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One of the undeniable trends in the auction world in the last decade has been the rise in vintage watch prices. Looking at the overall market and depending on how you want to measure the price rise, vintage watches have, on average, risen in price somewhere between 10 and 20%.
The market for vintage watches has equally grown in volume. Across the four major auction houses — Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Bonhams — the vintage watch market is worth approximately $2 billion to $3 billion, with the value of some watches skyrocketing in recent years, Fortune reported in 2017. In the auction market alone, Christies has gone from sales of $8 million in 2004 to $130 million in 2014.
Vintage watch collecting is no longer a market for “anorak devotees” alone. What was once a closed world has become a growth industry. It’s now seen as an investment or something that’s “cool” and part of an overall dress sense. The popping up of blogs and websites such as Hodinkee, Mr. Porter, and The Rake/Revolution have further helped illustrate growing interest in watches.
Vintage watches have become a store of value in the same way as art and automobiles. Recent auction results have propelled vintage watches into the same asset class limelight — an asset that can be held, enjoyed, and then potentially sold with little downside.
There are highly specialized elements to look for in a vintage watch. It’s a murky world, and with any investment, due diligence is essential. Yes, you can wear them, but with any collectible it’s best to do so sparingly — one mark or accident will affect the value of the asset considerably.
Every year there appears to be a new record price for a reference set at auction that makes the headlines.
For example, four years ago, one of only four known Patek Philippe reference 1518 in steel sold for over $11 million. Three years ago, it was the Rolex ref. 6062 “Bao Dai.” And two years ago, it was Paul Newman’s own Paul Newman “exotic dial” Rolex ref. 6263 Daytona.
Condition, originality, slight variations in dial design, fonts (what and how something is written on the dial), and that last and intangible factor — desirability — all make up the price paid.
In times of economic uncertainty and turbulent stock markets, there tends to be a retrenchment to collectibles and assets in physical forms. But as the small print on any asset sale will tell you, the value of your investment can go up as well as down.
For the moment, vintage watches are on the up; but “caveat emptor” — buyer beware. If you’re thinking about going “all in” with the horological asset world, here is my starter set of five high-value watches.
Produced between 1966 and 1971 and arguably the most famous and generally sought-after vintage Rolex watch, the general class of Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytonas (reference numbers 6236, 6239, 6240, 6241, 6262, 6263, and 6264) are the current “blue chip” investment of the watch world. What makes the Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” different from any other Rolex Daytona of the same reference is the dial.
That’s it. Just the dial.
The exotic or Paul Newman dial features an art deco style font for the numerals, and the hash marks have a small square at the end. Additionally, there’s a small “step” in the dial between the outer minute track and the center of the dial. Generally, the dials are monochrome (black and white), but in some references the dial features a third color (red).
There are plenty of Rolex Daytona’s of the same reference in stainless steel with “regular” black dials, but it’s the version with the exotic dial — or, as termed by the Italian collectors somewhere around the end of the 1980’s, the “Paul Newman” dials — that have become the collectible.
Of course, the reason that the exotic dial Daytonas are now so sought after equally lies in the supply side. The dials are produced in limited numbers.
The world of vintage Rolex is complicated and filled with detailed minutiae that you need to know. You must do your homework very carefully first if you’re thinking of acquiring one. For a good condition, good provenance version, expect to pay six figures.
Introduced in 1951 to succeed the ref. 1518, to many watch collectors, the perpetual calendar ref. 2499 is the ultimate Patek.
Part of the appeal of the ref. 2499 is the modern dimensions and layout for the dial. The ref. 2499 had four iterations over 35 years (until 1986) — and with only 349 actual watches produced, there are some that are more desirable than others.
The first series are arguably the rarer out of the four, and about half of the ref. 2499 watches are from the third series, making them the least valuable.
The value of a ref. 2499 comes from the metal used for the case and the dial. A yellow gold reference 2499 first series is considerably less valuable than the same watch with a rose gold case. To add to the rarity factor, and therefore the value, the names of past prominent retailers can be found on the dial: for example, Serpico Y Laino, or Asprey or Cartier.
The 2499 has rock-star status and rock-star provenance. Unsubstantiated rumours, except for the existence of a single photograph, are that Yoko Ono bought a yellow gold version for John Lennon on his 40th birthday.
But the rarest reference 2499 are cased in platinum, and there are only two in existence. One is displayed in the Patek Museum in Geneva, and the other was previously owned by Eric Clapton and sold by Christie’s in 2012 for $3.63 million. In today’s market, it would auction for considerably more.
Among Rolex’s galaxy of vintage watch references, the 6062 Triple Calendar Moonphase is an undoubted shining star. It was the watch reference for the last Emperor of Vietnam, (appropriately named the “Bao Dai”), adorned by US military generals, and is a particularly desirable watch among vintage Rolex collectors.
The reference 6062 has it all: rarity, a near ideally balanced dial design, and a short finite time (three years) when it was made, and because of that production numbers for the reference were limited to a few hundred across a number of different metals (including steel) and with a number of different dials.
In short, there’s plenty of scope for unique or extremely rare examples.
However, as with all vintage watches, condition is paramount, and a true and correct order to the watch will ensure a premium.
The watch is the only Rolex triple calendar housed in the iconic Rolex “Oyster” case, which brings certain benefits: waterproofing properties preserving both movement and dial from water moisture and dust. Second, the dimensions of the mid-century Oyster case, at 36mm, were near ideal. The 6062 was produced in yellow gold, rose gold, and stainless steel, with two-tone silvered dials and sometimes, in rare cases, black ones.
But what makes the 6062 reference special in the eyes of Rolex collectors is the known variations in the dial. The dial adds to the rarity for this reference. The gold models featured a series of dial configurations ranging from the “Stelline” (with stars as hour markers), the “Pyramid” (with triangular indexes at the quarter hours), darts (with arrow head-like indexes), diamond indexes (like the Bao Dai), and the 3-9 configuration. The steel 6062s only featured two-tone silvered dials with the 3-9 Arabic numerals in steel or yellow gold and luminous alpha hands.
Of all the Calatrava models that Patek Philippe has ever produced, the reference 2526 is not only archetypal — it also has one with the rarest of dials.
Nearly all of the reference features a “fired enamel” dial, referred to as a grand feu email dial. Most of the dials are white, or what has become a cream color. A smaller number have a black dial, and being the rarer model commands a premium.
What helps with vintage Patek, although it’s not always fail proof, is the existence of the Patek archives. The archives can confirm whether or not the watch was sold with the dial in question. With the likes of Ben Clymer (founder of Hodinkee) calling the ref. 2526 the ultimate time only automatic watch, with only about 600 being made over the course of eight years and with dials cracking or deteriorating, truly original versions are starting to gain a premium.
The ref. 2526 was released in two editions, with the first series being the rarer. You can tell a first series dial from the second as the enamel dial around the hour markers is slightly indented. If the watch has a retailer’s name on the dial (in the same manner as the reference 2499), then it’ll be worth more — the same if the watch has Breguet or Arabic font numerals.
Although perhaps not as sought after as others on this list, the watch represents one of the timeless vintage watches to collect.
Designed by Gerald Genta, the originator of the luxury steel watch, for Patek Philippe in 1975, the watch is more popular now than it’s ever been over the approximate 45 years it’s been in production.
The Nautilus was selected over Gerald Genta’s other masterpiece, the Royal Oak, as the vintage watch to consider acquiring as prices for the Patek all-steel luxury sports watch have swiftly escalated in recent years. The watch design has changed very little.
The watch case is based on a ship’s porthole construction with an integrated steel bracelet. Different finishing techniques between brushed and polished provide texture to the design. If you can believe the legend, the watch was designed on a napkin over a dinner at the Basel Watch Fair.
The queue for new Nautilus watches, if you can get on the list, is capped at six years — no wonder determined collectors have sought out the auction market and pushed prices on an ever-increasing curve upward.
Dr. Andrew Hildreth is a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and a watch consultant to Christie’s and Christie’s Education. Over the past two decades, he has contributed to a number of publications including GQ, Vanity Fair, Hodinkee, Financial Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
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