Two-Person Round Table: Auction Antics
Whenever a heavily-hyped auction comes to town I tend to get really riled up. So yesterday afternoon when my compadre Rob, aka @bazamu, sent me a text message that read: "Jochen Rindt Autavia just hammered at $77K incl premium," I instantly replied: "I don't really have any interest in these types of auctions." My remark was met by consternation from Rob, so I suggested this would be a good topic for discussion over beers... Rob had other ideas; he wrote me a text that said: "that would actually make for a good read on Watch Patina - let's do it."
So before calling it a night, we exchanged several email messages expressing some of our opinions on mega-auctions, their role in the industry and what they mean for the average collector. The email transcript below is our visceral reaction - not the totality of our thoughts. There's no right answer, which makes it a fascinating subject to debate.
Nick: I have no interest whatsoever looking at the catalogues put out by auction houses leading up to their high-profile timepieces sales. And I don't find the bidding wars or eventual hammer prices for said watches amusing. In fact, when I see a post on Instagram related to a watch on the block, I usually scroll right past it (recent exception being that "tropical" outer-minute-track "Paul Newman" Daytona from yesterday's Phillips' START-STOP-RESET sale - I can't take my eyes off that one).
This may seem like a pretty-harsh attitude to have, especially coming from a guy who's been keen on watches since he was a teenager in the '90s. But maybe that's precisely why I feel the way I do. I fell in love with watches in a different era - way before collecting went mainstream. If I sound like a grumpy old man, it's because I long for the days when watches were less status and more tool.
Rob: You do sound like a grumpy old man, my friend. Like it or not, vintage watches have become attractive to the ultra-wealthy who see them not only as exclusive collectibles, but also as an alternative asset class, and it's probably not a trend that will reverse any time soon. Recent auction results have underscored the fact that an uber-expensive watch doesn't need to be the most complicated or made out of precious materials - rather the watches that tend to have the purest designs, pedigree, and rarity are commanding the highest price tag.
Nick: Oh I totally realize that we live in a different world when it comes to watch collecting. Dealers and auction houses are the new gatekeepers for the majority of barn finds that remain. Watch collecting is no longer an obscure hobby. It's become a viable and lucrative business - and like you pointed out, even an alternative asset class - especially vintage models from Rolex and Patek Philippe.
I've met a lot of superb people through my Instagram account and writing Watch Patina. It's not lost on me that my followers and readership base exist because of the surge in popularity of watches, which has indirectly been fueled by the articles and photo essays documenting watch events, including super-auctions. But it seems that every time I read or hear about fine timepiece auctions, the price a watch realizes is what's highlighted instead of a deep dive on the watch itself. Due to the amount of front-page press these epic watch auctions receive, I fear the record-breaking sale prices are what now come to mind first when enthusiasts think of iconic models (e.g., Speedmaster, Daytona, Autavia), rather than their design, historical significance or provenance, including the stories about the original owners who bought and wore them.
Rob: It's understandable that the average watch collector doesn't have a vested interest in the auction results, but does that also mean that they should vilify those who participate in auctions the likes of Phillips' or Christie's? Those in charge of the auctions do their best to curate the most exclusive collection possible, and for collectors that have nearly unlimited funds and interest in a particular example, it's the perfect storm for sky-high results. To extrapolate the market's trajectory based on a single auction seems shortsighted. Then again, to dismiss notable results (like a 75,000 CHF "Jochen Rindt" Autavia) is also shortsighted. These mega auctions may not be perfect indications of a vintage piece’s market value, but I believe them to be directionally important to keep tabs on.
Nick: I've come to terms with theme sales being the wave of the future. And please don't take my lack of interest and humdrum attitude towards high-profile auctions as hating on those individuals who have the means to participate through raising a paddle. And for the record, I don't have an issue with the folks that work for auction houses. Following watch auctions happening all over the globe is simply not my preferred way to enjoy watches.
Shame on me for not taking up watch hunting as a hobby after I bought my Datejust in '98. When I got into watches I had an appreciation for them - but my interest had nothing to do with their appreciation. I feel like I woke up one day and suddenly the door slammed shut on my collecting dreams. That's a tough pill to swallow, especially now that I've become more involved in watches and have met some pretty-awesome collectors who have inspired me to own more...
Rob: I think what you're voicing is common among collectors that have been involved in the hobby for a long time and have witnessed a staggering amount of change in the past 12-18 months. For the collector who was accustomed to buying straight lug Speedmasters for $3,000 only four or five years ago, it can be off-putting and perplexing to see them hammering for upwards of $80,000 at auctions now. Some react defensively or negatively to this - but others feel an intense pride that the pieces they've loved for so long are finally getting their day in the sun.
I guess I think about it particularly within the Speedmaster universe and its run-up over the past year and a half. Would I love to be able to buy a 2998-1 for under $10K? Of course. But I also feel a weird pride whenever early Speedmasters set a new record, despite not owning one myself. I think as an owner of any Speedmaster - be it a 145.022 or even a modern 3570.50 - it's cool to see the elder statesmen (2915s and 2998s) getting mentioned in the same breath as the watches that have typically commanded premium values.
Nick: Ugh whenever I read a caption about the latest big-time auction result I think, "there goes the neighborhood." To your point about the Speedmaster, it's another example of a classic watch that has skyrocketed (no pun intended) in value and become at-risk of being unobtainable by mere mortal enthusiasts - myself included. Personally I don't think staggering hammer prices are the most appropriate metric to measure a watch getting its deserved recognition. While paying an astronomical sum for a watch does says something about how the collecting community "values" it, I believe there's a more noble way for collectors to give kudos to watches that have stood the test of time. It seems even the technical information and historical accounts - both online and in books - are directed at boosting a watch's monetary value instead of its intrinsic value.
Besides the mind-boggling prices, another reason mega-auctions aren't my style is that they over-emphasize the coddling of watches because of the high prices paid. Now I'm not suggesting the owner of a Blancpain "Milspec" take it for a dip in the ocean, but don't treat it like artwork - an object to just look at and/or photograph. It's my contention that most winning bidders of headline grabbing, auction-cover-worthy watches hardly wear their prizes, and that's a shame.
Rob: I hear you on the second point, but let me twist it around on you. We often refer to vintage watches being at the intersection of utility and art. Mechanical watches are completely unnecessary in a digital world, and that compounds when you consider that the most sought after watches are 60 years behind modern advancements in horology. In this way, they actually are closer to art than actual tools. It's romantic to picture yourself going spelunking with a ref. 1655 Explorer II (side note - do people actually go spelunking?) or surfing with a DRSD, but in actuality, we tend to coddle the vintage pieces anyways. Although my "Nina Rindt" Compax is the most treasured watch in my small collection, I tend to wear it the least. Does that mean I don't appreciate it? Absolutely not. In fact, most days I take it out and just stare at it for a while!
Everyone interacts with their watches in different ways, and it's not necessarily fair to say that if someone buys a "Paul Newman" for $2 million, they're wasting the watch by not wearing it. For all we know, the gazillionaire who bought it will regularly wear it around the house under his smoking jacket (I imagine all billionaires lounge in smoking jackets all day) or just take it out of his ultra high-tech safe (hopefully) to ogle at.
Nick: I guess that’s just not my style. If I owned your "Nina Rindt" or a "Paul Newman," I'd wear the heck out of it and not worry about it getting dinged occasionally. I prefer to admire it on my wrist, not holding it in the palm of my hand. I recognize these watches are old and need to be handled differently, but I just think too many owners of these types are overly cautious because in the back of their minds they're thinking about how much they paid and what it'll be worth in a few more years.
The market for fine wristwatches has grown exponentially and so many players are now tied to the success of marquee auctions. I don't get a thrill at being a spectator to this business model.
Rob: You're spot-on with your observation that mega auctions definitely help to directionally show the importance that collectors place on certain brands and references, with the end result being some references running away from collectors without unlimited funds. I disagree, however, on not getting a thrill from being a spectator (I swear I'm not just playing the role of devil's advocate). In my opinion, these auctions are sort of like a reality TV show for the watch world. The room is practically ready to burst with the combination of pomp, grandstanding, and ego-fueled bidding wars. Some of the watches on the block are essentially like watching a poker match, with two bidders each trying to intimidate the other into submission through outrageous jumps in the bid increments. As someone with nothing at stake (and no true investment in any of the watches at auction), I get a kick out of it. And I don't think I'm alone in that either.
I will, however, concede that the gushing and breathless summaries put out by the major watch publications ahead of the auctions are just as responsible for the astounding prices as the aristocrats in the bidding room. I enjoy reading the opinions of those who have been in and around the hobby for decades (see: John Goldberger, Jack Forster, and even Jean-Claude Biver), but the world of vintage Rolex (and Daytonas in general) is something that I'll never be able to fully get behind. The fact that a "Paul Newman" Daytona hammered for $2M+ last night is fairly nonsensical. It's a prime example of not being able to see the forest through the trees. The differences between the "Paul Newman" that hammered for 161,000 CHF and the one that breached 2,000,000 CHF are so miniscule that there's no way to justify the 20X price difference. Perhaps that's a topic for another roundtable though...
Nick: And I guess since I've never been a fan of reality TV, that explains some of my aversion to these highly-publicized auctions. I much prefer a lifestyle out of the bright lights. In terms of watches, that translates to a preference for wholesome GTGs rather than watching live streams of millionaires spending outrageously at auctions in Switzerland.
Photo credit (top to bottom): @fumanku, @hodinkee, Phillips START-STOP-RESET catalogue, Christie's "Omega Speedmaster 50" catalogue, Christies.com, Phillips.com