Attending An Auction With The Intent To Buy – And What Happened Next
Let’s start this out by divulging a few pieces of information: I’m not a regular auction-goer, I earn average money, and unless there is an extremely pressing reason to do so, I would probably never travel any sort of real distance to attend an auction.
However, there are exceptions:
- I have bought a watch at an auction. Just one, just recently. There were extenuating circumstances and that will be the subject of a story in the near future.
- I have traveled to attend auctions – such as Sotheby’s 2012 George Daniels auction in London and an edition of Only Watch in Monaco – but these were historical auctions and my intent was to report, not to buy.
So why did I go this Dr. Crott auction in Frankfurt? To learn.
You have likely also noticed that vintage watches are becoming more and more of a subject in our little world of ticks and tocks. Knowledgeable sites like Hodinkee have brought the joys of serious watch collecting to the fore, and while it’s no longer really possible to get an unheard-of deal among the major collectible brands like Rolex and Patek Philippe, with a little knowledge, you might be able to do well with other marques.
So I set out for Frankfurt very early on a Saturday morning to meet up with an old acquaintance, vintage watch dealer Ron Geweniger. Geweniger has run the Old World Jewelers website since 1996, which is an arm of the Chicago business he established in 1979 as a gemologist.
Geweniger became part of “the establishment” where valuable vintage and pre-owned watches are concerned in the mid-1980s after putting his focus on timepieces.
Lucky me, he agreed to help teach some of the ropes at the first auction where I actually physically registered and had the intent to acquire a timepiece should the price remain low enough.
Dr. Crott is Germany’s premier auction house, and its auctions take place at the Frankfurt Airport Sheraton. It goes without saying that German timepieces are often offered here, and usually many more pocket watches than one finds at other auction houses.
Established by Dr. Helmut Crott – now owner of Urban Jürgensen & Sønner – Auktionen Dr. Crott is now owned by Stefan Muser.
I had my eye on a German timepiece from the 1990s, whose estimate looked fairly low in the catalog. But I was also there to catch the flavor, and looking at the lots before the auction proved great fun.
The top lots the auction experts around me had picked out before the auction began did not include wristwatches, which surprised me greatly. In fact, if you had a mind to purchase them, you could have walked away from this auction with a modern tourbillon or two for around €12,000 each. Of course, they weren’t made by Patek Philippe, but then does everything valuable or beautiful have to be?
This crazy world of hushed conversations and mystic motions reminded me quite a bit of a high-stakes poker game. Additionally, nothing was as it appeared on the surface except for one lone Asian bidder up at the front frantically waving his buyer number from time to time.
The rest was rather difficult for me to follow closely as so much happened with a raised eyebrow, an Internet bid, or even – as I learned later – perhaps a prearranged conversation with a partner.
Out of the top 12 lots of this particular auction, only two were men’s wristwatches (the A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Pour le Mérite, €130,200, and a Rolex-outfitted Panerai Radiomir from about 1944, €90,250).
Just one of the dozen was a jeweled ladies’ wristwatch by Jaeger-LeCoultre containing the near-mythical Caliber 101. While I would really have liked to bid on that particular beauty – there are so few out there and this one is still in mint condition – it quickly soared, hammering for €57,600 including buyer’s premium.
I’d like to highlight a couple of the non-wristwatch top lots now as they are truly exquisite, and one rarely gets the chance to handle and talk about such beautiful objects.
While viewing some of the pieces pre-auction, one of my Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève co-jurors, watchmaker Moritz Elsaesser, had mentioned that his top lot was a German pocket watch most people won’t have heard of before. “You only see this kind of thing once in a lifetime,” he promised.
And so I went to have a closer look, deciding he was correct as I reverently inspected the eight-day precision pocket watch with cylinder escapement, double barrels, and a chain and fusée from about 1800 that had apparently never been used, so pristine it was.
It was made by Johann Heinrich Seyffert, who was the timing inspector of Dresden’s Mathematics-Physics Salon at the time, and it felt awe-inspiring in its historical and technical depth. After a literal bidding war in the room and on the phone, it went to a phone bidder for €111,600 (including buyer’s premium).
I have always been a big fan of Fabergé’s work, and was thus very happy to see a moon phase “egg clock” included in the auction. Interestingly, I had seen parts of this masterpiece in two workshops back in the day: the movement, of course, in Paul Gerber’s Zurich workshop, and the incredible shell during a tour of workmaster Victor Mayer’s workshop in Pforzheim.
The inspiration of this piece reaches back into the “egg” history of Fabergé. Completed in 2001, only a limited edition of 12 pieces was crafted. Victor Mayer’s craftsmen needed 18 months to complete the egg made of gold, onyx, rock crystal, and rose quartz. The body of the egg is embellished with hand-applied guilloche gold topped off by translucent light blue enamel.
The moon phases are shown on a navy blue enameled sky with gold leaf stars. The white gold moon is set with paved diamonds and onyx to display the moon phases.
The movement created by A.H.C.I. member Gerber is an eight-day mechanical movement outfitted with twin spring barrels, a swan-neck fine adjustment, and a Breguet overcoil balance spring. The hours are visible in a window made of rock crystal on the side of the egg, while the minutes can be seen on the gold ring located directly above it.
Every day at noon, “Clair de Lune” by Claude Debussy sounds from a musical movement found hidden in the gold-and-onyx pedestal. Simply exquisite. This piece hammered for €248,000 including buyer’s premium.
A trio of interesting pocket watches made the top 12: a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar minute repeater from 1984 (€89,300); an 1840 Breguet pocket watch intricately enameled with a map of the world (€96,800); and a Ulysse Nardin minute repeater with Westminster carillon (€86,400).
The day’s top lot was also a surprising timepiece: a gold-plated brass ship’s chronometer by Paul Philip Barraud from 1802 sheathed in shagreen with an enamel dial and a decorative retrograde 50-hour power reserve indicator. The reason this became the top lot? History.
This piece was crafted by Thomas Mudge’s son according to Mudge’s own designs in Barraud’s workshop. A lovely find that hammered for €273,000 including buyer’s premium: the day’s most expensive sale.
I left the auction knowing I had spent my Saturday well, even though I did go home empty-handed. I know you’re still wondering what happened to the lot I was looking at. So am I . . . I must admit that the pricing went up a tad too high too quickly, and I lost my confidence. Maybe next time.
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Great overview and good discipline, Elizabeth! That instinct to bid “just one more time” is a very tough one to fight, to be very sure…
Thank you, Gary! Actually, it wasn’t a tough instinct for me to fight as I am as-yet inexperienced at auction…