Last night May 10th, 2015 at the long awaited inaugural Phillips Watches Auction One held in Geneva, a new historical record was set by a stainless steel Patek Philippe Monopusher Chronograph ref. 130 Doctor's Watch selling for $4.645 Million Swiss Francs —buyer's premium included. Yes ladies and gentleman, this is not a typo, this watch from 1927 sold short of $5 Million USD at today's exchange rate of $1.07 USD per CHF 1. Last night, this watch set many records including the most expensive chronograph ever sold at auction and a new high for any stainless steel wristwatch sold at auction. While many watch collectors feel that the sky is the limit when it comes to owning a piece of history or a rare vintage watch like this, we think that it's finally time for watch collectors to spend some time analyzing why this is happening. How is it possible that a monopusher chronograph —yes we know it's a Patek Philippe and the only other example is sitting at the Patek Phillipe Museum— fetches more money than a grand complication watch offered for sale at this auction or any other auction to date —with the exception of the Henry Graves Supercomplication that sold for $20.6 Million Swiss Francs as we reported it here or the 'Duke of Regla'.
To put things in even more perspective, this Patek Philippe Monopusher Chronograph ref. 130 sold for more than twice the price of the Patek Philippe 18K Pink Gold Perpetual Calendar Chronograph with Moon Phases ref. 2499 from 1951 that sold for $2,160,544 USD at Christie's Important Watches Auction in November of 2013.
But, What Makes this Patek Philippe So Special?
Monopusher chronographs are amongst the rarest gems within the family of complicated Patek Philippe wristwatches. These ultra-rare chronographs, fitted with the celebrated 13’’’ ébauche supplied by Victorin-Piguet of Le Sentier, were always cased in gold, with two exceptions finished in stainless steel: case numbers 504’146, the present watch, and 504’147, its identical sister. The latter is now part of the Patek Philippe Museum’s collection and on permanent exhibit in the salon dedicated to complicated wristwatches; furthermore, it is also prominently featured on the Museum’s own website. Consequently, the present example is the only known stainless steel monopusher chronograph by Patek Philippe in private hands. Patek Philippe finished its monopusher chronographs first in the well known officer–style and cushion–shaped cases and later on in the better known reference 130 style. These were, like later references 130, measuring 33mm in gold and a mere half a millimeter more for the steel version. The present watch, however, boasts a much larger and substantial case with a diameter of over 35mm.The dial design of these two watches cannot be described differently than with words like unique and spectacular: A matte silvered dial with vertically positioned subsidiary dials, the typical late 1930’s sector —or aviator design—, elegant Arabic numerals in black enamel and outer pulsation scale —a combination unique to these two watches.
Both watches were sold and delivered on the very same day, March 24, 1937, to Walser, Wald & Cia, Patek Philippe’s agent in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the time. Unconfirmed but reliable sources say that these two watches were made for two brothers, both medical doctors. Since its first public appearance at auction over 20 years ago, the watch has seen only two ownerships —in both cases two extraordinary connoisseurs and collectors with deep knowledge and passion for the finest and rarest. Thankfully, none of them have restored it, resulting today that it is preserved in a superbly honest and original condition. In fact, it appears that the stainless steel buckle mounted is still the very same and original one from 1937. It should not come as a surprise that this watch has been chosen by John Goldberger, legendary author and one of of the world’s most renowned scholars, for his book Patek Philippe Steel Watches —pp. 212 – 215—, broadly accepted as the bible for stainless steel watches by Patek Philippe. Amongst the handful watches to which Goldberger dedicated 4 full pages, the present single-button chronograph is one of them, revealing its importance and uniqueness for collectors.
Some Thoughts on the Sale
Even with all these attributes, does it make sense from a watch collecting standpoint to pay $4.6 Million Swiss Francs for this watch? Well, it really depends on how much money you have and how overworked you are by the frenzy created by media outlets and by a very small circle of watch collectors and watch dealers. Remember, collectors buying these pieces are not your average watch collector and they probably represent less than 10% of all watch collectors out there. This means that for the rest of us, paying almost $5 million USD for a vintage Patek is definitely not an option.
How much money does one need to have in the bank for this purchase to make sense? 500 million, one billion or perhaps way more? Now, who is exactly buying these watches? Well, we really wish we knew.
What we definitely continue to see across the top watch auctions held by Sotheby's, Christie's and now Phillips, is that simply, there's too much money in the hands of certain watch collectors and very limited vintage inventory. When $5 Million USD for a vintage watch from 1927 seems like nothing, it is very clear that something in the watch collecting world is just not right.
As a handful of watch collectors continue to drive vintage prices to a point where it is finally just irrational, watch dealers continue to dry out the availability of these vintage gems around the globe. Something that we've noticed over the past 10 years, is that as renowned watch dealers continue to travel the globe in search of these watches, what used to be fertile source markets for vintage timepieces —places like Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia and Argentina where one could buy a vintage Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Jumbo, a vintage Patek Philippe Calatrava or a vintage Rolex GMT Master 6542 for a very reasonable price—, are now markets with almost very little to no vintage inventory. However, one thing is clear, and that is, that only a few dealers are the ones controlling the vintage market and making big profits —especially those watch dealers in California and Italy.
If you analyze the watch auctions over the past three years, you will see that what seemed to be just a random set of events, is now clearly a trend that will hardly stop any time soon. Back in November of 2013, the Christie's Rolex Daytona 'Lesson One' auction surpassed all expectations. The auction led by legendary auctioneer Aurel Bacs, featured 50 exceptional examples of the world's most celebrated chronograph wristwatch and totaled $13,248,167 USD selling 100% by lot and by value as reported here. During that auction, the highest price ever paid for a Daytona was $1,089,186 USD. Well, last night at the Phillips Auction One, a Rolex ref. 6263 Cosmograph 'Albino' sold for $1,417,750 USD, setting a world record price for any Rolex sold at auction.
These auction results are now clearly a trend and the product of many factors.
Would you call these results, the product of the ongoing vintage watch hype fueled by media outlets like Hodinkee and watch dealers like Eric Ku, Bob Maron and Pucci Papaleo? or is this just the result of watch collectors having too much money and not knowing what to do with it.
To us, this seems like the product of one factor present across several of these auctions. We are talking about the amazing charisma and contagious energy of the man behind the hammer, Mr. Aurel Bacs. As a watch collector and lover of horology, how can you not buy one of these watches at such prices, when Mr. Bacs is calling the shots? It's pretty much like having Enzo Ferrari or Ferruccio Lamborghini present you a Ferrari 125 S or a Lamborghini Miura respectively and not buying it from them.
Aurel Bacs is an institution in the watch world and a name that requires no introduction if you are a real watch collector. To us, he is pretty much the epitome of 'King Midas' and we are looking forward to the upcoming Phillips Watches auctions under his leadership. Mr. Bacs, watching you behind the lectern during the Glamorous Day-Date auction and the Auction One this weekend was a real treat.
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