Interesting Times for Quality Vintage Watch Buyers

The vintage watch market has always been a fascinating place, and recently it has begun to surprise even the most seasoned experts. There are so many factors to consider with each individual timepiece that’s for sale, and there are so many exceptions to the rule, that it constantly keeps me on my toes. The fact that two collectors almost never share the same opinion makes it pretty difficult to have a general assessment of a watch.

Historically those that collected vintage pieces did it mainly out of passion. Making money was an afterthought, or sometimes a lucky bonus (for some collectors event today). Watch collecting was a hobby, and a real niche interest group. But things have changed since the day I bought my first vintage watch.

The entire industry is now estimated to be worth in the region of $2 billion. The five leading auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, Bonhams and Antiquorum make up a large part of it. Last year, Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold $90 million and $80 million worth of vintage pieces respectively, and they have separate horology divisions for quite a few years now.

Besides the big auction houses, the online marketplace has opened the floodgates, and dedicated blogs such as Hodinkee have fueled the interest in a big way. It’s boom time. People who used to have merely a passing interest in horology are now hardcore enthusiasts. The collectors just seem to keep coming out of the woodwork.

A while ago I have noticed an important shift in vintage watch market: Collectors are willing to pay top dollar for high quality pieces. There was a time where everyone was only looking at dials and paperwork whereas today the case and provenance will add a lot more to the value than before. Nowadays people are far more interested in the rarest version of those desirable models.The number of collectors is rising and collectors are hungry for the best. Obviously a bidding war between two collectors on an auction can lead to a crazy result as well but this is happening more and more often so behind that there is a substantial trend.

Paul Maudsley, Phillip’s Auctioneers international specialist, speaking to Business of Fashion, agreed, saying “The vintage watch market is in a very healthy state at the moment. Each year new collectors come on board and gain an understanding of the various specialist collected brands, and prices rise steadily.”

Timezone’s James Dowling recently told Think Advisor that although prices are generally higher than in the past, the vintage market is experiencing the same “flight to quality” seen with other collectibles. The price differential between top-tier watches and the lower tiers used to be 25%-30% but has widened considerably in recent years. Now it may be 100% or 200%?, because everyone wants the very best,” he said. “And the very best pieces are fetching phenomenal sums of money right now.”

Of course, as anyone who has tried his hand at this niche market will tell you, there are a whole host of seemingly insignificant details that can impact a watch’s selling price. While some models, particularly Rolex and Patek Phillipe have increased in value between 50-100% over the last two years, that’s certainly not the case with every watch.

As a regular visitor to the auction events as well as keeping my eye on the online market, I’ve seen it happen more than once – two watches which are identical in almost every way will fetch completely different selling prices because of minor, but very important details in condition and quality.

One of the watch experts at Hodinkee, Benjamin Clymer, shared an example that illustrates just how important this kind of thing can be. Two virtually identical watches – the Rolex reference 6062 triple calendar moon-phase, only a few serial numbers apart were sold for wildly different prices.One of them sold for 1,265,000 SFr, while the other reached only 315,750 SFr. The price difference was close to a million!

Most importantly, the difference between the two watches is not immediately apparent, in fact it’s incredibly subtle.


If you look very, very closely at the “cheaper” watch you can just see that the luminescent numerals have been retouched. Rather than increase the watch’s value, it immediately throws suspicion on the provenance. The more expensive watch was in original condition, though faded, and what’s more it had only been owned by two previous collectors who kept it in the safe the entire time.

Small (but substantial) differences, perhaps, but a huge final difference in price.

This story clearly illustrates the perils of the vintage scene today. Whether you’re buying or selling, there are a great many things to consider besides the version of the dial, andcondition. Even the slightest modification to the watch will have an impact on what it is worth – and those tiny details are not always easy to identify.

So, in summary I can say that it’s all part of the intrigue. Finding a timepiece that really speaks to you, reading up about all the details, and scouring the market for that dream watch are all part of the adventure. Just one thing: Make sure you’ve done your homework thoroughly or have someone who does it for you.


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