Surviving (And Enjoying) The Great Geneva Watch Auction Week Of November 2021: Harbinger Of Boom Or (Imminent) Doom?
If you were there, you won’t forget it soon. And if you weren’t, you are still going to be hearing about it for a very long time indeed.
The November 2021 Geneva auction week will be remembered as the point in time at which either the value of collectible watches reached a new plateau from which they only continued to climb, or the bubble in prices for pieces from certain makers reached its most outrageous dimensions before deflating or imploding. I’m not sure which is the case, but it was certainly fun to be there and to share the experience with several of my watch buddies.
I arrived on the Sunday evening prior to the auction week, and on Monday and Tuesday mornings busied myself with visits to several boutiques, including a leisurely stay enjoying the new timepieces and chiming watches at the Patek Philippe salon and a two-hour gabfest with my old friends at the MB&F MAD Gallery in addition to a lengthy viewing session at the Sotheby’s auction preview.
Once the rest of our core group from the NorCal Gang arrived on Tuesday afternoon, it was time to meet up for a quick drink and then dinner with one of the true watch good guys, Ludovic Ballouard.
It’s all about the people! Ballouard was kind enough to take us through tales of some of his successes and daunting challenges, sharing photos of some mind-blowing custom variations on his Upside Down and Half Time watches, including the “phonograph turntable” Half Time that subsequently sold for CHF 140,000 at Only Watch later in the week against an estimate range of CHF 40,000 to 60,000.
While that sounds – and is – remarkable, it’s only one example of the myriad watches that shattered their estimate ranges during the week. In what became another recurring theme, Ballouard told us that his production capacity is fully committed for the foreseeable future – in his case, to the extent that he is finding it tough to set aside time to work on his next references.
I began the formal assault on my digestive system with a dish containing some substantial percentage of the Swiss annual cheese production, and we ended the evening with a pledge to visit the Ballouard workshop on our next trip.
The theme of watchmaker interactions accelerated on Wednesday when a New York friend who was a 2021 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève juror joined the four of us for a trip to Fleurier to see Kari Voutilainen’s new mountaintop atelier, a converted former restaurant with a stunning view.
As you might expect from Voutilainen everything is absolutely first class, from the re-created wooden paneling and moldings to the airy working areas and the line of rose engines set up in a room that stands directly on the mountain’s bedrock, minimizing vibrations.
After a full tour and before heading off for lunch, we entered the room where Voutilainen presents watches to their new owners and encountered a touching display: the signed print of the six Masterpiece Chronograph IIs commissioned by our group, now framed and hanging for all visitors to see.
And while we were there, it seemed only fitting that one of our members take delivery of his new watch: a fantastic-looking unique Vingt-8 Inverse with stainless steel case and “humid-blasted” hands whose legibility far outstripped that of those of the standard version worn by another member of our group.
One of the great things about having a somewhat unstructured week (at least relative to, say, the weeks of Watches and Wonders or Baselworld with their rigid schedules) is that it’s possible to call an audible from time to time. As we departed from lunch in Môtiers, one of our gang dropped a text to Vianney Halter to see whether we might stop by his temporary quarters in Ste. Croix, and we soon found ourselves in the delightful mechanical jumble that Halter inhabits – a complete contrast to the ordered world of Voutilainen.
Halter was in fine form, and without revealing too much I can say that he is working on at least one new launch and doing some empirical research on the phenomenon of resonance.
Back into town and to an event I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: an atelier visit and dinner with Rexhep Rexhepi and partner Annabelle along with the delivery of the truly splendid Chronomètre Contemporain 01 to two members of our group, myself included. You can certainly expect a “Why I Bought It” on this piece once I’ve lived with it for a little while, but I can say that it lives up to every expectation I had.
I was more than delighted to strap it onto my wrist for dinner and throughout the remainder of the week.
Awards, auctions, and more watchmakers
On Thursday, we tooled out to La Reserve for the Phillips preview, where we had the opportunity to handle the top lots and other pieces of interest. I held in my hand, and chimed, the watch I thought I might have a tiny chance of taking home with me: the Grande et Petite Sonnerie pocket watch No. 1 by Philippe Dufour.
I had been kicking myself since 2012 when I was the underbidder on the No. 1 sonnerie pocket watch that Dufour made for Audemars Piguet, a piece that sold for the amazingly low (hindsight being 20:20) price of $173,000 – a substantial sum at the time for a pocket watch, but small potatoes today given the recent mania surrounding the top independent makers. I came to Geneva with a number considerably higher than that in mind and a list of watches I was fully prepared to sell if successful to fund the exploit; we would see during the Sunday auction whether I’d succeed or not.
There’s something really pleasant about sitting in a preview room with friends, passing watches back and forth, and chatting with other friends and auction house members who pass by. I knew I’d missed it, but even so was surprised by how great it felt to be back into the routine.
We finally tore ourselves away from the preview for lunch with young independents Gaël Petermann and Florian Bédat, winners of the Revelation Prize at the 2020 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève and creators of the beautifully finished Reference 1967 jump hour watch. They’ve recently announced a second series of this reference in titanium with a blue dial, limited to 25 examples and scheduled for production over the next 36 months. I will neither confirm nor deny that three members of our group will be counting the days until their watches are ready to wear.
Bédat and Petermann were tight-lipped about their next project, saying only that it will be “more complicated” and likely to be announced in spring of 2022. I can’t wait to see what these two have up their sleeves given how impressive Reference 1967 is.
Once back in downtown Geneva, we headed for the Four Seasons and the Only Watch and Christie’s previews. We were allowed to handle only a few of the Only Watch pieces but found all quite impressive; in particular I can say that the F.P. Journe/Coppola “hand” watch looks much better in person than in photos, with the complicated gear train visible at the left of the dial adding substantial visual interest.
We were also graced with a quick visit by Mr. Only Watch himself, Luc Pettavino, who was clearly running on adrenaline by this point in the week but was as charming as always and is in my opinion the pure embodiment of charity in action.
At Christie’s, my eye was drawn to a very clean looking Patek Philippe Reference 533 chronograph from 1951 bearing a surprisingly low estimate (of course, in the aftermath of the weekend it seems that almost all estimates were low). In this instance, however, we learned that the watch has a later (but correct) service dial, holding its value down. I’ll come back sometime to the topic of correctness vs. originality, but the watch seemed a great wearer to me, and I made a mental note to be in the room on Monday for its auction.
It was almost time to head off for the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève ceremony, but first I had a quick meeting with watchmaker Luca Soprana to catch up. Soprana may not yet be a household name, but he is the constructor behind the scenes for many watches you do know and most recently he collaborated with William Massena on the Massena Lab Old School watch.
Our Quill & Pad contributor family has already published its thoughts on the GPHG results; whether one agreed or disagreed with the jury’s choices, I don’t think that anyone will dispute that it was fantastic to be in the same room with so many esteemed members of the watch community once again. And later in the evening, it was great fun to mingle with friends old and new at a watering hole near the site of the awards ceremony, even if I did wake up the next day with a hoarse voice from shouting over the din.
Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: XIV
What can one say about Phillips’ fourteenth Geneva watch auction on Friday and Sunday? Every lot sold (with an assist from the re-opening of the one unsold lot when “someone who was trying to bid earlier” conveniently surfaced), and estimate ranges were often simply starting points for higher and higher bidding.
I’ll cut to the chase on my aspirations: when bidding opened on Sunday for lot 145, the Dufour pocket watch, my war chest was swamped immediately by an opening bid of one million Swiss Francs, with the lot eventually selling for CHF 2,329,000 – more than $2.5 million.
Two other lots I fancied also eluded me by significant margins. I’ve long wanted a Cartier mystery clock, and lot 226A seemed an excellent newer example at a quite reasonable estimate range of CHF 25,000 to 45,000. Reasonable, indeed: the lot sold for CHF 340,200!
Finally, there was a super-clean Patek Philippe Reference 2497, lot 184, that would have been just lovely to have at its low estimate of CHF 150,000 but went for a fully deserved CHF 365,400.
One thing I found particularly impressive about the conduct of the Phillips auction was that the auctioneer of auctioneers, Aurel Bacs, stepped aside for considerable periods of time to allow younger members of his team to wield the gavel. Especially in such a supercharged atmosphere, I found this commitment to developing future talent striking. And in Clara Kessi, I think Bacs has a star of the future who already melds command of the proceedings, the capacity to maintain a brisk pace, the ability to engage bidders, and a ready smile to make the sales happen while keeping both sellers and buyers happy.
Only Watch 2021
Between the two days at Phillips, I joined 850 other enthusiasts at Palexpo on Saturday for the latest edition of Only Watch. In contrast to the few prior editions at which Patek Philippe dominated the proceedings, this auction had several stars, including of course the Patek Philippe table clock that hammered at CHF 9,500,000, but also F.P, Journe’s Francis Ford Coppola watch, the De Bethune/Voutilainen collaboration, and lot 1, the first example of Rexhep Rexhepi’s CC02, which went for a cool CHF 800,000 (and might have done better had it followed some of the other lots).
It was a very solid day for almost everyone: only four lots of 53 failed to meet or exceed their high estimates, and only one sold below its estimate range. And independents from MB&F to Konstantin Chaykin saw their pieces sell at multiples of the high estimate.
Four notable moments come to mind: first, when a friend seated with us seemed to have the winning bid on the De Bethune/Voutilainen piece in hand at CHF 900,000 (the numbers!) as the hammer hovered and hovered, a noted collector in the front row stood up, walked over to the underbidder and whispered something, and a bid of CHF 1,000,000 was made on the way to a final price of CHF 1,300,000.
Our friend took it in relatively good graces as it raised more money for the charity, but at a traditional auction with a stern huissier policing the proceedings I suspect things might have ended differently.
The second (actually a pair): seeing Thierry Stern’s two sons each get in a bid on a lot. Neither prevailed, but it was good fun.
Third: seeing our Elizabeth Doerr’s unrestrained joy at meeting a musical icon, jazz fusion legend John McLaughlin, and having the opportunity to capture them having a brief chat.
The final moment: just after Luc Pettavino announced the final auction total of CHF 29,740,000, a generous individual shouted that he would round the number up to 30 million for good measure!
Winding down and wrapping up
There were many other meals and a few late-night chats over cocktails with pals mixed in there, but finally we found ourselves on Monday with the Christie’s auction as the main event after a quick morning jaunt out to Agenhor to visit with Laurent and Nico Wiederrecht. As should come as no surprise by now, I was unsuccessful in my bidding for the Patek Philippe Reference 533, which went for a couple of bids above my high number. I suppose it was a relief to at least get my hand in the air a few times!
The highlight for me of the Christie’s session was watching the bidding for a sequence of important pocket watches, including an early Breguet four-minute tourbillon that sold for CHF 1,230,000. The prized pieces went to the same bidder, a tiny older woman with an even smaller voice. The underbidder? None other than François-Paul Journe, sitting across the aisle. Sometimes it really is important – and fun – to be in the room where it happens.
At a final dinner hosted by a local collector friend, we were re-introduced to watchmaker Hervé Schlüchter, formerly associated with the Alchemists Cu29 watch and now the founder of new brand Hyade-S. Schlüchter took us through a brief presentation on his latest work, including a first edition of ten watches that is (you guessed it) already sold out. A fitting end to the week!
Friends, watchmakers, and (at least for the present time) low expectations of bidding success: that’s how I survived the Geneva watch auction week.