Shady Dealings? Antiquorum And The Stolen A. Lange & Söhne Anniversary Watch No. 185/500
Conditions of sale, Antiquorum Hong Kong, June 2015: “Antiquorum confirms no ability or obligation to perform due diligence on any lot.”
Imagine one of the worst things that could happen to you as a watch collector: your home is invaded by robbers and your entire collection is spirited away.
Thankfully, when you rush home you find your family shaken but safe, but your collection of special watches built up over many years is gone; only the boxes and papers remain.
You call the police and fill out crime reports, and you spread the word of your loss on major watch forums, through friends who maintain registries of some of the watches in question, and with the manufacturers themselves.
And then you wait, hoping that some of the watches will eventually emerge so that you can reclaim them.
Well, this scenario actually happened to a good friend of mine, Nicolas, who is for me the living definition of the term “enthusiast collector.” Nicolas is the long-time moderator of the Jaeger-LeCoultre forum on PuristsPro, and in a little over nine years in this position he has contributed a mind-boggling 115,000 posts – and counting.
On January 18, 2011, Nicolas was at SIHH when word arrived of the break-in at his Paris home; over the next several years, he continued to dispense his infectious brand of watch enthusiasm while occasionally ruing the loss of his pieces until one day a ray of light emerged. At its October 25, 2015 auction, Antiquorum had sold one of Nicolas’ watches: the A. Lange & Söhne Langematik Anniversary watch no. 185/500.
Amazingly, Antiquorum had listed and sold the watch even though information was readily available in public view prior to the sale, including on the Antiquorum-owned forum website www.timezone.com, reporting it as stolen.
The winning bidder stumbled across this information within a few days after buying the watch and immediately returned the watch to Antiquorum with the demand for a refund.
Nicolas also received word of the sale through friends and contacted Antiquorum, providing a copy of the original papers for the watch (which were still in Nicolas’ possession) and the police report of the theft.
A month later, Antiquorum responded to Nicolas’ response for an update with the news that it had “cancelled the sale and returned the timepiece to the consignor.”
Nicolas went public with his story on December 26, 2015 (see Antiquorum and stolen watches: Langematik Anniversary Nr 185 / 500), and reaction from the collector community was rapid and vehement. How could it be that any reputable business would willingly return stolen property to someone who was not its rightful owner?
I’ve spoken with several knowledgeable folks, including friends who have been in similar situations, and it seems that things are perhaps not as cut and dried as they might appear at first.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is with an alternative telling of events: let’s say you’re a collector and you’ve been looking for a while for a Langematik Anniversary piece like the one shown in the photo below.
Through an established dealer, you find a clean-looking, pre-owned piece that is selling for today’s prevailing market price of about $38,000 and you execute a deal, saving a few bucks by negotiating a lower price due to the absence of matching box and papers.
A few years later, you decide you really wanted a different piece by A. Lange & Söhne and you put the watch up for auction. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose as a prior owner claims that the watch was stolen from him. The watch is turned over to the authorities and ultimately to its prior owner.
That doesn’t seem too fair either, does it?
As it turns out, the law may just agree with you. As a “bona fide purchaser for value,” as long as you weren’t aware that the property was stolen and you paid a fair market price for it, you have strong claims to title for the watch under both New York law and Section 2-403 of the U.S. Uniform Commercial Code; the latter places additional weight on the fact that you bought through a dealer upon whom you could reasonably rely for reputable dealing.
Some of the same tests appear to exist in French law, and Swiss law provides title to stolen property to a subsequent purchaser if he can demonstrate that he acted in good faith (Autocephalous Greek-Orthodox Church of Cyprus v. Goldberg and Feldman Fine Arts Inc.).
But this interpretation isn’t universal, even in the United States. In Newman v. Stewart and Eisenberg v. Grand Bank for Savings, the Mississippi Supreme Court and U.S. 5th Circuit Court ruled “neither the thief of stolen property nor his transferees can convey any title or property right to such property. A bona fide purchaser of stolen property acquires no title or interest therein.”
Similarly, it seems likely that Hong Kong’s British legal foundations dictate that the principle of nemo dat quod non habet (literally, “no one gives what he does not have”) applies: a thief cannot pass good title to stolen goods.
So let’s see: we have a Swiss company dealing with a watch that was stolen in France, sold in Hong Kong (allegedly by a Chinese owner), and bought by an American. What to do?
Antiquorum’s response? As communicated to Nicolas: “We have consulted our legal counsel in NY and HK how to handle this case. Due to the ambiguity of title, we have been advised to return the piece to the consignor.”
In my opinion, it’s a deeply disappointing outcome relative to the option of turning the watch over to the relevant authorities pending resolution of ownership, and I believe the collector community was correct in characterizing Antiquorum’s actions as “expedient” rather than principled; but now it’s done.
While I’m no lawyer, it seems likely that to reclaim his watch my friend Nicolas would be faced with need to pursue custody all the way back up the chain of owners (starting with the person who consigned the watch to Antiquorum, if he can gain disclosure of that individual’s identity) across geographies and jurisdictions, at his own expense, until he finds someone who was not a “bona fide purchaser.”
What a mess!
Don’t let this happen to you
Of course, there’s no way to insulate yourself 100 percent against life’s problems, but perhaps a few common-sense steps will help you to avoid this particular pain like those that follow.
Secure your property. I have a safe box at the bank, and I use it. Yes, it’s a bit of a pain going in and out all of the time, but at least the bank usually has free coffee on offer. And while personal property insurance on listed items seems awfully expensive when you’re writing the check, it can both provide peace of mind and reimburse you in the event you drop your Richard Mille down the toilet.
Report any losses. If the worst does happen, make it known. A full police report will provide the basis for insurance claims and establish your ownership claim. Some brands also maintain stolen watch registries and will impound stolen watches subsequently returned for service. Additionally, several online forum members maintain lost watch registries, and emerging online services such as thechronoregistry.ch and thewatchregister.com provide additional places to list your lost pieces.
Buy the seller. Yes, it’s an old chestnut, but still one to heed: I prefer to deal with people I know. And, in particular, I’ll make my own judgments about whether in the future I will place my trust in Antiquorum based on the behavior demonstrated in this case.
Eyes wide open. I’ve bought at auction and count several auction house employees among my good friends. At the same time, I understand that the business of the auction house is to facilitate transactions. At the margin auction houses earn, one should expect them to act accordingly, whether that’s in condition reporting or establishing provenance.
The small print of auctioneers’ sites is full of statements like “consignee makes no representations about ownership of consigned watch,” “to the fullest extent permissible under applicable law, Agent and the seller disclaim and exclude any and all other warranties of any kind relating to the lots,” and “all lots are sold on an as-is basis.”
Box and papers. Are there watches without papers that are completely legitimate? Of course! I own a couple myself, as I somehow managed to trash several box and paper sets when I relocated my residence in 2003. But when you see a piece for resale that has no papers, dig a little deeper. And whenever possible, try to get a clear paper trail all the way back to the original retail purchase.
Do your own research. Before buying at auction or from someone not well known to you, check online (or even consider plunking down the 10 pounds for a check on www.thewatchregistry.com) to check out the serial number or limited edition number.
A word to sellers. Get the money in the bank! You’d think that selling would be safer than buying as you get to have the money in hand before you send the watch, but the world is full of fake cashier’s checks and even bogus wire transfers. When I sell, I wait until the wire is fully confirmed by my bank and then transfer the money into a second account and wait for the confirmation there before letting the watch out of my sight. Sounds extreme, but a close friend of mine was the victim of a scam money transfer and never did get his watch – or the money – back.
Our hobby is full of so much fun and so many great people that it’s sad to have to deal with the more unsavory elements from time to time. Here’s hoping that you stay safe out there, and that as a collector community we continue to watch out for each other and hold wrong-doers to account.
Also published on Medium.