Phillips lot 8. Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Unicorn
Vintage & Auctions

Watchonista’s Guide to the Upcoming Geneva Auctions

Or as we call it, masterpiece theater, Geneva edition. Here’s a full rundown of the all the action set to take place in May.

By Rhonda Riche

This month, watch collectors will descend upon Geneva like hipsters flock to Palm Springs for Coachella. In fact, auction fever has become so frenzied right now that timepieces that aren’t associated with a historic figure named Paul and even some watches that have been restored are expected to pull in six figure bids (if not more).

In a way, the reselling of important timepieces has come to resemble the secondary market in fine art. Just as the Mona Lisa got its moniker decades after Leonardo da Vinci’s demise, certain watch lots even get their own titles (case in point the Rolex “Unicorn” being offered at the upcoming Phillips Daytona Ultimatum auction).

The secondary market also feeds the primary market. In the same way Picasso made limited edition, signed lithographs of his original paintings (many becoming quite valuable), watchmakers have reissued versions of these historic watches which fans then bet on, hoping that these models will become collectible. It’s the circle of life.

Phillips lot 8. Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “Unicorn”

Bidding Time

There are four major watch auctions happening in Geneva in May: Phillips Daytona Ultimatum on May 12th and Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Seven on the 12th and 13th (both at La Reserve hotel); Sotheby’s Important Watches Auction on May 13th at the Mandarin Oriental; and Christie’s Rare Watches Auction at the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues on May 14th.

Geneva, Switzerland

The auction with the most buzz is the Daytona Ultimatum sale. In association with Bacs & Russo, this event offers the allure of a room full of Rolex Daytonas (remember, Phillips sold Paul Newman’s Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona reference 6239 for $17,752,500 at its Winning Icons auction in October 2017 – the highest result ever achieved for any wristwatch at auction). There will be 32 Daytonas in total at this themed auction, which was curated by Pucci Papaleo, author of The Ultimate Rolex Daytona.

The caseback of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Unicorn
Phillips lot 21. Rolex ref. 6263 “The Arabian Knight”

While none of these timepieces has the celebrity cachet of Newman’s own Rolex, they all have unique backstories. These are the watches that collectors talk about in hushed tones at meetups but have rarely been (if ever) seen for public sale. The aforementioned ‘Unicorn’, for example, was made for a German retailer in 1971 and subsequently acquired by noted Italian collector John Goldberger. Goldberger was only convinced to part with the watch – which has an opening bid of $4.1 million – because the proceeds of the sale will go towards the charity Children Action.

Phillips lot 12. Rolex ref. 6239 “The Golden Pagoda”

Lucky Seven

While stories are important when it comes to selling watches, Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Seven also features the rock star appeal of auctioneer Aurel Bacs, Senior Consultant at Bacs & Russo.

Combine that with the appeal of fresh-to-market timepieces such as The Omega Speedmaster "Red Racing.” This curious watch is one of 10 similar styles which were originally thought to be prototype dials. All of the known "Red Racing" dials were made during the same two-year span and were delivered exclusively to Swiss retailers.

The Omega Speedmaster “Red Racing.” Photo, Phillips

The example Bac’s will be putting under the hammer in Geneva was made in 1968 and purchased in Zurich one year later from the retailer M. Galli & Sohn. Newly uncovered, it has only had one owner. Which underlines the amount of scholarship (and detective work) that exceptional watches now merit.

Iron Man meets Elvis

As my colleague Josh Shanks covered here and here, Phillips is also auctioning two iconic watches belonging to Elvis Presley and Robert Downey Jr. (aka Iron Man). Both pieces are sure to command attention and impressive results.

Tiffany & Co signed Omega wrist watch owned by Elvis Presley
The Urwerk UR-110RG owned by Robert Downey Jr.

Grand Prize

It’s still hard to resist the pull of a rare timepiece. The top lot at Christie’s Rare Watches Auction is a Patek Philippe Grand Complication ref. 5208P, which includes a minute repeater, a single button chronograph and an instantaneous perpetual calendar (with an estimate of $722,664 - $1,032,377 USD).

Christie’s Patek Philippe Grand Complication ref. 5208P

This Grand Complication is one of the most intricate timepieces that Patek Philippe manufactures and is only offered to the company’s most favored clients (and acceptance into this club is by application only). Snapping up such a rare watch at auction is one way of getting around such a stringent policy.

And this example — in platinum — is also in near mint condition.

Christie’s Online Auction lot 21, an Omega Railmaster ref. CK 2914

Just prior to their Geneva auction, Christie’s is hosting one of their ever-popular online only auctions. Occurring April 24 through May 8, this online auction’s theme is “Swiss Icons.” Featuring some stunning under the radar Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Omega watches. With a few surprises thrown in for good measure. 

Christie’s Online Auction Lot 27, a Rolex Submariner “Big Crown” Ref. 6538

Perfect Imperfection

There are, of course, collectors who place value on pieces that are immaculate, but when it comes to vintage timepieces, watches that show their age can still command a lot of attention.

One of the showstoppers of the Sotheby’s Important Watches auction is a rare stainless-steel Rolex reference 6239 Daytona with an original three-color Paul Newman dial. Over the time, the hue of the sub dials turned from black to a "tropical" brown and the white part of the dial mellowed into a creamy color. As the catalogue states “What was originally considered as a defect has become today highly desirable and coveted.”

Sotheby’s 1969 Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona with Tropical Dial

For comparison’s sake, there are two Patek Phillipe reference 530 chronographs on offer at the Phillips auction. One, which has a flawlessly restored dial, has a substantially lower estimate because collectors put a premium on “honest” watches. But as the competition for watches in mint condition grows stronger, timepieces with a good restoration will become more desirable.

Stay tuned to Watchonista as we bring you the best of the Geneva watch auctions. To learn more about each auction, visit their respective pages.

Geneva Watch Auction Summary:

May 12th - Phillips Daytona Ultimatum

May 12th and 13th - Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Seven

May 13th - Sotheby’s Important Watches Auction

May 14th - Christie’s Rare Watches Auction

(Photography by Liam O’Donnell)

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