5 Ways Aurel Bacs Has Changed How You Think About WatchesBy Wei Koh
If you’re passionate about vintage watches, chances are the way you perceive, evaluate and consider them is the direct result of Aurel Bacs, even if you haven’t heard his name before. For the past decade and a half, he has not only become the single most significant auctioneer in the watch world, but he has also crafted and shaped the entire culture of vintage-watch collecting. The word “edify” means to intellectually improve, instruct or uplift. Aurel Bacs may just be the greatest edifier in the vintage-watch world today, for one very simple reason. His mission has been to empower the consumer with knowledge, which is a marked contrast to the way auctioneers and vintage-watch dealers used to operate. But Bacs understood that by giving you and me the same access to information as the most sophisticated players in the game, he would disassemble the insularity and broaden the appeal of vintage watches in a real, sustainable and permanent way.
Without further ado, here are five ways in which Aurel Bacs has transformed the way you and I think about vintage watches.
1) In terms of prices, yes, there is still room to go!
Yes, vintage watches have exploded in value in the last three years, but in absolute terms, in comparison to, say, art, they still have room to go. Says Bacs, “How do we define value? Would it be based on rarity? Or on the emotional pleasure we derive from something? Let’s compare the Rolex ref. 4113 split-seconds chronograph that we (Bacs & Russo in collaboration with Phillips) auctioned for a record 2.5 million dollars, the highest price ever achieved for a Rolex. Only 12 of these watches were ever made and you could only request for one if you had a racing team or were a race driver. Of the 12 watches, the whereabouts of only eight watches are known. Now let’s compare this to the Jean-Michel Basquiat Dustheads that was auctioned for 48.8 million dollars at a Christie’s auction in New York. What’s the number of paintings Basquiat created? He was a relatively prolific artist even though he died when he was just 27. However, I am going to guess he painted more than 12 major works of art. Would the pleasure you derive from owning and operating one of these rare Rolex split-seconds chronographs — especially knowing the race pedigree of your watch — be 20 times less than that of looking at your painting? So why does the painting you hang in your living room cost 20 times more than the world’s rarest complicated Rolex? Because the art market has been built by key gallerists, publicists, auctioneers, curators, collectors and others who have been formalizing the history of art collecting for a far longer time than watch collecting.”
2) Absolutely, vintage complicated watches are truly rare in comparison to modern complicated watches.
Says Bacs, “Complicated watches that are made in the pre-industrialized era, which started in the mid ’80s, are genuinely rare. That’s because this was before the introduction of computer numeric programming and CAD/CAM (computer-aided manufacturing software) that allowed the industrialization of the complicated watch.” As a case in point, it is general knowledge that all the tourbillons ever made in history before the pre-industrial era is dwarfed by the number of tourbillons made each year today. Says industry guru and head of LVMH Group’s watch division, Jean-Claude Biver: “Aurel Bacs is right. Ask yourself: how many minute repeaters are made today? There must at least be 100 a year. In comparison with a watch like the Patek ref. 2499 (perpetual-calendar chronograph), how many of these were made? Only a few hundred were ever made. At any given time, how many might be for sale? 20 watches? Less? That’s why if you want one, you must pay 1.5 to 2 million dollars or more.”
To watch Jean-Claude Biver talk about vintage watch collecting click here.
3) Buy the best example of the less-expensive watch than the worst example of the more-expensive watch.
Says Bacs, “Collectors sometimes make the mistake of chasing the dream to the extent they buy a compromised or imperfect example of a Paul Newman Daytona or military Submariner, for example. I would suggest to instead invest in something else, like a Reverso or even a Breitling chronograph, but get the very best example you can, because in the long term, quality is going to go for a premium. I define this as a watch with excellent patrimony and in immaculate, original condition.”
Right after making this statement to me, Bacs places an unusual Breitling on the table between us and continues, “Consider this 1958 Breitling Super Ocean: To me it has a very particular meaning, simply because this is the first and the only Breitling Super Ocean I have ever touched in my entire life. And keep in mind that I am probably looking at up to 10,000 watches every year, for the last 30 years – you do the math.
The Breitling Super Ocean is a watch I have only researched in full extent once I had it in my hands, because prior to this I had never encountered one. So when it came across our team for the Start-Stop-Reset auctions, I looked at it and asked myself ‘OK what is this actually?’ Well it’s a nice chronograph – steel case, with a black dial, white subsidiary dial, black bezel. The through deeper research I came to realize two incredible things, firstly that this unknown watch here was the world’s first chronograph where the subsidiary dials were executed in an opposing color to the main dial. Next, this was the first chronograph with a revolving dive bezel. Think about it, this watch has such an incredibly prominent position in horological history and we’ve never really knew of it!
Now look at these shark teeth, here on either side of the bracelet that are absolutely picking up the theme on the dial indexes. Those faceted indexes that go over the dots and it’s all here, in unpolished condition — I think that’s just absolutely cool.
What was this worth 5-10 years ago? I can’t say for sure – probably $3,000 – $5,000. We offered it for $15,000. It made 50 +/- premium, still cheaper than the comparable Daytona but so rare! And I believe at times a regular ref. 6421 Daytona won’t be able to give you this feeling of “I-am-special”, as special as the watch may be. In that instance — with a bit of self-confidence, with the Breitling Super Ocean on your wrist, you can tell all the Daytona guys that they are all wearing commodities. What you have on your wrist, you are wearing history. I think it was one of my favorites from day one – with its bracelet, with its style, design, and this bezel.”
With prices of vintage Rolexes reaching nosebleed altitudes, as a collector, I’m compelled to look at other watches. Recently, I’ve become captivated by Italian military chronographs, certainly the Cairelli Zenith CP2s, and also the Breitling, or even more accessible in price is the Leonidas CP1 chronograph — and in accordance with Bacs’s advice, I’m trying to find one in the best, completely original condition.
4) Don’t restore your watch!
The prevailing perception of watches in original condition being vastly superior to shiny restored watches is largely attributable to Bacs. He explains, “This reflects a global change in mentality in collecting culture. Twenty years ago, when a collector bought a rare vintage car, the first thing he would do is undertake a frame-off restoration to rotisserie standards. Today, it’s completely the opposite. The premium is paid for cars in original condition that show the incredible patina of their history. Scratched, faded paint and interiors are prized. Similarly, today the most desirable watch has a case that has never been polished, with a dial that might be faded by sunlight and with luminous indices that have lost their brightness but grown deep and rich in color.”
5) Age is a beautiful thing.
Again, Bacs is directly responsible for our current preoccupation with the beauty of naturally occurring signs of age on the watch dial. Bacs explains, “First, I must stress that this kind of aging of the dial to develop patina has to occur purely from nature and not through misuse. Tropical dials like the ones on the two amazing Paul Newman Daytonas from the Start, Stop and Reset auction we sold can only occur through natural aging. One of the watches possessed a two-color Panda dial where just the seconds track had turned an extraordinary hue of amber. The black central section of the other RCO watch had evolved into a deep, lush chocolate, making both of these watches totally unique in the world.” Amazingly, in the pre-Bacs era, very few vintage collectors or dealers had much focus on the way watches aged. Osvaldo Patrizzi was one of them. He identified a range of ref. 16520 Daytonas with T, S, N and W serials where the subdials would oxidize into a rich brown color. While collectors of Double Red Sea-Dwellers (especially MKII dials) and Red Submariners (especially meters-first dials) would commonly refer to dials that turned from black to brown as a result of exposure to UV light as “chocolate dial” watches, it was really Bacs who popularized the term “tropical” dial and took it mainstream.