Hammer Time: The Heavy Hitters And Heavier Questions Surrounding Phillip’s Geneva Watch Auction XI
Phillips’ upcoming Geneva Watch Auction XI will test the watch industry’s current vitality and online-only auctions' future viability.
Phillips’ Geneva Watch Auction XI kicks off in just a few days, and this year, the excitement usually surrounding such a prestigious batch of timepieces is met with an added dose of anxiety. This will be the first auction of its kind since the COVID-19 crisis – and the resulting global recession – began.
On June 27th and 28th, all eyes will be watching to see how much strength and enthusiasm remain in our industry during this unique moment in time.
A Quantity Of Quality
Before diving into the doom and gloom of the current crisis, let’s ogle some watches, shall we?
As with any Phillips auction, the lineup is stacked with heavy hitters. We saw similar strength at Phillips’ previous Game Changers auction in December of 2019. Watchonista covered the Game Changers auction HERE, and we’ll be making a few references to that auction for comparison’s sake.
Whereas Game Changers featured 75 lots, this weekend’s auction nearly triples that lot count, with roughly 215 lots up for bidding. Rolex and Patek Philippe dominate the catalog, as one would generally expect from an auction of this caliber.
Alongside these two brands are examples from the remaining “holy trinity” members, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, as well as contemporary classics by independents such as F.P.Journe, MB&F, Rexhep Rexhepi, and De Bethune.
The most notable additions to this auction are timepieces from the personal collection of Jean-Claude Biver. A living titan of the watch industry, Biver is best known for his time leading the brands Blancpain, Omega, Hublot, and TAG Heuer.
Among the 13 watches Biver is contributing are his first-ever watch (a gold Omega Constellation gifted to him at the age of eight to celebrate his first communion), a trio of “Zenith” Daytonas, an apparently unsigned Patek Phillipe Worldtimer Ref 96HU, and the first Rexhep Rexhepi Chronomètre Contemporain in platinum.
The pièce de résistance of his collection, and the piece with the highest estimate of any in this auction, is the Patek Phillipe Ref 1518 (lot 38). The pink gold watch with matching pink dial is one of the elite brand’s first serially produced perpetual calendar chronographs and represents the “best of the best” in many ways.
A Whole New World
While the quality of timepieces in The Geneva Watch Auction XI is on par with that of December’s Game Changers, the formatting this time around is a clear contrast. Due to concerns around COVID-19, the in-person element of the auction is limited to approximately 120 guests and staff at La Réserve hotel, with the rest of the action taking place online.
A predominantly digital auction, of course, does not allow for quite the same kind of hands-on accessibility that most bidders get in the leadup to an auction. So this year, Phillips is hosting a series of webinars to dive further into the lots on offer. There are also one-on-one Zoom sessions for interested collectors. And there appear to be some in-person opportunities by appointment for bidders in Geneva.
And while online auctions save bidders the time and money they would normally spend on flights to Geneva, New York, or Hong Kong, the undefinable joys of in-person auctions will be missed. Auctioneer Aurel Bacs will be unable to work the room with his usual gusto. There will be no side-eye glances from dueling bidders, no applause, no gasps, nor hushed murmurs from the crowd, and sadly, no devil-may-care outfits from the likes of John Goldberger.
The Uphill Battle
It’s no secret that the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting recession have dealt a decisive blow to the global economy and the watch industry in particular. In May of this year, global watch exports fell by 68% in value and 71% in units shipped, when compared to May 2019, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. And that is coming off an 81% drop in the value of exports in April 2020 versus April 2019.
Granted, the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction is perhaps not directly impacted by this since it’s a sale of pre-owned watches in the uppermost price category. But the economic fallout of virus lockdowns has affected rich and poor alike, dampening B2B transactions and consumer spending, among other variables.
As a result of this, The Geneva Watch Auction XI will serve a dual purpose this year. On the one hand, the auction is a welcome distraction, as watch enthusiasts around the world fawn over rare and exceptional pieces many of us could only dream of owning.
On the other hand, it will serve as a barometer, of sorts, for the watch market at large with several looming questions still waiting to be answered. Namely, will online-only auctions prove as enthusiastic as their in-person iterations? Will there be fewer bidders considering watches with five-figure, six-figure, and seven-figure price tags? Will bidding consistently exceed the lots’ estimated ranges as they did in Game Changers and other previous auctions? Will certain parts of the world prove more active than others in the bidding process? Are particular brands more recession-proof than others? And when, if ever, will things go back to the way they were?