Geoff Hess of Sotheby’s Talks Vintage Timepieces

Face to Face: The auction house’s head of watches for the Americas reflects on the latest trends and connoisseurs’ most coveted models.

April 2, 2024  |  Sonia Esther Soltani

How is the vintage watch market doing?

It’s a very interesting time in our hobby with respect to vintage watches. In 2017, 2018, 2019, there was an enormous focus on vintage watches. It really was the highlight of attention in the watch-collecting community, more so with respect to vintage Rolex than anything else.

But come 2020, 2021, 2022, we saw a meaningful shift to modern watches, and that runs the gamut of brands. Beyond a focus on Rolex, Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, there was a meaningful portion of attention placed on independent watchmaking as well. We’re now seeing a little bit of a resurgence, in particular in the last six months, of vintage watch collecting again.

Have some models been particularly in demand?

We saw a lot of attention on Royal Oaks and certain steel sports models like Daytonas. In fact, we saw the birth of a term called “hyped watches” that social media had a significant impact on, drawing collectors’ attention to a handful of modern watch references. Those watches are terrific, but they lend themselves a little less to scholarship.

The collecting of vintage watches requires a bit more study, more of a deep dive than the average, simple modern watch that you can go to a store and [get with an accompanying] box and papers. Everything is perfect and new. With vintage watches, it requires a collector to take the time to study them, to learn about the nuances, the different iterations of dials, bezels, bracelets, fonts, and lume.

Is the current trend to buy timepieces for investment, or for collecting?

In recent years, we saw people buying largely for investment and speculative purposes. The majority of that purchasing was in modern watches. And to some degree, the real, honest collector who really loves and studies watches felt priced out. We started to hear collectors say, “This isn’t fun anymore. I’m glad I have what I have, because I couldn’t afford to do it anymore.”

We saw this huge run-up in the price of modern watches. As those prices peeled back in the past year, we’ve seen collectors who are really passionate about watches return to the market. I like to say that the fun is back.

Patek Philippe Ref. 1518R wristwatch in pink gold with a perpetual calendar chronograph featuring moon phases, 1950. It sold for $1.5 million at Sotheby’s in December 2023. (Sotheby’s)

Have collectors’ attitudes toward watch-buying evolved?

They’re more willing to study watches and less inclined to just go to a store, buy a watch and go home with it. As a consequence, we’re seeing a greater and renewed interest in vintage watches.

The other thing that bears noting is the impact of social media. I’ve been a watch collector for 30 years. For most of that time, there was no Instagram, and we lived on internet watch-collecting forums, and those served as a wonderful ground for learning. You got to learn who were the real experts, and you learned from them.

When Instagram became such a material part of watch collecting, content became faster. At any given moment, you can find thousands and thousands of watch pictures, which is good and exciting. I’ve had some concern that on one hand, Instagram and social media have been great for watches; they’ve broadened our audience and captured the attention of millions of people across the globe in connection with our hobby.

At the same time, though, there’s been a lot less discourse and education. Therefore, it becomes a bit harder to collect vintage watches, because you really need that education.

Who are the new collectors you are seeing at Sotheby’s?

If we look at the Sotheby’s live auction in the first week of December [2023], we had 1,300 bidders from just over 60 countries. It’s extraordinary. This is no longer a small hobby that appeals to a small demographic in the United States.

We have people from all over the world bidding at our auctions, calling in, consigning their watches, coming to our events and looking at our content.

Not only has the audience become younger, it has most definitely become broader. There are certain brands that dominate more than others. Rolex is a king. But nevertheless, the footprint that we’re seeing is so large when we go live with an auction that we are talking to the whole world, and it’s incredibly exciting. It’s really changed the playing field.

This is an edited version of a longer interview from the Jewelry Connoisseur Podcast, released on March 12. The episode is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Rapaport Jewelry Pro’s YouTube channel.

Main image: Geoff Hess (Sotheby’s)

This article is from the March-April 2024 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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Geoff Hess of Sotheby’s Talks Vintage Timepieces

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