You Are There: Attending The Only Watch Auction 2015 With Patek Philippe
Only Watch, the biennial charity auction on behalf of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research, has firmly established itself as a landmark event on the watch scene. With this year’s sixth renewal of the event serving as the kickoff for the autumn Geneva watch auction week, it was attended by a multitude of eager bidders from around the world.
Patek Philippe certainly did its part: in addition to donating the landmark piece for the event, a blue-dialed, steel-cased Reference 5016A-010, the Stern family’s enterprise invited a select set of loyal clients to join the auction. A good friend of mine was one of the clients invited, and he extended the irresistible opportunity to me to join him. A few phone calls, a stack of frequent flyer miles, and some not-so-subtle lobbying with my wife later, I was on the plane.
When we first joined up with the group on Friday, I feared that I would be out of my depth among the small set of deeply knowledgeable collectors. But both they and our hosts from Patek Philippe were wonderfully gracious and welcoming, taking time to educate me on both the watches themselves and the family business and traditions behind them.
As we talked, there was a fair amount of discussion about the upcoming auction and speculation about the price that the 5016 would bring; clearly, the next day’s events would tell the tale.
We spent Saturday morning at the auction site at Geneva’s La Reserve hotel, where we checked out both the Only Watch lots and pieces on offer in the week’s other Phillips/Bacs and Russo auctions with long-time friend and collector Paul Boutros, who is now a consultant with Phillips.
In addition to the Patek Philippe Reference 5016 among the Only Watch pieces, I was particularly taken by the F.P. Journe blue-dialed Tourbillon Souverain Bleu, which looked considerably more striking in person than in photos (including mine). It’s a tough piece to capture – especially the blue chrome dial, which constitutes its main visual element.
The brushed surface on the dial of the Laurent Ferrier Galet Square also jumped to life in the proper light, and I made note of its estimated price range in hopes of having a chance at it later.
Before the auction our group met back at the Patek Philippe salon, now joined by CEO Thierry Stern. Looking at the splendid view, it was hard to imagine that until the last decade, this space had been occupied by master watchmakers building the brand’s most complex timepieces.
The 2015 Only Watch auction
Back at La Reserve, before taking our assigned seats we greeted watch pals and shook hands with industry legends including François-Paul Journe, who was personally on hand to support the event.
I’ve attended many automobile auctions over the years (see Pebble Beach Classic Car Week 2014: The Enthusiast Collector Goes To Car Heaven) and bought watches at auction as a telephone and internet bidder, but this was my first in-person watch auction. Aurel Bacs and his team did a splendid job keeping things moving and reminding the bidders of the merits of both the timepieces and the charitable cause.
The results of the auction itself were phenomenal with a reported 11,268,000 Swiss francs raised for Duchenne muscular dystrophy research.
To give a sense of the energy of the event, bidding was so spirited that more than one-quarter of the 44 pieces on auction sold for more than 1.5 times their high estimates.
First and foremost, setting a world record for a wristwatch sold at auction, the Patek Philippe 5016A-010 hammered at a stupefying 7.3 million Swiss francs against a conservative high estimate of 900,000 CHF. Tensions were high, and I was pinching myself to think that I was in this room surrounded by members of the Stern family and leading clients of the company as the watch achieved the summit.
In keeping with pre-auction buzz, the Tudor Black Bay Black One also crushed its high estimate of 4,500 Swiss francs, which was based on retail pricing of the standard watch. It achieved a stunning result of 375,000 CHF.
It will be interesting to see whether the winning bidder decides to have the small printing flaw on the dial repaired, seen here at 22 minutes past the hour, or ends up leaving it as is.
Other pieces selling at more than 150 percent of their high estimates included the one-off lots by Laurent Ferrier, Leroy, Louis Vuitton, Girard-Perregaux, Piaget, Speake-Marin, Vacheron Constantin, Boucheron, and Urwerk as well as the MB&F Melchior clock.
I was particularly pleased to see so many of the independents do so well alongside the major manufacturers. While my bidding on the Laurent Ferrier piece was not successful, I hope to see it again as it was won by a friend and longtime supporter of the Genevan boutique brand.
Kari Voutilainen’s watch, a joy to hold in hand at the morning preview, also sold well at almost 150 percent of its high estimate.
The Richard Mille RM 27-02 prototype as match-worn by Rafael Nadal was also a star, drawing a final bid of 650,000 Swiss francs. It became the second highest-grossing timepiece of the auction.
At the other end of the spectrum, there were some pieces that missed their low estimates by 20 percent or more including the de Grisogono, Chanel, and Bovet ladies’ pieces, the Armin Strom Skeleton Pure, and the Brittanica clock by Thomas Mercer.
My sense is that these and other brands, whose pieces sold below low estimate, largely came from makers who normally appeal to different market segments than those represented by the Only Watch bidders. The Bovet piece was perhaps further held back by the fact that it will not be delivered for some time.
I was surprised and disappointed by one result: the unique Moser perpetual calendar with its fumé dial and date numerals whimsically penned by children of some of Moser’s watchmakers. It sold for only three-quarters of its low estimate of 60,000 Swiss francs.
I got in an early bid, but then failed to follow through even though I felt the watch was a tremendous value at the price. And I’m now kicking myself! This was another watch that looked wonderful in person; much better, in my view, than is easy to show in photos.
Saturday’s Phillips auction
After a brief break, many of us filed back into the auction tent for the first session of the Phillips auction Two. During the morning, I’d resolved to bid on the “Souscription” Tourbillon Soverain number 9/20 by F.P. Journe, and felt I had a bit of inside knowledge in the form of the price that a friend had paid for another of the Subscription pieces a few years ago.
So much for that! During the event, my “knowledge” turned out to be fairly useless as my carefully planned bids were swallowed up en route to a final price of 269,000 Swiss francs including premium.
Other big pieces included two cloisonné enamel watches. The first of these was the Rolex Reference 6102 Caravelle that sold for 1,235,000 Swiss francs including premium.
The second, the Patek Philippe Star Dragon pocket watch, is one of only two enamel-dialed worldtimer pocket watches with a non-map motif. And this is the only one of those two outside of the Patek Philippe museum; it sold for a total of 965,000 Swiss francs.
Two wristwatch stars of the evening session were the extremely crisp Rolex Reference 8171 Padellone triple calendar that hammered at CHF 750,000 and the Patek Philippe steel split-seconds chronograph Reference 1436 that, following a long and nerve-wracking exchange between the two final bidders, finally hammered at a very substantial 2.8 million Swiss francs for a total just over 3.3 million after premium.
The first observation is an obvious one: if you ever have the blinding good luck that I did to be invited to tag along to an event like this one, by all means go!
Other thoughts from the portion of auction week that I attended:
- The very top end of the market still seems to be rolling along: at the Phillips auction, only a few items went unsold and most items did well against their estimates.
- However, prices on many watches below the top tier seemed to have softened somewhat, making some real bargains available, for instance, at the Christie’s auction. The lesson for collectors in this market: curate and go upmarket if possible, as a flight to quality may be in the offing.
- The Only Watch event seems to go from strength to strength, with robust participation by manufacturers and bidders alike and ongoing record results. It will be interesting to see if, and if so how, Patek Philippe will attempt to top this year’s Only Watch in two years’ time. Regardless, it seems clear that the event will continue to enjoy strong support on many fronts, certainly including from Patek Philippe.
- Rolex and Patek Philippe still rule the roost for top value, but at several of the week’s auctions there were great sets of watches from Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and others that provide strong evidence of the quality of vintage pieces available from major houses.
- Collectors prize uniqueness, whether it comes in the form of an Only Watch or embodied in rare variants of vintage watches.
- Lovers of independent watchmaking are alive and, it seems, doing pretty well if the strong results for indies at Only Watch are any indication. That said, less unique independent pieces, even from well-known makers, did seem to suffer in some of the week’s subsequent auctions.
Finally, and in total honesty: the point above about rarity aside, having just spent two days awash in vintage watches, I still don’t get the whole “tropical dial” thing! (See Why I’ve Never Owned A Rolex – And Why I Might Yet.)