house specializing in timepieces.

Rarity is an implicit factor at auction, yet also the least predictable. Mr. Clymer cited a 1968 perpetual calendar by Patek Philippe that sold at Christie’s Geneva in November for $2.33 million, against a low estimate of $554,000. The 18-karat gold model, reference 3448, “was known, but nobody had seen it in rose gold,” Mr. Clymer said.

Not that there is anything newsworthy about a highly valued Patek Philippe. The firm’s timepieces, both vintage and modern, have fueled the market’s explosive growth since the 1980s, far outselling their closest competitor, Rolex.

Slowly but surely, however, a few new names are coming to the fore.

John Reardon, head of watches for Sotheby’s in New York, singled out “the increased interest in vintage Vacheron Constantin timepieces,” which he described as “historically undervalued.”

“In the December New York sale, a yellow gold center seconds wristwatch with cloisonné enamel dial, ref. 4720, achieved $170,500, setting a new benchmark for Vacheron Constantin,” he said.