Luxury maisons and auction houses don’t always see eye to eye. However, for the past few years, the ties between heritage brands and auctioneers have become closer than ever because of their collaboration on promoting history, savoir faire and timeless value.
While luxury brands and auction houses – which represent predominantly secondary market sales – often butt heads over turf wars, prospects are bright for both parties to collaborate. “More brands, especially niche labels, [have started] to embrace auction houses in the past few years,” says Frederic Watrelot, who heads Christie’s Hong Kong’s watches department. “Even more [established houses] are seeing the benefits [of auctions].”
One such example is the much buzzed-about Naissance d’une Montre School Watch, the star lot for Christie’s upcoming Hong Kong sale. The prototype took watchmaker Michel Boulanger five years to finish, and is entirely handmade, handpolished and crafted from sketch. The project, initiated by Greubel Forsey and Philippe Dufour, is particularly noteworthy because instead of distributing the important piece through regular retail channels – though an additional series of 10 watches will retail for 450,000 Swiss francs (HK$3.62 million) after the auction – Greubel Forsey will partner with Christie’s to maximise exposure to the media and clients.
“Auction is an interesting dynamic,” Stephen Forsey says. “We wish to generate as much fund and noise as possible for the project.” Watrelot says: “It’s all about leveraging [on our resources] and promoting each other. We also provide exposure to the watchmakers and promote the savoir faire of traditional watchmaking.”
The collaboration aims to preserve the technique and know-how of traditional watchmaking. The proceeds and Christie’s premium will be used to support the project.
This preservation of savoir-faire is key, because for today’s consumers, the spotlight is no longer only on the latest collections but also heritage pieces. Michael Friedman, Audemars Piguet’s historian, says that collectors of modern and vintage pieces are overlapping. “We are definitely seeing an increase in vintage-oriented collectors acquiring more modern watches and modern watch collectors acquiring more vintage [pieces],” he says. “I think it’s an increase of appreciation. Owners of a contemporary piece also look for its vintage counterpart which inspired the new style.”
The phenomenon has fuelled further collaboration between luxury brands and auctioneers. Sharon Chan, Sotheby’s Hong Kong head of watches department, points out that the exposure and demonstration of timeless value help promote the brands. “Auction records are a provenance for the brands and their creations,” she says. “It’s surely a win-win [situation].”
Phillips auction house’s international head of watches Sam Hines emphasises that the two worlds are intricately connected. “Social media and technology are making the world much smaller,” he says. He explains that the immediate availability of auction records – as opposed to the long wait before – means that information on product value, brand history and craftsmanship details plays a key part in allowing collectors to better understand their purchases.
There are plenty of retrospective exhibitions displaying the maisons’ know-how. Heritage houses such as Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Audemars Piguet have established museums to preserve, research and communicate their past works. Some have even established a business reselling vintage collections through retail.
Cartier Tradition, for example, is a special division within the 169-year-old maison which specialises in vintage pieces prior to 1970. “[Increasingly], we have collectors interested in both antique and modern collections,” says Pierre Rainero, Cartier’s image, style and heritage director. “To them, it’s not only about the beauty of a single object. They like to have different representations of the Cartier style.”
Van Cleef & Arpels heritage director Catherine Cariou says there is growing interest in the market for vintage pieces. Cariou is responsible for acquiring these rare finds for VCA’s museum as well as for the heritage collection to be sold at the brand’s boutiques. “Pieces from the ‘70s – vividly coloured big long necklaces with turquoise, topaz and coral – are trendy,” Cariou says. “Animal motifs are also doing well, particularly in Asia.”
Brand representatives are often seen bidding openly at auctions. Cartier Tradition, for example, acquires many of its vintage pieces from auctions as well as private collectors, later to be displayed in the brand’s museum archives or put up for resale. When they came across vintage pieces similar to ones from the archive, they include them in collections for resale. “How much we are ready to pay for a piece at auction also depends on if we want the piece for museum or for the Tradition collection,” Cartier’s Rainero says.
Meanwhile, Cariou is scouring lots for a vintage dog motif piece circa 1960s. “We are missing just one piece from the collection of nine pieces so we are now on a missing puppy hunt,” Cariou quips.
Quality, provenance and historic value – be it a patent or an important innovation back then are some of the key criteria for heritage directors to acquire vintage pieces for the museums.
Auctioneers welcome the positive competition. “We are working towards the same goal by promoting the brands not only through their latest models but also the vintage pieces,” Christie’s Watrelot says. “We don’t see it as competition at all. We complement each other.”
Charitable auctions have been perhaps the most commonly seen collaboration between luxury brands and auctioneers. The list of participants covers independent and mainstream labels alike.
The biennial Only Watch auction is another high-profile example for which brands including Patek Philippe, Breguet and Richard Mille create unique timepieces for a charitable cause. On a smaller scale, crossovers are also common. Last year and in 2013, Sotheby’s auctioned IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Edition “Le Petit Prince” in aid of Fondation Antoine de Saint Exupéry.
Apart from charity sales, it is scarce that luxury brands are contributing new pieces directly for auction. One rare exception was Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s 2006 thematic sale titled “Panerai – A Collection of Exclusive Timepieces” to which the brand contributed 10 pieces.
While the charity angle was still valid – a portion of the proceeds goes to charity – the sale made Sotheby’s the first in the world to pre-release five models from Panerai’s 2006 novelties before they are available in the retail market.
“The brands are doing a lot of sales by themselves,” Chan of Sotheby’s says. “It’s not a must for them to collaborate with us on such sales.”
While luxury brands might have yet to distribute many modern collections to auction houses, it seems the once competitive relationship has softened.
Luxury maisons are now opening up their archives for the public to authenticate the original status of timepieces as they were when they left the factory. Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, Longines and Omega have jumped on the bandwagon.
“Transparency is the reason why vintage and modern collectors are becoming more interested about the brands,” Friedman says. “We’ve been publishing more data, researching the archives and communicating clearly on our own website. The true rarity of vintage Audemars Piguet is now also being conveyed by the auction houses to the public.”
Hines also agrees and says: “Transparency keeps collectors comfortable and confident so they are willing to spend more on the watches because they know that such service is provided.”
Independent brands such as Greubel Forsey and MB&F go a step further to offer free services for their timepieces sold at auctions. “We want to make sure that collectors who acquire a pre-owned piece [know it will be] well maintained,” Forsey says.