To say that Rolex and Patek Philippe boss results at watch auctions is an understatement. But who’s coming in a distant third? For years, there has been speculation about brands like Vacheron Constantin or Audemars Piguet moving in to fill that void, but the phenomenal increase in demand for F.P. Journe could suggest that there is a new contender on the scene now.
While prices of rare vintage watches have been rising steadily, over the last five years there has been an increase in demand for modern timepieces, especially those made by the likes of F.P. Journe, considered a giant among independent watchmakers. Earlier this June, the original Tourbillon Souverain “Souscription” - the one that helped François-Paul Journe launch his eponymous watch company - sold for $1.47 million at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XI. His second subscription watch, the Resonance, also fetched in excess of a million dollars on the night.
“Prices for Journe have been steadily increasing for the last 2-3 years. So it’s not really a surprise for those who follow the market,” says Alexandre Ghotbi, Head of Watches at Phillips for Continental Europe and the Middle East. It is hard to pinpoint when the brand turned the corner, but Ghotbi reckons that events and exhibitions have gone a long way in introducing collectors of vintage watches to the world of independent artisanal watchmaking. “Little by little those that owned all the vintage Patek and Rolex timepieces they need turned to look for rare, well-made horologically-relevant timepieces. F. P. Journe fits this description perfectly. He makes about 800-900 watches a year and this recognition is well-deserved.”
“The emergence of Journe and other independent brands is also down to the fact that this famous third brand never actually showed up behind Rolex and Patek. We have seen some amazing watches from Vacheron Constantin that do well at the auctions, but not nearly at the same level as the big two. Audemars Piguet have some incredible vintage watches, but they are so rare and so few exist in the market that it is hard to really say that this is a viable contender for the third place.
Amazing examples of vintage AP turn up in the market once every 2-3 years but you have amazing vintage Patek and Rolex watches that appear four times a year at the auctions. The problem with AP is its rarity. There is the odd Omega tourbillon prototype or an outstanding vintage Longines, but there are simply not enough turning up at auctions on a regular basis for any viable third place,” says Ghotbi, who previously worked at Vacheron Constantin and was involved in the founding of many early online forums (he co-founded The Purists).
It may have been a tough year for watch retailers, but not so much for auction houses. As far back as April, when the world was in the throes of a lockdown, sales of vintage and collectible modern watches were booming. In April, a 2014 Nautilus Ref. 5711 in platinum sold for $484,000 and a Ref. 6241 Daytona “Paul Newman” hammered for $306,518 at Sotheby’s. Closer home, Christie’s Watches Online: Dubai Edit auction pulled in $5.5 million in October, their biggest online sale yet. Then in November, Phillips sold a Patek Philippe World Timer Ref. 2523 for $5.5 million and a Phillipe Dufour for $1.5 million in Geneva.
“There is still a huge appetite for quality and rarity when it comes to vintage watches and modern collectible watches. We sold that $5.5 million Patek Philippe World Timer via online bidding to one of our clients. It’s the highest priced item ever sold online at Phillips (including arts and jewelry). We have also seen an emergence in interest for modern watches from the 1980’s and 90’s – those that came after the rebirth of mechanical watchmaking - like Roger Dubuis, A. Lange & Söhne. And then there’s the independent artisanal watchmakers like Journe, Voutilainen, and Dufour,”
There might be a lot of talk about how online sales have done well this year, but Ghotbi does not think it is going to drastically change the way the auction houses work. “It’s worth noting here that the person who successfully bid online for the $5.5 million Patek is an old client of the auction house. He did this online because he could not come to the auction in Geneva. It is true that today you can have people from Asia, the Middle East, and the rest of the world bidding at a sale in Geneva, but clients still like the experience of attending an auction. The ambience of an auction room in Geneva is very different from a sale in Hong Kong. It is all about the ambience and clients like it. I do not think online sales will replace a live auction,” says Ghotbi.
Phillips famously sold the most expensive Rolex sold at an auction in 2017 when the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239 that spawned the craze for the exotic dial chronograph - the one owned by the actor Paul Newman himself - hammered for $17.7 million at the Winning Icons Auction in New York. This year, the auction house is offering yet another watch that belonged to the Hollywood star, a Daytona Ref. 6263 “Big Red”. The sale of the Paul Newman Daytona in 2017 was not without impact: according to some experts, it helped drag vintage watch collecting out of its niche and drew attention from mainstream collectors of collectibles like art and classic cars.
What will the emergence of Newman’s “Big Red” mean for the Daytona market? “I don’t think it will have any impact, to be honest. The Daytona market has been extremely strong, especially in the last five years when prices have gone crazy. It did not have a significant impact on the market even when we sold the Daytona “Paul Newman” because even back then prices were high. The Daytona is a brand within a brand, the sale of the Newman’s “Big Red” is not going to impact the Daytona market because it is already strong,” says Ghotbi.
Does he have any advice for collectors who’ve been sitting on the fence when it comes to vintage watches? “Buy with your heart – don’t buy something because it is trendy or because there is massive hype around it. Also, buy from a reputable outlet, like a well-known auction house or a dealer of good standing because you know that if there is a problem, the watch can return to the dealer. Do your homework; ask questions, specialists at auction houses will be happy to answer your queries. There is no such thing a stupid question. And most importantly – buy quality. It is always better to pay more and acquire a timepiece in impeccable condition - you would rather buy a $5,00-6,000 Omega that’s in fine condition that an over-polished Daytona at $20,000 just because it’s cheap.”