The chronograph... the complication dreams are made of and is every so often in the focus of attention when it comes to earth-shattering auction results. Over 92% of chronograph pieces did ultimately sell so far. So which of these chronographs did sell well, which are trending and what features do they share?
May 17, 2022
Revival of the Dress Chronograph
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
Here, I summarize the results from: Bonhams NY (April 14th, 2022), Christie's Geneva (May 9th, 2022), Monaco Legend Group (April 23rd & 24th, 2022), Phillips Geneva (May 7th & 8th, 2022), & Sotheby's HK (April 26th, 2022) and Geneva (May 10th, 2022).
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The chronograph... the complication dreams are made of and every so often in the focus of attention when it comes to earth-shattering auction results. In the watch world probably everybody remembers where they've been when they saw the result for the Paul Newman "Paul Newman" Daytona back in 2017[1-2]. Similarly every Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph - be it an early 1518 or any series 2499 - makes our heads turn and watch the auctioning in awe when 7-figure sums are called out.
A "landscape" to die for and probably every collectors dream - a pink dial, pink golden Patek Philippe 1518 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph, sold for 3,297,000CHF this season. Photo Phillips Geneva 2022 Lot 213
But what about the other examples of this complication? The Chronograph is not synonymous with the Daytona... in the end "only" 26% of all offered chronograph lots thus far were called "Daytona". The Speedmasters, El Primeros, Carreras and Compaxes of this world - among many many more - should have their spotlight as well.
So then let's have a look at how this contemporary favorite of a complication fares in the auction room. Over 92% of chronograph pieces did ultimately sell so far. But which of these chronographs are trending and what features do they share?
Figure 1. The distribution of the price-to-estimate* ratio - the "expectation exceedance" - for Chronograph watches during the 2022 Spring Auction Cycle (n=307). The results are grouped by a watches age. The green and orange dots represent sporty and dressy chronograph pieces, respectively.
The first very classic categorization of chronograph types is into "dressier" and "sportier" specimen. That of course is a continuum but let's say for now that the classic steel Daytona is a sporty example whereas a 1940s golden Breitling Premier is a dressier one.
As we can already see this dissociation also has some historical perspective to it - chronographs from the mid 20th Century are more dressier than most late 20th Century pieces, while it becomes quite mixed from the 1990s onwards.
An over-performing Rolex Chronograph - but not the one you might expect. This stunning and fascinating Rolex 3668 "Antimagnetic" chronograph from 1939 sold for 277,200CHF, over 7x its low estimate. Photo Phillips Geneva 2022 Lot 191
Interestingly, when we compare the median performance of each watch in relation to its low estimate - a simple measure for "exceeded expectations" - we do see an interesting trend: the dressy chronographs outperform their sportier counterparts by about 13% - 58% to 45% over estimate, respectively. However, looking even closer we see that the top lots (10% highest exceeded expectations) the sportier chronographs perform a lot better - 158% for dress versus 204% for sport chronographs over estimate.
So what does that mean? Generally speaking, the average dress chronograph performs better than the average sport chronograph. However, if there's an extreme outlier it's more likely to be a sporty example. And these outliers seem to be particularly driven by Omega Speedmasters. Out of 12 chronographs exceeding 4x their low estimate, 4 are Speedmasters and only 1 is a Daytona. Potentially a consequence from the record-setting sale of the 1957 2915-1 Speedmaster last November and a general up-trend.
One of the major surprises this auction cycle: A 1970 white dialed Omega Speedmaster 145.022 with historical relevance (issued to NASA, Houston) - sold for 529,200CHF ... more than 4x its low estimate. Photo Phillips Geneva 2022 Lot 111
We can take this analysis a step further and take a closer look at the materials of these over-performing lots. In principle not all but most dressy chronographs are made from precious metals. Several options exist in that category, from the different shades of gold - yellow, rose and white - to platinum. So far we got results from 54 yellow-, 39 rose-, 36 white golden, 20 platinum and 116 steel chronographs.
Figure 2. Distribution of Price-to-Estimate ratio of sold chronograph watches ordered by used material. Each dot corresponds to one watch and the solid lines indicate the median performance per material. Photo 1945 black Rolex "Antimagnetic" Pre-Daytona Chronograph MLG 2022 Lot 123 - sold for 106,600Euro.
The median price-to-estimate performance differs between 45% for yellow-, 50% for rose-, 53% for white gold, all the way up to 70% over estimate for platinum - quite a premium for the white metals. The prices for YG watches seem to be more established than for platinum and white gold.
Again, steel - as the major material for sporty chronographs - has a rather low median performance but shows the strongest outliers... of course the same pieces as before.
A rare over-performing Rolex Daytona... and it's a fairly rare piece in itself. This 2007 white-golden Daytona 116509 with green chrysoprase dial sold for 201,600CHF ... more than 3x its low estimate. Photo Christie's Geneva 2022 Lot 14
So what did we learn? The auction results are quite complex but seem to follow a few rules. The average precious metal chronograph seem to be trending more than the steel sports chronographs. That becomes even more evident for platinum than for the old-school yellow golden pieces. That's the up-trending appeal of the vintage dress chronograph.
However, the extreme outliers still come from the classic sports chronograph... but not the references you're used to see trending upwards. So far in this cycle it's the Omega Speedmasters that bring some intense heat to the auction room.
* There are certainly problems with only looking at the estimate: Some auction houses are more prone to set the estimates low to foster a bidding war versus other houses sticking more closely to the actual value for example. Let's keep that flagged in the back of our heads when discussing trends based on estimates. Here, we particularly focus on the 'Low Estimates' as they have some binding implications: the reserve (minimum price) has to be below or equal to the low estimate.
 In Depth: The Sale Of Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona, The Most Expensive Wristwatch Ever; Cara Barrett, Hodinkee;
 Winning Icons - Lot 8, Ref. 6239 Rolex Daytona 'Paul Newman'; Phillips, New York;
 Breitling Premier - The Elegant Original; Marcus Siems, Goldammer Vintage Watches;
 The Most Expensive Omega Watch At Auction Ever; Logan Baker, Hodinkee;
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