The Value Of Rarity: Christie’s Auctions A Black-Dialed A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 In Stainless Steel (Exclusive And Never-Seen Photos)
As we approach the upcoming Christie’s New York auction on June 7, 2016 the ultra-rare stainless steel Lange 1 with a killer black dial has already enticed a lot of buzz among my collector friends. (For those not in the know, A. Lange & Söhne does not regularly produce watches in stainless steel, only precious metals.)
Especially as my collector friends discuss the estimated sale price range of $200,000 – $400,000.
The watch in question, seen in my photos throughout this article, is one of perhaps only 25 stainless steel watches of any kind ever made for sale by A. Lange & Söhne.
And while Lange isn’t saying, by general consensus among informed collectors it is one of only three Lange 1 examples in steel with a black dial, and the first ever to appear at auction.
That’s more than enough to get my juices flowing, but in this case I’m an even more interested observer as I know all three owners this watch has had, including the current owner who has made the tough choice to part with it to finance another acquisition.
Would you make the same call? Perhaps a few thought starters will help:
- If you owned a highly complicated Audemars Piguet watch such as the Jules Audemars Equation of Time, would you trade it for a limited edition AP Royal Oak of the same value?
- Would a unique Philippe Dufour Simplicity encased in titanium have a different value to you than one of the more than 200 existing precious-metal pieces?
- What would you pay for a garden-variety 1930s Longines wristwatch? What if it had been the daily wearer of Albert Einstein?
Welcome to the world of rarity! The more I’ve pondered and researched the topic, the more it becomes clear that numerical scarcity interacts with several other drivers of value, and that each of us as collectors views those tradeoffs differently.
In a world with no constraints
What if, just once, it were possible to buy a watch that ticked all of the value boxes that both make for a great watch and suggest robust future valuation? Our wish list of characteristics might include:
- A notable and prestigious brand name with many followers among the collector community
- Within the brand, clear status as a classic (some might say “icon”)
- Beautiful craftsmanship and finishing
- Interesting and well-executed mechanical complications. In recent auctions, chronographs including rattrapantes, monopushers, and perpetual calendar chronographs have been among the pieces that have done extraordinarily well
- Especially notable provenance: witness Albert Einstein’s watch, which, despite its otherwise humble nature, sold at auction in 2008 for $596,000
- Numerical scarcity, perhaps even uniqueness: whether in overall numbers or (as in the instance of the steel Lange 1) important individual characteristics
- In the case of vintage items, preservation and originality
Either happily or sadly, we don’t live in such a world where objects meeting all of these criteria abound, and it’s when the factors begin to interact that things get interesting.
Take the example of the Patek Philippe Reference 3448 “Disco Volante,” a clean-looking perpetual calendar watch of which 586 examples were made. The great majority of those watches were encased in yellow gold, and buying one of those at auction today would typically set you back between $80,000 and $125,000.
Unless, of course, you wanted the one previously owned by Ringo Starr, which sold at auction for $179,000 (see Ringo Starr’s Patek Philippe Ref. 3448 Sells At Auction For $179,200).
Confounding factors aside, at the very top end of the market sheer numerical rarity does seem to lead to exponential price elasticity as well-heeled buyers become increasingly keen to own something that others don’t.
For instance, fewer than 25 white gold Patek Philippe Reference 3448 examples exist, and those trade at considerably higher prices than the more “common” yellow gold ones. In the Geneva Christie’s auction of May 16, 2016, a white gold 3448 with an unusual dial was expected to sell for between $300,000 and $500,000. The price it ended up realizing was 629,000 Swiss francs ($647,897).
And if you really want to go all out, you can wait until one of the two pink gold 3448s becomes available again; in 2011, one of those sold at Christie’s for over $2.3 million.
Sometimes, sheer rarity (with a bit of age thrown in) can lead to huge escalations in value. The Patek Philippe Reference 5020, a TV-shaped 37 mm perpetual calendar, was so unloved at the time of its introduction in the 1990s that very few were made.
At least in my opinion, the passage of time has done nothing to improve its appearance; but in 2015 one of the few white gold examples sold for more than 200,000 Swiss francs.
As you might imagine, however, scarcity alone doesn’t always dictate the full outcome. For instance, with Ferrari there’s only one 250 SWB “Breadvan,” while 39 250 GTOs exist, but the “iconic” 250 GTO is almost twice as valuable.
The looks of the Breadvan don’t appeal to everyone (Gianni Agnelli once famously had his butler paint it black because he likened it to a hearse) and the driving position is so cramped that many drivers simply don’t fit comfortably.
Making choices in the real world
So let’s say that due to a fortunate set of circumstances, good friendships, and fortuitous timing you already had the black-dialed steel Lange 1 in your collection. Why might you decide to sell?
This is where the real-world constraints of collecting come into play. I’ve met a few collectors who seem to have near-infinite financial resources; but as a rule collectors have to make tradeoffs no matter where we sit on the scale of pieces owned and their value.
As I’ve watched my good friend’s collection over the past several years, there has been a clear trend in his holdings toward highly complicated and mechanically novel watches from a small number of top brands and independents. As a result, he owns a number of pieces that were made in limited numbers; but the nature of the watches themselves, not their scarcity, has been his core driver.
Several months ago, he bought an important chiming perpetual calendar watch as well as an “unobtainable” mechanically inventive watch from a leading independent, and the question became: what to sell in exchange?
The final choices came down to another rare repeating wristwatch and the steel Lange 1. After months of deep consideration he concluded that based both on the technical merits of the repeater and some personal considerations surrounding its acquisition it was the more meaningful one for him to keep.
Bid or pass?
That was his choice; what would yours be?
Let’s return to our criteria for an ideal rare watch:
- Prestigious brand: while A. Lange & Söhne is a younger brand than some others, over the past 22 years it has established itself at or very close to the top of the heap. And from a resale perspective, Lange watches such as examples of the original Tourbillon Pour le Mérite and the unique Double Split in stainless steel have recently drawn big results. As an example of the value of absolute rarity, the latter sold at auction for more than $500,000, about six times the current value of a pre-owned platinum example of the same watch
- Classic status within the brand: on the day of Lange’s relaunch in 1994, the Lange 1 was front and center – and it still is as perhaps the cornerstone of the brand. Ask 100 collectors to name the most notable A. Lange & Söhne wristwatch, and I’m guessing that almost all would name either the Datograph or Lange 1. Of those two only the Lange 1 was there from the very start
- Craftsmanship and finishing: a clear strength of A. Lange & Söhne, and having seen this particular piece up close, I can tell you it’s no exception
- Interesting and well-executed mechanical complications: well, nothing’s perfect! This was a factor in the seller’s ultimate decision to sell, but you may view the necessity of embedded complications differently than he does
- Especially notable provenance: the running joke between my buddy and I is that he should have changed his name to Eric Clapton! All three past owners of this watch are well-known in the collecting community but not exactly celebrities otherwise, so no Ringo Starr bump on this one. That said, I’d have total confidence buying a watch from any of the three based on what I know about them as collectors and people
- Numerical scarcity, perhaps even uniqueness: with three of these pieces in existence and the remaining two reportedly in the hands of long-term collectors, you can do the math. These watches were made in late 1998 or early 1999, and this is the first public resale. Ever. Once this chance passes, will there be another?
Bottom line: if you are a hard-core Lange collector, or someone who is building a carefully curated collection of the most notable and representative watches from the most respected makers, this may be that rarity: a true once-in-a-lifetime chance.
You may also like Behind The Lens: Rare Lange 1 Limited Editions.
Quick Facts A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 in stainless steel
Year of production: 1998, unknown quantity
Case: stainless steel, 38.5 x 10 mm
Dial: silver, black
Movement: manually wound Caliber L901.0
Functions: hours, minutes, small seconds; offset large date
Recent auction prices (silver dial): $113,000 to $155,000