Summer Rewind: A Look Back at the Spring Watch Auction Season in Geneva
While the summer watch auction season is in full swing, we here at Watchonista wanted to look back at some of our coverage of Geneva’s spring auctions to better understand the current tone and community opinion of the 2023 auctions more generally.
From the always superb offerings at more traditional auctioneers to a new player on the scene shining a spotlight on independent watchmakers to a “will lightning strike twice” auction focusing on a single watchmaker, the 2023 watch auction season in Geneva kicked off like no other this past spring.
However, as a result of the high number of auctions (seven), unrivaled opening bid prices, the fierce action leading up to a hammer price, and just an overall tsunami of lots (more than 1,500), the watch auctions held in Geneva during May 2023 were a veritable “feeding frenzy” that had one of our contributors asking the question: “Are we moving too fast to sustain this?”
With all this in mind, let’s revisit some of Watchonista’s incisive coverage from the spring watch auctions in Geneva.
Sotheby’s “Important Watches: Part I”
Lot 54: Solid Yellow Gold Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Reference 5402BA
Okay, we already have a Vacheron Constantin and a Patek Philippe on this list, so before we talk about the early example of a Lange 1 in Lot 18 and Lot 109’s Submariner Ref. 5513 made for Greek Naval Forces, why don’t we add an Audemars Piguet to complete the Holy Trinity? And what AP model would be better than Lot 54’s solid yellow gold Royal Oak Ref. 5402BA from 1978?
Clearly, there’s no shortage of Royal Oak scholarship on the internet, but there is some lesser-known history you need to know to evaluate this lot: As most of you reading this already know, the 5402ST “Jumbo” came out in 1972, and it was the first Royal Oak ever made. However, what many of you probably don’t know is that, in 1978, the 5402BA became the first Royal Oak made in a precious metal.
So, as should be obvious, this lot represents a piece of watchmaking history; however, perhaps just as importantly, it’s also harder to find than you might think. In fact, fewer than 1,000 of the 5402BA were ever produced by the brand.
Then there is Lot 54’s dial.
It’s super common to see areas of discoloration on the tappisserie dial of vintage and neo-vintage Royal Oaks. This discoloration is natural (not wearer-made damage) and can sometimes be visually appealing. However, interestingly, the dial on Lot 54 appears to be free from this patination, with only one little spot below 12 o’clock showing any signs of deviation from the rest of the dial.
Moreover, what is a bit confusing and wildly intriguing is that, while the dial has not aged as you would expect a Royal Oak dial to age, the lume on the dial has. As Royal Oak collectors would expect, the lume is dark and even across all plots. True, the lume on the hands is fully intact and a bit lighter than the lume on the dial, but that is also normal.
Finally, the case and the bracelet appear to have been re-finished (which is becoming increasingly typical of older Royal Oaks), but at least the work seems to have been done well. Also, Lot 54’s bracelet still appears to be pretty tight. I appreciate that because I would say, more often than not, older Royal Oaks tend to have bracelets ranging from semi-stretched to extremely stretched, which is a bummer considering it’s the best watch bracelet ever made, in my opinion.
Ineichen Auctioneer’s “Independents 2023” Auction
Lot 2: A Voutilainen 28TI Piece Unique
Kari Voutilainen scored a win among watch collectors in 2019 when he created the Voutilainen 28TI, which saw the Finnish independent maestro flip around his Calibre 28 to put its barrel, balance, and other moving parts on the front of the watch. So it comes as no surprise that the innovative Zurich-based auction house Ineichen Auctioneers included a 28TI in its “Independents 2023” auction, which is also the auction house’s first-ever sale in Geneva.
This 44mm unique piece 28TI stands out for its rose gold hands, balance bridge, and gilded gears, which all pop out against the darkness of ruthenium-treated bridges. Additionally, by pairing this inverted movement with a lightweight, fully polished titanium case with teardrop lugs, the resulting watch was a much more overt technical offering than we had been used to seeing from the Môtiers-based watchmaker at the time.
Christie’s “The Art of F.P. Journe” Auction
Lot 2032: A Centigraphe Souverain F with Chrome Red Dial
Although it may sound a bit hyperbolic, I think it’s fair to say that, to most collectors and industry professionals, François-Paul Journe is our generation’s Abraham-Louis Breguet, i.e., a genius watchmaker with an unparalleled eye for design.
And whiles Christie’s “The Art of F.P.Journe” auction has a total of 39 lots up for grabs, perhaps my favorite of the entire catalog is Lot No. 2032’s Centigraphe Souverain F model featuring the legendary chrome red dial and a platinum bracelet. (Side Note: I had the chance to purchase this piece from the boutique in January 2019, and I spent 3 hours fawning over it, only to pass due to a lack of funds. It’s the one that got away!)
The dial is said to be decorated with genuine Ferrari paint, and rumor has it that there are only 20 pieces in existence. Also, François-Paul made it mandatory to pair the watch with the platinum bracelet for an additional CHF 55,000 because he feared it would prove too popular, and the manufacture only had limited paint (and time).
With its bright red dial, this lot is arguably among the most eclectic F.P.Journe pieces ever created. And while this is certainly off the brand’s beaten path, once you consider that the customized variation of this very same watch owned by Jean Todt (the former executive director of the Scuderia Ferrari and inspiration for the Centigraphe Souverain model) was sold by Christie’s in November 2022 for just under CHF 2 million, we expect Lot 2032 to sell for more than its pre-auction estimate of CHF 400,000 to CHF 600,000.
Geneva Auctions Recap: Is it Time to Slow Down?
During the May 2023 auction week in Geneva, there were no fewer than seven auctions being held by five different houses, with Sotheby’s and Christie’s each hosting two. It was wild to watch as spectators, media, brands, auction houses, and especially bidders attempted to digest more than 1,500 lots up for grabs all at once.
Of course, if every year is as successful as this one, then it’s good for the market and great for us enthusiasts, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s getting out of hand. Is this sustainable in the long run? What would happen if the market lost its appetite for these sky-high auction prices? How would it impact the watch industry as a whole?
Don’t get me wrong, watch auction weeks are my favorite times of year to travel to Geneva! There are tons of passionate people, infectious enthusiasm, incredible watches with amazing stories, and new and old friends celebrating together while they eat club sandwiches and drink Coke Zero.
But the funniest (and most interesting) part about attending watch auction week in Geneva is the way people at auctions behave like they’re part of a horse racing team before the Kentucky Derby, wearing their hearts on their sleeves as they oscillate between excitement, anxiety, quiet contemplation, and action. But once the anxious and competitive vibes reach a certain boiling point, the atmosphere in Geneva turns weird.
That said, this “weirder” vibe is understandable, considering watch auctions are like the Olympics of our industry. For instance, even if you ignore the sale totals of Ineichen (CHF 3.6 million) and Antiquorum (CHF 10.3 million), the May 2023 watch auctions in Geneva saw Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s sell over CHF 98 million worth of watches in only a few days.
So, what are the lessons we should take away from these five days?