September saw three major watch auctions held by Bonhams, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s. Looking back on the lots sold during the September 2017 watch auctions, there are a great many standout pieces about which I could wax lyrical, but I decided to sniff out one example from each that represented a different collecting strategy. I went for the classic, the limited, and the masterpiece.
Ubiquity Doesn’t Always Diminish Returns
Even a casual watch fan will have heard of the Omega Speedmaster. It is one of the most enduring designs in the history of horology. Launched in 1957 (along with, remarkably, the Seamaster and the lesser-heralded Railmaster), the Speedmaster has had more versions than I have hot dinners. But rather than wearing-out its audience with endless re-imaginations, the ‘Speedy’ market is one of the most vibrant and fiercely competitive in existence.
Truth be told, it’s just a very attractive watch, an archetype of its genre, a blueprint for success. For that reason, it will never go out of style, and even the most mundane Speedy will have a fervent follower somewhere who will almost certainly pay over the odds for it should you ever wish to move on it.
The ‘Ed White’ Speedmaster sold recently at Bonhams, and it comes with a pretty cool story. This watch was on the wrist of White when he became the first man to walk in space. It has a few unusual quirks to the case (straighter lugs and the absence of a crown guard), but it’s a quintessential Speedy with a peach of a backstory. It’s no wonder it sold for double what you’d pay for a box-fresh iteration these days. The hammer fell at £6,250 (about $8,400 at the time of writing).
Limited Watches have a Limitless Ceiling
People get very excited about limited edition watches. Oftentimes I wonder how much the excitement is valid due to the regularity with which major brands churn out limited models. It’s a trend that’s becoming evermore popular because it creates an air of exclusivity. For the most part, limited runs of super-expensive watches make sense, because a) there aren’t so many people who can afford them, and b) it gives the designers complete free reign to be as bonkers as they like, because they only have to convince a handful of people that their latest nonsense is the best thing since sliced bread.
But every so often a brand will release a conservative, stylistically palatable watch that really has all the trappings of a core model, with one exception: It’s not.
I’ve chosen the Ulysse Nardin Maxi Marine Diver sold at Christie’s this month for just £6,875. That’s still almost a grand over its estimate, but small change for what is a really wearable piece. Its one striking feature is the fact that it is bright yellow. Apart from that, though, it’s a really solid design, and the perfect kind of watch to send collectors into overdrive.
Class is Undeniable
The late, great George Daniels did not mass-produce watches. He created masterpieces. The total sum taken at Sotherby’s recent watch auction was £4,685,416. The George Daniels 18K Yellow Gold Chronograph (a unique piece) accounted for £3,196,250 of that amount, and, to be totally frank, it might be the best bargain of the lot for the September 2017 watch auctions.
Okay, so it sold for twice its estimate, and cost more than six and half Bugatti Veyron’s, but it’s a veritable masterpiece that will forever extol the standards of the most influential watchmaker of his generation. It’s history. It’s art. It’s a masterpiece of our craft. Of course it’s crazy money, but if you’ve got that kind of money to spend, there are few worthier items on which to spend it.
All three of these strategies make sense to me: Identify a classic among classics; look for core-style pieces with limited production runs; pour your life savings into an indisputable treasure. Whichever one works for you, I wish you happy bidding!
About the Author: Fell Jensen is a Swiss-trained watchmaker working as an industry analyst.