08/30/2018
 5 minutes

The Thrill of Buying a Watch at Auction

By Jorg Weppelink
Rolex Daytona Paul Newman, Image: Bert Buijsrogge

Rolex Daytona Paul NewmanImage: Bert Buijsrogge

Are you someone who enjoys the thrill of an auction, where the high of winning is incredibly satisfying and the low of a loss impossibly devastating? In recent years, the attention paid to watch auctions has increased enormously. High-profile watch auctions organized by the famous auction houses like Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonhams, and especially Philips have had an impact on worldwide exposure to auctioning watches. However, there are a lot more companies that offer watch auctions, both in real life and online. Let’s look at the pros and cons of watch auctions and why you should participate in them – or not.

The Rise in Popularity

The auction of Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona in October 2017 is easily the highlight in the history of watch auctions. Newman’s Rolex sold for a staggering $17.75 million, which earned it massive media coverage globally. It is a direct result of watches coming to be perceived of as just as worthy of an investment as vintage cars, rare wine, or fine art. The ever-increasing number of wealthy people with money to spare has created an enormous market for the auction houses. Nowadays, every auction house has a watch department dedicated to setting up exclusive auctions in every part of the world, each with special pieces that generate a lot of publicity. The auctions themselves are high-profile events full of famous investors who want to see and be seen. There is no denying that watch auctions have been gaining momentum over the last few years.

Online Auction Platforms

For people who lack the desire or possibility to buy watches at these exclusive events, there are many other ways for them to enjoy auctions as well. For starters, there are watch auctions organized by smaller auction houses who specialize in watches. Then, perhaps more obviously, there are online platforms like eBay or Catawiki, where there is always a steady stream of watches on offer for you to bid on. eBay offers the option to place bids on single items or to take part in larger online watch auctions. On the other hand, Catawiki only presents watches in curated auctions, often with a specific theme. Whichever way you choose, there are pros and cons to this form of buying watches. Let’s take a look at just a few of the positive and negative aspects of participating in a watch auction.

The Upside

Rolex 6150 Pre-Explorer
Rolex 6150 Pre-Explorer

We’ll start off with the positives of buying watches at auction and why you should check them out. First off, watch auctions give you access to rare and limited watches you most likely wouldn’t have found on your own. Wouldn’t you like the chance to own a vintage Rolex ref. 6150 “Pre-Explorer?” Big auction houses with dedicated watch departments tend to organize events offering highly sought-after watches. Sometimes auction houses actively pursue a watch not intended for sale in the hopes of persuading the owner to part with their vintage watch. Even in online auctions, you might just stumble upon a piece you like very much and otherwise never would have considered.

Secondly, starting prices are often lower than market prices. If you’re lucky, you may even get a watch for well under its current market value. Of course, this is most likely to happen with unique or underappreciated watches you enjoy that are not as desirable among a larger audience. If you’re looking for a vintage piece from one of the big brands, chances are slim that you will be able to buy it under its market value. But who knows: Maybe you’ll nab that Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 3700-1A for a bargain price. Getting a great deal can be one of the most exciting moments in a watch auction. If you know your stuff and have your eye on a less popular watch, you could have a ton of fun buying something you really like for a decent price.

Another big advantage of buying a watch from one of the big auction houses is the guarantee that it is authentic. With their dedicated watchmakers, watch experts, and direct contact to the brands, auction houses are able to check whether a watch is authentic and performing up to the technical standards you would expect when paying such premium prices.

Last but not least is the thrill of actively participating in an auction. It provides you with a rush of adrenaline that hopefully peaks with the joy of buying a watch you’ve always wanted. That, or perhaps it was a watch you’d never thought you’d buy but ended up buying in the spur of the moment and now get to enjoy for years to come. Watch auctions are special occasions, and the excitement that comes with buying a watch at auction could be a moment you will end up remembering forever.

The Downside

Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 3700-1A
Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref. 3700-1AImage: Bert Buijsrogge

That same rush of adrenaline is also the start of some of the negatives attached to watch auctions. Let’s say you get caught up in the heat of the moment and buy a watch for more than you would have liked to. Despite this loss of self-control, you should take comfort in that fact that you are not the first one this has happened to and that you did it out of sheer enthusiasm for a timepiece that is now yours.

Something else people tend to forget is that winning an auction means having to pay not only the price of the watch but also all the extra costs that come with it. Auction houses and online platforms need to make money too, so they charge a significant premium on top of whatever the highest bid was. After you’ve paid that, you then have to deal with the shipping, insurance, and customs costs, which can also amount to a significant sum. All of that’s to say: Be prepared to pay extra fees and charges once you’ve decided to bid on a watch with the intent of buying it.

Another important downside when participating in online auctions is the need to be a connoisseur yourself to determine whether a watch is authentic or not. While it may make things more difficult, it does mean diving headfirst into the fascinating world of watches. There you will probably hear some amazing stories and learn details you would’ve never otherwise. Plus, the role of the online platform should always be that of a reliable auctioneer or marketplace that can help you trace where exactly the watch is coming from and indicate whether the seller is trustworthy. In the end, however, you still have to do your homework properly and become something of a watch expert yourself.

Lastly, if you would like to attend an auction at one of the big auctions houses, you have to be one of the lucky few to even be invited. As the number of watch-hungry wealthy people increases and the auctions continue to transform into high-profile media events, the chances of you getting in are moving closer and closer to zero percent. Being taken for a serious potential buyer means having incredibly deep pockets, knowing the right people, and having a reputation for collecting watches. Even then, the number of seats at every auction is limited.

All of that said, we can’t deny the fact that the popularity of watch auctions is on the rise. How long that will last and what the future of watch auctions will bring remains to be seen. In the meantime, watch auctions might just be the solution to finding that special watch you never knew you wanted until you started bidding. In other words: What’s stopping you?

Read more

What Will Be the Next “Paul Newman” ?

Value Development of the Patek Philippe Nautilus

Are watches really a good investment?


About the Author

Jorg Weppelink

Hi, I'm Jorg, and I've been writing articles for Chrono24 since 2016. However, my relationship with Chrono24 goes back a bit longer, as my love for watches began …

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