While it would be no exaggeration to say that a majority of watch industry executives and authorized dealers would be happy to see the back of 2020, for those in the business of selling vintage watches and for auctions houses, 2020 was a year to remember. 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 Nautilus Ref. 5711 in platinum from 2014 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 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. And thanks to two Hollywood icons, the year ended with a bang – Paul Newman’s Ref. 6263 ‘Big Red’ Daytona sold for $5.4 million and Steve McQueen’s Heuer Monaco, one of the six worn on the sets of Le Mans fetched $2.2 million at Phillips’ flagship “Racing Pulse auction in New York. We spoke to Remy Julia, the head of watches for Christie’s (Middle East, India, & Africa) about what he thought of the year.

If someone had said to you in January that a pandemic would paralyze retail and upend the luxury industry, could you have imagined finishing the year with such results?

The year 2020 was a very successful one for the international watch department at Christie’s, not only at auctions but also with private sale transactions. In March, when the lockdown was announced, we initially thought that the business would drop but clients were more active and in constant contact with us, discussing their next acquisitions, curating their collections and evolving to the next stage of collecting.

This Rolex Milsub pulled in USD 400,000 at the Dubai auction

The Watches Department broke the record for online watches sale three times this year. The Dubai Watches sale that closed at the end of October totaled $5,592,000 establishing a record for an online watches sale at Christie’s. The highlight of the sale was a Rolex, Steel Submariner "MILSUB", Ref. 5513/17- made for the British Royal Navy, which sold for $400,000 establishing a record price at the time for a watch sold online at the auction house.

This record was surpassed a few weeks later by the Watches Online “The Geneva Edit” auction in November, which totaled $5,878,537. The top lot of the auction was a platinum F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain from 1999. The model was Journe’s first production watch, also the very first wristwatch to use a constant force remontoire, a mechanism to improve timekeeping. It sold to a private collector for $577,500 establishing a new record price for a watch sold online at Christie’s. Additionally, Rare Watches New York: Online (November 24 – December 10) surpassed that figure totaling $7.7m – a new record total for an online auction at Christie’s, with three watches records set at the auction.

Do you think 2020 has changed the way auction houses work forever? What impact has online sales had on the business?

In March 2020 a team at Christie’s was confronted with 160 live auctions scheduled to take place around the globe in the next 10 weeks - a solution was needed fast. Besides a new auction calendar and transferring a fast number of live auctions to our online platform, we needed to offer our clients a new experience to inspect the lots online and a new way to stay in touch with them. Our digital platform made up for the lack of in-person meetings between collector and specialist, we met our collectors online to inspect the lots and share our passion for watches. In the Luxury Group, Christie’s held 49 online sales in 2020, an increase of over 100 percent from 24 online sales in 2019. Additionally, there was a 30 percent increase in the number of lots offered in online luxury sales compared to same period last year and we welcomed many new clients to the category over the past 12 months. 

How would you sum up 2020 for Christie’s Watches in the region?

The year 2020 will go down as the one for digital innovation with 100 percent digital auctions.  We held online auctions without a room, without auctioneers, and yet we were as successful as live auctions. We embraced this new way of commerce, provided an advanced platform. Clients had to adapt as well, as bidding on important watches, without inspecting the item in person was a definitely challenge. I believe the post-2020 era will see a duality in room as well as online auctions, both with their own dynamic and curation.

Journe Toubillon Souverain

F.P. Journe seems to have had an amazing year at the auctions. Do you think independents are beginning to get the attention they deserve now?

Journe has had all ingredients to be attractive to the entire spectrum of watches collectors for many years now. I believe that this current trend started during the last edition of Only Watch auction where the brand took the community by surprise (Ed’s Note: The F.P. Journe Astronomic Blue, with a staggering 18 complications, sold for CHF1.8 million) Reasons for success? Low availability with a production below 1,000 pieces per year, extremely small distribution network, high craftsmanship and innovation and independent status. Independent watchmaking has gained some momentum, but not all of them. The international watch community has surely an eye on this growing segment.

A personal highlight for 2020?

A memory I will keep from this year is the level of trust collectors place in us to transact on important watches without seeing them in person. It is a huge responsibility and privilege for myself and the team, and we can see the importance of the reputation we built over all these years.