sothebys 2023
Vintage & Auctions

Top Lots: 5 Vintage & Neo-Vintage Gems from Sotheby’s “Important Watches: Part I” Auction

Spring auction season is upon us, and Sotheby’s is bringing the heat to Geneva on Sunday, May 14th, at its “Important Watches: Part I” live auction, which begins at 10:30 CEST. And today, Watchonista is highlighting 5 of the top lots from the catalog.

By Michael Piscatelli

On Sunday, May 14th, at 10:30 AM CEST, Sotheby’s is hosting the “Important Watches: Part I” live auction in Geneva. And after spending some time with the digital catalog, I must say: It looks pretty darn good.

It’s so good, in fact, that in the event I feel impulsive and want to wake up at 4:30 AM EDT to take a shot at something, I’ve registered for the auction, which offers online bidding for those who can’t attend in person. Sotheby’s also offers advance bidding for those who can’t be there live in person or online.

If you follow me on Instagram, @ctwatchguy, you’ll know I have a “type” when it comes to watches in my collection. Primarily, I focus on vintage and neo-vintage, precious metals, complications, classic sizing, and the like. So, with that in mind, here are the five lots I find most interesting and worthy of further consideration.

Lot 9: An Icey Vacheron Constantin Chronograph Reference 49503/000G

What I’m about to say might sound a bit odd, but the best thing about this Vacheron Constantin reference 49503 is that it’s ninth. Or, more specifically, that its bidding will begin near the start of the auction. That is because, if, like me, you live on the East Coast of the United States, you might be back in bed by 5 AM if this is all you’re after. But all jokes aside, this piece is stunning.

I’m a sucker for watches born with gems, and this Vacheron Constantin has beautifully set diamonds on the bezel and its slightly off-white/cream-colored dial. Speaking of the dial, it looks to be in exceptional condition. Plus, the Sigma notations at 6 o’clock, denoting the use of precious metals in the dial, hands, or both, only add to this piece’s neo-vintage charm (it was produced in 1999).

Also, while I’m usually a fan of yellow gold over white, I think the white gold case suits this piece well and offsets the “bling factor” of the diamonds. Moreover, at 35.5mm in diameter by about 9 to 10mm thick, the proportions of the case are perfection because it’ll look good on virtually any wrist. These cases were born with pretty “soft” lines, and while I wouldn’t say this example is unpolished, the hallmarks and engravings are crisp enough for me.

Finally, based on reference 49002 – an earlier chronograph from the Historiques collection with the same movement (calibre 1136) – the reference 49503 is quite rare, with only 25 pieces having been made in white gold. I actually own a reference 49002 and love it. It looks and wears great, and the Frédéric Piguet-based movement is of high quality. So, I suspect this lot could be worth every centime of its hammer price.

Estimate: CHF 45,000 – CHF 65,000

Lot 18: A Very Early A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 Reference 101.022

At first glance, Lot 18 may look like your run-of-the-mill Lange 1 (not that there’s anything wrong with run-of-the-mill when you’re talking about A. Lange & Söhne). But if you look closer, you’ll see this is an early Lange 1. And in the world of watch collecting, early is almost always better.

So, what are the tells? First, look at the “Made in Germany” (MiG) text under the hour dial; you’ll notice it’s rather small. Aptly, A. Lange & Söhne collectors refer to this as a “small MiG.” And although there is no consensus as to exactly when the MiG changed, it is generally understood that the brand switched to a larger MiG typeface sometime around 2000 (only about six years after the Lange 1 model launched in 1994).

Next, if you flip the watch over, you’ll see a rather “boring” closed caseback. And while this does deprive us of seeing the expertly finished calibre L901.0 movement, the presence of a solid caseback means this example is one of the very earliest Lange 1 models produced. Why? Because it was only about one year into the production of the Lange 1 when the brand switched to using sapphire exhibition casebacks. Thus, this example can be dated to 1995 (as is noted in Sotheby’s catalog).

Conclusion: Between the small MiG text, closed caseback, and overall very good condition of this lot, it is a rare bird and highly collectible.

Estimate: CHF 30,000 – CHF 50,000

Lot 30: A Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Reference 5050R that is All Class

I must admit: I know basically nothing about the Patek Philippe reference 5050R. However, when I was going through the auction catalog, the 50505R of Lot 30 made me do a double take. I mean, what a ridiculously gorgeous and classy watch!

It ticks all the boxes of my aforementioned “type.” Neo-vintage? The catalog notes it’s from circa 1995. Check! Gold case? It features a lovely pink gold case. Check! Perfect 36mm case diameter? Check! Complications? It’s a perpetual calendar! Double Check!! And how about this little extra bit of sauce? It has a retrograde date!

I own a couple of pieces with retrograde complications, and watching the hand snap back to its original starting point is always exciting (though, in this case, you’ll have to wait 30 or 31 days to see that happen). Moreover, one thing I like about this particular example is how the pink gold of the case has darkened/oxidized a bit, especially when it’s spread evenly across the case, as it is on Lot 30.

Estimate: CHF 20,000 – CHF 40,000

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 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 dating to 1978?

Not that there’s a shortage of Royal Oak scholarship on the internet, but here is the history you need to know: The 5402ST “Jumbo” came out in 1972, and it was the first Royal Oak ever made. Then, 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. It’s also harder to find than you might think, with fewer than 1,000 having been produced by the brand.

It’s super common to see areas of discoloration on the tappisserie dial on 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.

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.

Meanwhile, the case and the bracelet appear to have been re-finished, which is becoming increasingly typical of older Royal Oaks. However, at least the work seems to have been done well, perhaps even done by the brand itself.

Finally, 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.

Estimate: CHF 70,000 – CHF 140,000

Lot 109: Rolex Submariner Reference 5513 Made for Greek Naval Forces

The thing about Lot 109’s Submariner Ref. 5513 that grabbed my attention is its provenance: It was made for Greek Naval Forces and used on a submarine in the 1970s.

There’s something special about owning a vintage tool watch when you know a former owner it put through its proper paces, just as the manufacturer intended (remember, watches used to be necessities, not luxury items). And at least in my experience, your mind can’t help but conjure up mysterious stories about a watch’s past as you look at all the marks on the case, bezel, and bracelet.

Let’s look at the two most important things when it comes to most vintage Rolex pieces – the dial and the case.

Now, do you want to go a bit mad? This dial variant is called a “non-serif” dial by collectors because the paint underneath the lume at the corners of the rectangular indices at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock lacks serifs (or little flairs). However, sometimes the lume covers the paint, and you can’t really see. Another tell is the “E” in Rolex. On non-serif dials, the E should have serifs on the end of it. Confusing, I know.

The other thing to note about Lot 109 is the condition of its case. Condition-wise, it’s pretty average, given that it used to be worn inside a submarine and was (presumably) banged around pretty badly. However, more importantly, Rolex collectors love unpolished cases. And while this lot’s case is not unpolished, it still looks pretty close to the original (look for the presence and prominence of bevels on the corner of the lugs).

So, assuming that this 5513’s case has been touched by a polishing wheel or two at some point in the past 50 year (which, you know, isn’t out of the realm of possibility), then at least any post-sale polishing wasn’t done to a criminal degree.

Estimate: CHF 30,000 – CHF 60,000

Parting Thoughts

Overall, I’d say the catalog for the Sotheby’s “Important Watches: Part I” auction is strong, and I expect we’ll see some fights over lots.

Of course, everyone has different tastes, interests, and preferences, but I chose these five lots because they line up with my own collecting obsessions. That said, I would love to hear your thoughts on what catches your fancy – feel free to DM me on Instagram (@ctwatchguy) and let me know!


Sotheby’s “Important Watches: Part I” auction will take place at the Mandarin Oriental in Geneva (1 Quai Turrettini) on Sunday, May 14th, beginning at 10:30 AM CEST (4:40 AM EDT).

Moreover, if you’re in Geneva, the Mandarin will have the lots on display to the public on Friday, May 12th, and Saturday, May 13th, from 10:00 AM CEST until 18:00 CEST.

Register to bid via the Sotheby’s website.

(Images © Sotheby's)

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