Watches

Coronavirus And The Booming Vintage Watch Market

'If you are a collector, you have a hunger that doesn’t stop even if the world stops.'
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Like almost every other business, the watch industry is having a terrible time. Factories have been closed, new launches postponed and shops boarded up. But one area of the business is booming.

“Vintage watches,” says Rebecca Ross, Christie’s watch specialist in New York. “If they weren’t in demand already, they certainly are now.”

The fact that lockdown means potential buyers are no longer able to inspect watches firsthand has not put them off.

“Last week I found a Patek Philippe for a client during all of this disruption, and it sold for $500,000 [£400,000],” Ross says. “People are sitting at home, and I don’t know if it’s boredom but they still have money to spend. If you are a collector, you have a hunger that doesn’t stop even if the world stops.”

The April lockdown coincided with rival auction house Sotheby’s launching Watches Weekly, a rolling online sale with new watches announced every seven days. It set a new sales record with the very first one, when a Rolex Paul Newman Daytona went for $306,518 [£245,000], the highest price for a watch paid at an online auction. That record lasted a week, until Sotheby’s second online watch sale bettered it with a Patek Philippe Nautilus, sold for $484,000 [£390,000]. Research compiled by the house indicates this new way of selling has put it in front of a new demographic, with 40 percent of participants being under 40 and more than half of them being new to the auction house.

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Thesaleroom.com, an online marketplace for art, antiques, and collectibles auctions, has also seen a significant increase in demand for vintage watches, in the time that the UK has been in lockdown. Demand for Rolex watches is up 11 percent in the month since March 26, with Tag Heuer up 19 percent and Blancpain up 37 percent, according to trade title WatchPro. Meanwhile Chrono24, another major pre-owned watch retailer, last week announced sales were 13 percent higher compared to pre-Coronavirus crisis.

David Silver, director of the Vintage Watch Company, London-based specialists who boast a display of the largest collection of pre-owned Rolexes in the world, tells a similar story. His west end boutique is shut, for now – so his customers have gone online.

“Engagement on the website and across social media is up significantly, over 30 percent,” he says. “Right now there’s a fear of where to put your money, obviously the stock market is unpredictable. And vintage watches have always been a safe place to increase your money. If you go back to the 2008 financial crisis, not one watch from any client of ours was sold back to us. People are looking to vintage because of the rarity value.”

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Silver says he is seeing most activity with Rolex sports watches between £10,000 and £20,000 and birth year examples of classic Oyster Perpetuals, which start at £4,000.

And he identifies another possible reason for the resilience of vintage watches right now.

“I truly believe it’s psychological,” he says. “It’s about enjoying your life. This particular disease seems to hit men harder than women. So from that point of view, there’s men who have been working their entire life, day in, day out – for what? They’re sitting there, adjusting and thinking ‘What is this money in the bank for? I might as well be treating myself.’ And a watch in particular is a tangible object that they can enjoy. People like that idea of passing it on to the next generation. That’s why these kind of pieces hold their value because they’re not traded in the same way. There’s much more attachment to them.”

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Sotheby’s new weekly format will complement the existing physical sales calendar, whenever their auctions can return to normal. For now, the format is a way of capitalizing on a quicker turnaround between appraisal and sale. For example, another Rolex Daytona, this one made for the United Arab Emirates Vice President and Prime Minister Rashid Al Maktoum in 1975, was consigned just a few days before the opening of the sale on April 1 and was listed for sale within 48 hours of Sotheby’s receiving it. (It went for HK $2m [£206,000] – then the second-highest online watch sale.)

“Typically the whole process of holding a live auction is between four and five months long,” says Sam Hines, worldwide head of Sotheby’s watch department, down the phone from Hong Kong. “We were looking at a way we could react with the market and readjust. Because of technology today and social media, the prices of certain types of watches fluctuate quite a lot, like a commodity. Sometimes in that four or five months between agreeing a price and the time you get to sell it, the market has moved. We also had this new quandary: if we printed a catalog, we didn’t know it was going to get to the collectors in all parts of the word.”

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“This weekly format allows us to be much more flexible with our consigners, and also with the market,” he says. “We’re seeing an immense appetite for collectors to bid in this way. A lot of the world is at home and it’s a good way for collectors to still buy, and to keep up with the market.”

Meanwhile Christie’s point to another booming area with even more immediacy than a weekly auction, that of private sales.

“This kind of transaction allows clients to buy and sell at any time of the year,” says Rebecca Ross. “It’s great because if you want a watch, you want it now. This is becoming a huge part of our business and its grown a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. We were already doing very well with our online auctions with 20 percent growth each year. And this year its exploded.”

The fact that drastically fewer new watches are being launched in 2020 – and none at all from Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Tudor – is surely another reason people are migrating to the pre-owned market right now. The auction houses have capitalized by front-loading sales with some guaranteed big-hitters by Rolex and Patek Philippe. At the same time what was once a fairly closed world has become much more democratic – anyone with Google can gen up on sought-after watches.

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“It’s getting harder and harder to find good Daytonas,” says Sam Hines. “There’s only a finite number of them in the world.”

Rebecca Ross thinks that with production halted at the most famous brands, the time is right for others to have more of a share of the limelight.

“They’ve always been overshadowed by Rolex and Patek, certainly in our auctions, but what about Omega, Longines and Universal Genève?” she says. “I think these guys will have a resurgence. They were really big in the Sixties and Seventies, so perhaps they’ll have more of a say now.”

Ross also has her eye on other timekeeping options, ones that have become more significant during the lockdown.

“I’m not wearing a watch while I’m at home,” she says. “I don’t like the feel of it. I really only wear it for going out to a party, to work and all the things I’m not doing anymore.”

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Instead, Ross is using her wall clock.

“It’s a very nice wall clock,” she clarifies. “It’s an IWC [Schafhausen]. And I think in this crisis, who knows? Perhaps we’ll see a resurgence in decorative timekeepers, once that you can use at home. Early desk clocks, world timer Patek Philippe wall clocks, things like that. Cartier desk clocks from the Thirties are a passion of mine.”

Meanwhile David Silver is looking forward to a time – soon – when new watches are made and sold again.

“There will be a huge interest in modern watches again because people have had nothing to get hold of. They will also stay strong, in my opinion. And that’s good for everyone.”

“Interest in modern watches always helps the vintage market,” he says.

This story originally appeared on Esquire.co.uk. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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