Tales and Lessons from Geneva Watch Auction: Six

In a matter of just under three years any Phillips (in association with Bacs and Russo) watch auction has arguably become the highlight of many of our calendars. Following on from their record-breaking “Winning Icons” auction in New York (the inaugural watch auction for the New York office), Phillips opened-up their winter Geneva auction for business. While missing an “out and out” headline watch for Geneva Watch Auction: Six (although some would argue with that): Which for reasons that escape me seem to require a legendary Patek Philippe or Rolex, Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Six nonetheless had some truly jaw dropping examples of the watchmakers’ art.

Flagged up to be the probable stars were the Patek ref. 2479 “Exceptional White” and a Patek ref. 2499 in pink gold. But for nearly anyone with a passing interest in horology and the significance of horological time keeping refinement, the absolute jewel in the crown was the Omega tourbillon prototype observatory chronometer ref. 30 I.

The Omega aside, it was the usual Patek and Rolex road show. Some truly spectacular watches were up for sale including some Rolex Explorers that were also given their own side show with a trio of watches with notable and documented provenance that only adds to the lustre of the watches themselves and to the aura that surrounds them. The watch went to the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary; but included in the sale was another expedition watch belonging to G. C. Band as part of the Kangchenjunga expedition, which also happened to be a rare lacquer dial. This watch went for double the high reserve. Actually, the three watches had very interesting stories; the Rolex Explorers were carried into the field and performed admirably; taking a beating, being subjected to extremes, and keeping time accurately. All within a 36mm steel case with a standard movement. No super carbon this, or extreme that: Just an honest watch with some sound micro engineering.

For my money, if I was spending any at this auction, it was a trio of Omega watches from the 1950’s that caught my eye, which was surprising to myself. But one watch in particular is worthy of a write up on its own. Lot 182: An Omega observatory tourbillon prototype ref. 30 I from 1947. To my mind the star watch. The watch itself shows a couple of important traits. First was the dedication of Omega to the Observatory competitions and testing in the 1950’s. Omega were a committed manufacture and the records of the Royal Observatory at Kew have as many entries for Omega as they do for Rolex. Second, that this watch even exists! Omega testing a tourbillon within a modest 36mm steel case. No hole in the dial, no writing on the dial, just an “Omega Chronometre” inscription and a dial for hours, minutes, and seconds. Measured, urbane, and discreet. Wonderful!

Once bidding opened the bids moved swiftly through CHF 500,000, after which it slowed, and Aurel Bacs showed his skill as the premier auctioneer by driving the price and interest onwards. As bidding seemed to slow to an iterative close a bid in the room at 1 million CHF shocked proceedings and pushed the price onwards beyond the seven-figure mark. That the watch only went for CHF 1.4285 million, all in, was a shock. It became the most expensive Omega ever — and justifiably so.  Put Patek Philippe on the dial and you would be looking at mid seven figures; perhaps even eight. Someone walked away with a steal for a class act in horology.

But if there is one trend that was apparent from the auction this time is that vintage “tool watch” Rolex and traditional sports watch designs are starting to rise above all else. With the super rare Patek watches hitting (what seems to be) a plateau in terms of price rise: The real stars in Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction: Six did not get above the high reserve. These watches are still commanding extremely high prices and aggressive bidding, but either Phillips have managed to start to get the range of bids precise, or there is no longer the appetite to push the higher end boundaries on price for the galactic, previously thought to be unobtainable, Patek or Rolex watches. That said, there was a Patek ref. 2499 in pink gold, in stunning condition that almost 2.8 million CHF; and of course, the Patek ref. 2497 “Exceptional White” — one of only three examples known — that went for 2.3 million CHF at the hammer.

By comparison the Patek Nautilus and the Royal Oak Series A both went wildly above the high reserve. A very nice example of an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Series A, from 1972, went for double the high reserve at CHF CHF 50,000 (before buyer’s premium). A Patek Philippe Nautilus in yellow gold ref. 3800 from 1985 sold for CHF 56,000 (after the watch had a high reserve of CHF 12,000). Likewise, the Rolex Explorer 2 1655 watches went above the high reserve (lots 131 and 198).  Watches that had been issued for military purposes also fared well: An Omega (lot 201) and a Blancpain (lot 125) both went well above the high reserve for the provenance. The movers and shakers: Those watches that went well above the high reserve tended to be less well-known brands, or watches with an interesting provenance. Steel cased or tool watch designation were the all-important criteria.

It was interesting to note that there was no real acceleration in exotic dial Paul Newman Daytona’s.  Even with uncommon or near unique dials. There was still no bidding substantially above the high reserve and for the most part it was the likes of the Rolex Milgaus and Rolex Explorer 2 that claimed the plaudits.

Modern watches for the most part were well within the reserve range and equally tended to remain within sight of the retail price (once you had factored in the add-ons for commission and tax).  The exception, which was good to see, was the Panerai PAM 21. A deservedly legendary watch for the simple fact that once bought, Richemont was able to meet the price for the whole brand simply on the issue of this one Panerai limited edition. Lot 208 sold for over CHF 100,000: Well above the high reserve.

Overall, Phillips’ ability to sell the watches in their charge is laudable. Admittedly the catalogue is always enticing: From the clear and honest display of the condition of the watch to the low estimate on the price. Aurel Bacs’ philosophy of selling watches that collectors would want to wear because of its authenticity and condition: That “where did you get that?” look from other collectors, is one that demonstrably works. There are watches available to all sizes of wallets and Aurel Bacs and the whole Phillips team put in the same effort for the Patek ref. 2497 “Exceptional White” as for a humble steel Longines watch from 1948. This is truly commendable and simply good business sense. Today’s Longines buyer may be tomorrow’s “ultimate” Patek collector. Interesting watches, as demonstrated by the Omega prototype, might not command “most expensive watch ever” headlines, but may in their own modest manner represent an excellent example of a particular watch. Both watch and collector at all levels of the spectrum deserve the same treatment and that is what Aurel Bacs and his Phillips team deliver so well. Today, honour belonged to Omega. And with good reason.

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