Over the past year, vintage watches have been fetching outrageous prices at auction.
The record, for now, stands at US$17.8 million – a bid made in December 2017 for a Rolex Daytona that used to belong to the late American actor Paul Newman.
To find out why this is happening, we sat down with Sam Hines, a watch expert par excellence and Sotheby’s global head of watches.
On the table in front of us are a few examples of timepieces that Hines says are setting the vintage luxury watch-market ablaze.
Among the objects, I recognise a couple of Rolexes, a Patek Phillipe Nautilus and an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
Hines turns a green box towards me: it’s a vintage Rolex Daytona, one of the hottest watches on the market.
He says that, until recently, auction prices for vintage Daytonas had been fairly stable; they were selling at around US$25,000 to US$30,000 for about a decade. But suddenly, just last year, they quadrupled in value, with prices rising to US$100,000 or more.
Much of this boils down to fashion, Hines says.
Celebrities are into the Daytona in a big way: singers Adam Levine and Ed Sheeran and American television host Ellen DeGeneres and others have been sporting the classic chronometer, helping turn the market into a feeding frenzy.
“Vintage Rolex is becoming the new Richard Mille,” Hines says. “With watch collecting, a lot of collectors hang out together and compete with each other.”
And the trend is truly global: collector communities have never been more popular in Asia – Hines gives the example of a group of around 150 highly competitive collectors in Indonesia, for whom only the rarest examples will do.
“When one of the group buys something, it spurs the others on to compete and beat that,” he says.
So what makes the Daytona so collectable? Hines says it’s all about the details.
“The nice thing about the Daytona is that it's been in production now for over 50 years – you can see it evolve over time.
“For example, when it was first introduced in 1963, it didn't have screw-down pushers, which meant it was not water resistant.”
To non-collectors that might sound like a practical drawback, but for those in the know it’s a hallmark.
“The reason you see the word Cosmograph on the dial is that in the early ’60s Rolex was competing with Omega to get the Nasa [US space agency] contract. They didn’t get it, but they kept the name.”
These little facets of history are things that watch enthusiasts love. There’s a whole field of scholarship that Hines says has redefined the watch market.
Take, for example, the aforementioned Paul Newman Daytona.
Rolex didn’t produce many of these watches, making them highly sought after; this, in turn, led to counterfeiters adding fake Paul Newman-style dials to normal Daytonas.
“If you take a standard Daytona worth US$80,000 and put a Paul Newman dial on it, it’s worth US$180,000,” Hines says.
It took a few years for enthusiasts to catch on to this.
“It’s only within the last five to eight years that the market has learned to really identify the characteristics of the genuine dials,” Hines says.
“And with vintage Rolexes, the company will never authenticate an old watch. They don’t interfere at all with the antique watches.”
Hines says this means that collectors get to decide what’s hot and what’s not.
So what else are collectors looking for?
Hines says that context can be important: does the watch have a story that can be verified? Does it have provenance?
Hines turns to the gold pocket watch in front of us. Not only does it have a box – it has a receipt, a certificate, a soft pouch, and even a newspaper clipping in German, dated 1926.
“So this piece of paper here is almost 100 years old as well,” he says.
“The paperwork confirms the date of sale, and it also confirms how the watch was made, so we have gold, platinum and enamel that’s confirmed here as well.”
Hines says that having the original paperwork and box can add hugely to a watch’s value.
“In some cases, the further back you go, it [certification] can add 100 per cent to the valuation – because it’s rarer for the paperwork to survive.”
Now we come to the Patek Nautilus – another of the hottest watches on the market.
This is a rare example, encased in white gold with a white dial.
“The Nautilus was designed in the early ’70s by Gérald Genta, and it is just very retro; a very classic watch,” Hines says.
“Along with the Rolex Daytona, this is what everyone is looking for today.”
Even the modern iteration of the Nautilus is in such high demand that people are willing to spend twice the retail price (starting at about US$30,000 for the basic model) to jump the waiting list.
“It’s a lot like the Hermès Birkin bag,” Hines says.
“Patek could satisfy consumer demand, but instead choose to keep production small – the way Hermès do with their handbags.”
This, he says, ensures that the product retains its exclusivity.
As the hours and days tick by, tastes are changing.
Hines says young mainland Chinese collectors are now entering the vintage watch market in a big way.
While Geneva still retains its status as the centre of the watch trade, the global economy continues to transform and the focus is shifting eastward.
Cities in Asia are coming into their own as hubs of this vibrant market.
These new and highly receptive audiences are an engine for growth, and another major reason vintage watch prices keep rising. And the trend is unlikely to level off any time soon.
“People keep asking ‘is it a bubble? Is [the vintage watch market] going to crash?’,” Hines says. “But each season, it just gets stronger.”