There are literally hundreds of auction houses that sell pre-owned and vintage watches. Worldwide! The good thing is that in our modern era you can simply register for all these auctions and try your luck to get away with and "win" your grail piece. However, if you've never tried it and are still a bit afraid of the entire scene we got you covered and try to give a brief introduction to: "What You Need to Know Before You Buy at Watch Auctions".

May 24, 2024

What You Need to Know Before You Buy at Watch Auctions - A Beginner's Guide

  


Marcus Siems     Marcus Siems @siemswatches
    Collector, Author, Data Analyst


  

[Highlights] What you need to know before bidding at auction:
- What auction houses are around? -
- What fees you might want to consider? -
- How you can Communicate with an auction house? -
- How to judge the condition? -

 

The world is getting smaller and the possibilities to find your grail watch are now within your fingertips. Buying online is a central aspect of life in the 2020s and even established and traditional sectors - like the Swiss watch industry - are starting to embrace the virtue of the online experience[1]On top, young, passionate and upcoming (vintage) watch dealers are storming the scene with predominantly website-based retail channels without the classic brick-and-mortar stores of yesteryear (shamelessly plugging our Shop...).

All this brings us to one of the most established channels to buy pre-loved, pre-owned and vintage watches: Auction houses. From entry-level to high-end complications and uber-rare references auctions have always been the go-to way to sell interesting watches.

 

Distribution of overall sales volume at auction between 2018 and 2023

Figure 1. Distribution of overall sales volume at auction between 2018 and 2023. More and more watches were sold at auctions over the last couple of years (number of included auction houses varies). We see they've reached an overall sales volume of over 700Mio $ annually[2-3]. That is still small in comparison to the entire secondary market with an overall volume of 26.5Bn $ but comprises an interesting bubble of rare and uncommon watches you might otherwise rarely see within the market-place. Data Courtesy of EveryWatch.

 

But today I don't want to speak about how to get rid of your watches but rather on how to add cool pieces to your collection. With the increasing accessibility of bidding online, via apps or putting in absentee bids, the interest in buying at auction has only increased over the last couple of years. We have reached levels of over 1,500 or even 2,500 registered online bidders on a single watch auction (for example Phillips Geneva over the last years)! A trend that of course has been fueled by the Covid years as well.

Beyond the numbers... it is just exhilarating to be part of a bidding war and get the watch in the end. Because you buy watches online, but you 'win' them at auction.

 

Claude Cohen at the rostrum auctioning a white gold Patek Philippe CalatravaClaude Cohen at the rostrum for Monaco Legend Group auctioning a white gold Patek Philippe Calatrava in April 2024. Photo Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group & Hodinkee.

 

Of course with so much passion, visual appeal and remote access there are many things to consider when you want to engage with this illustrious world*. I thus set out to give a very brief overview of things to know before you make your first bid**:

- What auction houses are around -
- What fees you might want to consider -
- Engaging with an auction house -
- Judging the condition -

 

1) The Auction Houses

I do not want to give a historic overview for all the auction houses - this has been done extremely well at other sources[4]. Nevertheless, we can organize the sheer numbers of houses (EveryWatch.com alone track over 250 of them) into three main categories***: Global Players organizing sales in various offices all over the world, Local Players holding auctions within a single location or country, and Online Only, which is kinda self explanatory (see below the links to their watch departments).

Global Players

- AntiquorumBonham'sChristie's - Phillips - Sotheby's -

Local Players

- Artcurial (France) - Dr. Crott (Germany) - Ineichen (Switzerland) - Monaco Legend Group -

Online Only

- (Catawiki) - (Ebay) - LoupeThis - Rose Auction -

 

Distribution of watches sold at auction ordered by materialFigure 2. Distribution of watches sold at Phillips worldwide ordered by material. This graphic is adapted from an earlier article about regional watch preferences. Data Courtesy of Phillips and Owen Lawton (@_oxwatch).

 

2) Estimates, Fees, & Premiums

When you found an auction catalogue on of these sites you will immediately be presented with not only watches but a multitude of different numbers. On the one hand you got the estimates:

Low Estimate and High Estimate comprise a range for what the auction house believes a certain watch should be worth. These numbers *should* represent the approximate market value of that piece at the time of sale but auction houses at times use particularly low estimates ("Teaser Estimates") to increase the engagement of potential bidders. Because, you know, it looks like that watch could be a steal. 

 

Auction results from the recent Phillips Geneva Spring 2024 auctionAuction results from the recent Phillips Geneva Spring 2024 auction. Phillips is traditionally "guilty" of using teaser estimates quite often. This leads to increased engagement with the lots and might spark a bidding war, increasing the final sales price. The credo is "let the market decide on the price". Photo Courtesy of Phillips Geneva 2024.

 

The next number is the Reserve. That is actually a number that is not publicly shared with bidders but is the lowest amount for which the seller is willing to let go of that watch. Even though you might not know the exact number it can't be higher than the low estimate.

Now imagine you were the highest bidder on a lot (a watch) your final bid will not be the amount you will have to pay to receive that watch. On top comes the so-called Buyer's Premium. It describes the fee you pay to the auction house for their services (sourcing, cataloguing, photographing, marketing, etc.) that is computed relative to your highest bid:

0%: Ineichen - 10%: LoupeThis - 20%: Sotheby's - 25%: Antiquorum - Dr. Crott26%: Christie's27%: Phillips - 28%: Bonhams 30%: Monaco Legend Group

And lastly we got the VAT that comes on top of all of this but is a matter of where you live and where you'd like to have the item shipped to.

 

3) Making Contact with an Auction House

Ok now that you've checked out the latest catalogue and want to participate in that auction. As I mentioned before basically everything can be done online these days. You simply create a buyer's account with the auction house and register for the auction you're interested in. And that's it. After filling out some information you're good to go.

There are various options how you can bid. For auctions that are held live you might want to place an Absentee Bid beforehand either via email, post, website or even mobile apps. So you won't miss the action. If the absentee bid cannot be surpassed during the auction it'll win. You might also join in during the actual live event again remotely online, via telephone or - if you're lucky to be around and get a seat - directly within the room!

 

Home Screen displaying Watch Auction AppsIs it just me or do you guys have a similar folder on your phone?

 

4) But What About the Condition?

Before we get ahead of ourselves bidding away our last penny on our dream watch we need to make sure that it actually isn't a nightmare! And that boils down to investigating the condition of the timepiece. Here are several layers of detail that you can (and depending on your attitude towards overpaying on watches) and should take into consideration before you actually bid on a watch.

The first step is the Condition Report. It is a short document put together by the specialists at the auction house describing the condition of the case, the dial, the movement - including at times if parts might have been swapped before, or a dial being reprinted, etc. However, beware that none of that is completely binding and you always buy the watch "as is" and on your own responsibility.

Thus, the second and most important step is attending the Preview. Simply nothing beats handling a watch yourself, investigating every angle, looking into every detail with your own eyes (magnified by a loupe and potentially UV-light). It is the single best way to know what's going on and how good the condition really is, period.

 

Nothing beats getting hands-on with the watches at the Preview! Photo of the Amsterdam Vintage Watches Team during the MLG Spring 2024 Preview As much as we can do online - Nothing beats getting hands-on with the watches at the Preview! Photo of the Amsterdam Vintage Watches Team during the MLG Spring 2024 Preview, Courtesy of Monaco Legend Group & Hodinkee.

 

However, not all of us can actually make it to every preview and potentially bidding on a 4,000$ watch might not justify a 2,000$ round-trip to see it in person. We thus often tend to judge the condition from photos. And of course it is as important to inspect the watch from every angle to make up our mind. Unfortunately, most auction listings do not include "every angle" but rather the photos that make it into the physical catalogue that include a full-frontal and maybe one profile. That's hardly enough.

Gladly, you can contact the auction houses and ask for more photos to better evaluate the pieces. That'll often give you more shots also of the movement, dial, case, lugs, etc. which is pivotal. But beware: most auction catalogues are only released about a month before the auction and the month that follows probably is the most stressful period for everybody working there. So you'd have to take into consideration that 1) it might take time until your request is handled and 2) try to not bug the specialists too much about watches you'd anyway don't want to buy to not delay the process for others.

 

A set of three vintage Patek Philippe 2497 in yellow, rose, and white goldAnother perk of being at an auction Preview is getting together with other enthusiasts. On the one hand, you can exchange impressions and better evaluate the pieces together. On the other hand, most people in the room will be hardcore watch-nuts and might bring timepieces from the cooler end of their collection spectrum. Photo Courtesy of Dave (@TheSwissCaveau) & Hodinkee.

 

5) Conclusion

My conclusion is and always will be that the auction world is a fascinating microcosmos of our common hobby. It brings together the rarest and most interesting watches and will proceed to be a fountain of stories to tell. However, those stories will not necessarily be positive. Whenever there is money to be made fraud can happen[5]. But also honest mistakes, overlooked details and simply overspending in the heat of the moment are part of this world, too.

I guess now that you have a guide on how to actually bid at auction I can only give you one last piece of advice:

- Know your limits, know your preferences, and know your expertise -

 

 

* I personally and we at Goldammer.me do not give any financial advice or comment on the condition or originality of any watch listed at auction. We do not consult we only want to give the readers some basic tools to make up their mind and form their own decisions.

** In 2022 A Collected Man published a great piece (by Russell Sheldrake) about the history of auction houses with a focus on watch auctions - it's a must-read! You can find it [here].

*** This is a non-exhaustive list. We are not affiliated with any of the named auction houses and do not consider one better than any other.

 

References

[1] The Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study; Deloitte [Link]

[2] Analytics | EveryWatch; Everywatch [Link]

[3] Seventh Annual Swiss Watcher (2023); E. Aubin, G. Smalley, G.X. Rubin, & N. Bonnet, Morgan Stanley

[4] A Study of the Watch Auction Market in 2022Russell Sheldrake, A Collected Man [Link]

[5] Vintage Rolex and other iconic timepieces under the loupe; Jose Pereztroika, Perezcope [Link]

 

All rights on text and graphics reserved to the Author.

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