Spending time: The November 2021 watch auctions
“It's a bubble!... It's dirty money!... That guy must be crazy!... It's all because of crypto!... The world's gone mad!"
Those were just a few of the theories posited (some whispered, some shouted) to explain the prices achieved during this month's week of Geneva watch auctions that ended with the four participating houses – Antiquorum, Christie's, Phillips and Sotheby's – grossing an eye-watering $129m between them.
As impressive as it is, the total still falls well short of the $291m achieved during August's Monterey Week car auctions – but the gap between wheels and watches certainly seems to be closing, both in terms of prices for individual lots and for overall sale totals.
The stand-out number from Geneva was the $74.5m achieved in the 'white glove' sale (i.e. 100 per cent sold) staged by market leader Phillips, the highest total in watch auction history and one which was not, tellingly, driven purely by the Patek Philippe and Rolex models that have long dominated such high-end sales.
Instead, an ultra-rare chiming watch by modern master Philippe Dufour (top, left) took the top spot after a spirited bidding battle saw the hammer fall at a premium-inclusive $5.1m to set an auction record for any watch by an independent maker (although vintage watch site A Collected Man reported brokering another example of the same model for $7.6m through a private deal back in August).
The rise of modern, independent dial-names was further reinforced through the sale of a complete set of F.P. Journe 'Souscription' watches (top, centre) from the early 2000s for a total of $10.7m, and the $1.8m achieved for a Richard Mille RM27-04, the 21st model from a 50-piece edition.
But the biggest surprise at Phillips came in the form of a sky-high price for a once-humble Omega Speedmaster: estimated to fetch $80,000 – 120,000, it finally sold for $3.4m, the sum being attributed to the fact that the 1957 chronograph (top, right) was from the first batch produced and that its dial had 'turned tropical' (watch-speak for the original black colour fading to a uniform 'milk chocolate' hue).
Three Patek Philippes figured in the top 10 list, but the brand didn't make the 'podium' since the best-selling example, a 1952 Reference 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph with a dial signed by Caracas retailer Serpico y Laino, only managed fourth sport with a selling price of 'just' $3.8m.
Christie's, meanwhile, racked-up an impressive $25m at its sale (also a 'white glove' affair) with the top lot being the oddball Rolex Deep Sea Special No.1 (above, left) which fetched $2m - a price that fell short of original expectations of as much as $4.3m after claims were called into question that it was the actual watch that had been attached to the hull of Auguste Piccard's bathyscaphe Trieste when it descended to a then-record 3,150 metres in 1953.
The house also drew $2.9m, for a dual-crown Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 from 1953 (above, right), the first gold-cased example made and the only one known to feature a gold dial centre with 'guilloche' decoration.
The total of $13.8m achieved by Sotheby's meanwhile, might have appeared relatively puny - but the old firm still sent some records tumbling, notably with the sale of a 1970 Cartier Crash (above) for $884,972 , almost three times the high estimate.
The oft-repeated tale of the model (above) being inspired by the crumpled remains of a Baignoire that had been extracted from a car accident is now regarded as a myth. But, with a mere 12 original examples of the Crash having been produced and only three appearing at auction in 25 years, it represents the pinnacle of Cartier watch collecting at a time when the maker's vintage models are ultra-hot.
More evidence of that came in the form of a record for a Tank Cintree when a 1975 model drew $345,650, while the top price of the day went to one of 10 known Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Reference 6264s in so-called 'JPS' configuration – i.e., yellow gold case and bracelet, with black dial. It just failed to make the million, selling for $977,914.
Antiquorum's 'top 10', however, looked a bit more traditional. Pateks took the first three spots with Reference 1518 and Reference 2499 perpetual calendar chronographs each fetching $681,000 and another 1518 $626,000 - although Audemars Piguet featured equally strongly thanks to a platinum, cushion-cased minute repeater making $572,000 and a pair of rare variations on the Royal Oak respectively drawing $504,000 and $286,000.
If such heady sums don't put you off, brace yourself for the year-end auctions which kick-off in Hong Kong on 27 November 2021 where Phillips will offer another ‘JPS’ Rolex Cosmograph with an estimate of $600,000 - 1.2m, above, left), a couple of high-complication Audemars Piguet Royal Oak models (estimates from $100,000) and an example of the bizarre but highly collectable Harry Winston Opus 3 – a watch (above, right) inspired by the submarine 'Nautilus' featured in Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Just 25 were made and this one, number 17 is tipped at $50,000 - 75,000.
END-OF-YEAR WATCH AUCTIONS:
Christie's, 27 November
Phillips, 27 November
Bonhams, 1 December
Antiquorum, 5 December
Christie's, 24 November 24 to 10 December (online)
Sotheby’s' 3 to 14 December (online)
Phillips, 11 to 12 December
Bonhams, 15 December
All photos courtesy of the auction houses