Even as luxury watch brands have battled retail challenges over the last few years, high-end vintage timepieces have been selling for record-setting prices, especially hard-to-find pieces by brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe.
Why is vintage resonating with collectors? And what are the trends that will dominate the market in coming years?
On a recent afternoon, The New York Times invited four influential watch dealers to discuss their opinions. Three of the experts who participated in the round table at Park Hyatt New York’s presidential suite are affiliated with auction houses: Saori Omura, director of Antiquorum New York’s watch department; John Reardon, international head of watches at Christie’s; and Daryn Schnipper, senior vice president and chairwoman of the international watch division at Sotheby’s. The fourth, Matthew Bain, is president of Matthew Bain Inc., an independent dealership based in Miami. The discussion has been edited and condensed.
“Ultimately, it’s about supply and demand at the end of the day,” Mr. Reardon said. “It’s also about expertise and condition; provenance in our world is becoming so important. When we present an important vintage Rolex to someone, people want to know where was it last: that’s the first thing — what’s the history on it.”
We’re getting together just as Patek Philippe has completed a large free exhibition of its watches, including many vintage models, here in Midtown. Many of the brand’s watches have been selling for extremely high prices at auction, well above their estimates. Why are its watches doing so well?
MS. SCHNIPPER: I think it’s because they take care of their own brand — that’s the most important thing. Auction houses typically provide you with a certificate, or an extract from the archive, and that’s a hard thing to get from other brands. There’s that comfort level if you’re going to spend a lot of money: You have a lot more information about the piece. It’s very hard to have a fake Patek, an out-and-out fake.
MR. REARDON: It’s an interesting time to address this question, too, considering what’s happened in New York. Twenty years ago, not everyone knew about Patek Philippe — you’d go in the street and maybe one out of 20 people would ever have even heard of it. Today, with Grand Central Station dressed in Patek Philippe logos for the last two weeks, New York City was literally one giant Calatrava. I think the reason they did it is that they’re making a statement, because they can, and they did it in a big, beautiful and elegant way.
MS. SCHNIPPER: As they always do.
MR. REARDON: Rolex is very much part of our universe, but Patek Philippe is giving a not-so-gentle reminder that they are No. 1.
MR. BAIN: It’s another class. Patek Philippe really invested in their company with their museum before any of the other companies. They were bidding at auction and protecting their brand and paying world records for their watches. And to your point, compared to Rolex, you can get a lot more information from Patek Philippe than you can about a Rolex.
MS. SCHNIPPER: They were so smart.
MR. BAIN: They invested a lot more into the brand. Rolex does, with advertising, and so does Patek, but I think Patek invested in the heritage of their brand more than Rolex has.
What other brands will become the next wave of extremely collectible watches?
MR. BAIN: That’s a hard question. Go back to the ’90s, when Franck Muller came out, they were…
MS. SCHNIPPER: Hot!
MR. BAIN: Beautiful and hot. And what they do is they sell out to corporations and they just become mass producing tons of watches. If you were talking about the independent brands….
MS. SCHNIPPER: Richard Mille is really hot right now.
All your auction houses have sold very expensive Mille watches recently, including a record-setting sale of a chronograph at Christie’s in June for more than $1.2 million.
MR. BAIN: They’re very hot, but that could be the next Franck Muller if someone buys the company and they start mass producing tons of these watches. You don’t know; it’s hard to predict. But I think maybe they’ll stick to what they’re doing. There are even smaller manufacturers like Laurent Ferrier.
MS. SCHNIPPER: Or Philippe Dufour.
MR. BAIN: If they stay small in production, I think those will be worth a lot of money one day.
Is the appeal of the Richard Mille watches that there are so few of them available?
MR. REARDON: It’s the most brilliant marketing play in recent history. It’s the billionaire’s handshake: That’s the watch you expect to see on the wrist when you’re closing a deal. With the 0.001 percent of the 1 percent, that’s the watch they want to have on their wrists.
MR. BAIN: Also the movements are pretty interesting. They’re intricate.
MS. SCHNIPPER: They are — they’re really fascinating. The other brilliant thing is his association with cars. We have so much crossover between cars and watches, it’s just insane.
MR. BAIN: Audemars Piguet is starting to come back, too, as a brand that’s come out with the Royal Oaks that are more classic, as opposed to these big, crazy Offshores. They’re actually building a huge museum in Switzerland right now by a famous architect and they’re investing a lot in their brand, like Patek Philippe has. I think they’ve got very good future.
MR. REARDON: As a result, their vintage watches are going up in price year after year.
MS. SCHNIPPER: Well, there was a time when there was a year where they made five watches. Literally.
MR. BAIN: There were just some world records broken with Audemars Piguet on some of their vintage watches. They’re on the rise.
MS. SCHNIPPER: Absolutely.
Tag Heuer is another brand that is growing in popularity at auction, yes?
MR. BAIN: Right — a lot of the lower brands like Heuer, Omega, like Universal Genève. A Rolex Paul Newman has become so expensive, and all of a sudden you have a similar-looking watch — it’s finally catching up a little bit. It’s expensive for what we’re used to, but it’s cheap compared to, say, a Rolex or a Patek Philippe. People are starting to recognize how rare these watches are, too. I’ve always bought them so I’m really happy about it!
Let’s say someone had $10,000 to invest in a vintage watch: What would you advise them to buy?
MS. SCHNIPPER: I probably would say Patek.
MR. REARDON: I’d say Patek.
MS. OMURA: Patek.
MR. BAIN: I’d say a Rolex sports model would be a great investment. For example, if you get a basic Rolex GMT or Submariner for $10,000…
MR. REARDON: …from a trusted source.
MR. BAIN: …from a trusted source, a great example in mint condition, it’s going to be worth double in the next five to seven years. That’s my opinion. You can buy a mint condition Submariner reference 5513 from 1975 for $10,000.
What’s next in the collectors’ market?
MR. BAIN: I think it’s an upward trend for mint condition and rare watches and I think these modern brands we talked about — the Audemars, the Richard Milles, Patek, Rolex — the same trends are going to continue.
MS. SCHNIPPER: A lot of these makers like Jaeger-LeCoultre, where they make so many interesting models now, where before they were really just making Reversos. They’ve really expanded their repertoire, so there’s a lot of interesting watches out there. It just interests people and intrigues them.
MS. OMURA: In the next six months to a year, for any one of us here, it’s the Rolex sports model — there’s no question. People speculate: They’re looking for a lot of things as investments. They buy something because they think it’s going to double in value.
We’ve also noticed, at least at Antiquorum, we have a lot more younger people who come to previews, who comment on Instagram and social media — so there’s a lot of hype that happens, but the hype could just end tomorrow. Looking at the people who are buying, let’s say, Heuers, it’s certainly the younger generation who might not be able to afford a nice Rolex like he’s wearing. [She referred to Mr. Bain, who wore a Rolex Daytona from the 1970s]. About a year and a half ago, we had a young gentleman who came to an auction; we’d never seen him before. A Heuer we estimated at, let’s say, $3,000 to $5,000, he purchased for close to $20,000. He looked relatively young: early 30s, perhaps even younger. So, there’s always that surprise that the younger generation brings.
MR. BAIN: There are younger dealers coming up in the market and they then relate to the younger collectors. I notice there are kids that are 16 and 17 years old.
MR. REARDON: The future of our industry is all about information: It’s about databases, it’s about scholarship. It’s not only about the provenance of each individual piece, it’s about the forensic study of the watches. Over the last 20 to 30 years, information has been controlled by a small amount of people and that’s changing now, especially with the whole digital revolution: More people are sharing, but they’re also sharing inaccurate information. That’s where it’s still “Let the buyer beware” more than ever before: It’s like you have to buy the seller before you buy the watch. That’s the first advice I give to anyone who’s getting into this world.