‘Safe Choices’ Like Rolex and Patek Philippe Are Leading Watch Auctions

Still ticking along: Sale results dipped in the first half, but experts say that was just a blip in an otherwise healthy rhythm.

September 20, 2023  |  Carol Besler

The spring watch auctions in New York and Geneva by Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s yielded top results for the usual suspects: rare Patek Philippes and iconic Rolexes. Statistically speaking, the results for the first half of 2023 were down, but they were still robust: Despite falling 18% year on year, timepiece sales were higher than in the first half of 2021, according to The Mercury Project, a Swiss consulting firm that tracks watch and jewelry auctions. There were several spectacular sales in 2022’s first half, which partly explains the slight drop, it adds.

The consulting company, which also factors in results from Antiquorum, Poly Auction and Bonhams, found a notable decline in the number of six-figure lots — 593 compared with 877 a year earlier — and a drop in those lots’ prices. However, the total value of millionaire lots — those bringing in $1 million or more — was up 38% year on year.

“People are looking for safe choices at the moment, and that means Patek Philippe and Rolex,” says Mercury Project founder Thierry Huron. “Models that sold well last year in the six-figure category from brands like Omega, Jaeger-LeCoultre, [TAG] Heuer, IWC, and Panerai are potentially more lucrative in the long term, but also more volatile.”

A pocket watch by Roger Smith (pictured) was the top lot in Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo’s New York Watch Auction: Eight. It broke the world record for any British timepiece at auction, selling for $4.9 million. The top Patek Philippe was a time-only Ref. 2481 Pristine Forest, which went for $1.1 million — a new record for that reference. Among smaller but emerging brands, Zenith pieces commanded strong prices, including an A384 El Primero that soared past its $12,000 high estimate to $50,800 — the most a vintage El Primero model has ever achieved at auction. (Phillips)
The Christie’s New York spring sale totaled $4.1 million, with another iconic Rolex featuring among the top lots. The Ref. 6236 Jean-Claude Killy — a rare triple-calendar chronograph made between 1958 and 1962 that got its name from the famous Olympic skier who wore the style — sold for $264,000. (Christie’s Images Limited 2023)

Paul Boutros, head of watches for Phillips America, takes a positive view. While “more commercial and common modern timepieces have seen a softening of prices, the demand for well-preserved vintage watches, exceptional independent watches, [and] rare or complicated modern watches continues to rise — a sign of a robust and resilient market,” he says.

This is especially true of in-demand independent brands like F.P. Journe. “We are experiencing a real tension between high demand and low availability, which is driving some prices up,” says Emmanuel Danan, global managing director for luxury at Christie’s. “F.P. Journe is probably the best example: There is strong demand for watchmakers like him, who are in a constant search for innovation, creating watches in the purest tradition.”

Two watches passed the $3 million mark at Phillips’s Geneva Watch Auction XVII in May, which totaled CHF 47.2 million ($52.5 million) and yielded a new record for a gem-set Rolex Daytona. The Ref. 6270 End Game with a pavé diamond dial netted CHF 3.7 million ($4.1 million). The second- and third-highest lots were rare Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 perpetual calendar chronographs, one (pictured) fetching CHF 3.2 million ($3.6 million) and the other CHF 2.4 million ($2.6 million). (Phillips)
The Sotheby’s Important Watches sale in New York totaled $16.4 million, with a holy-grail Patek Philippe leading the way: a “pink-on-pink” gold Ref. 1518 (pictured)that sold for $3.9 million. Another highlight was a pair of Rolexes that belonged to actor Paul Newman: a Zenith Daytona, from when Rolex was using Zenith movements, and a white gold Daytona that was a gift from his wife Joanne Woodward. Both sold for $1.1 million. (Sotheby’s)

In the overall pre-owned market, the drop in auction prices was barely a ripple. “The interest in fine watchmaking is far from slowing down,” says Justin Reis, CEO of secondhand-timepiece dealer WatchBox. “We’ve witnessed unprecedented price multiples compared to just a few years ago. Yes, prices have come down from the extreme peaks of last year, but active trading today affirms the enduring allure of fine timepieces.”

Christie’s held two Geneva sales in May: Rare Watches, which totaled CHF 26.5 million ($29.6 million), and The Art of F.P. Journe, which came to CHF 13.7 million ($15.3 million). Six watches sold above $1 million at the former, including a Patek Philippe Ref. 5711-1A-018 Tiffany Blue (pictured) — a Nautilus model double-signed by Tiffany & Co. Easily ranking as the most famous watch of the decade, it fetched CHF 2.2 million ($2.5 million). (Christie’s Images Limited 2023)

Main image: Rolex Paul Newman John Player Special. (Sotheby’s)

This article is from the September-October 2023 issue of Rapaport Magazine. View other articles here.

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‘Safe Choices’ Like Rolex and Patek Philippe Are Leading Watch Auctions

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