Geneva Watch Auctions Recap: Is It Time to Slow Down?
Attending the May 2023 watch auctions in Geneva in person was an amazing experience, but trying to keep up with everything was next to impossible. And now that it’s all over, I can’t help but wonder: Are we on the right path?!
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. But how can this sort of “feeding frenzy” be sustainable in the long run?
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 am always wondering if it’s getting out of hand. And being a rather chubby guy, I know how painful diets can be, but I can’t help but wonder 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, new and old friends celebrating together while they eat club sandwiches and drink Coke Zero.
But the funniest (yet 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. Then, once the anxious and competitive vibes reach the point that you feel like you’re surrounded by a bunch of mechanics before an F1 race, 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? Let’s try to recap it!
Outside the Auctions, Anything Goes!
I’ve always said that watch auction weeks are about more than the actual auctions. Rather, these weeks are more a way to gather the community in Geneva, giving collectors like me access to some of the most prestigious people in the industry. For example, this year, I spoke with Breitling’s Creative Director Sylvain Berneron before the Christie’s preview. And when I ran into Pierre Biver, Co-Founder of the eponymous new independent watch brand, he was the most welcoming guy and spoke (a lot!) about vintage watches and the market.
That is why watch auction weeks are so important for even brands: Removed from the chaotic environments of industry conventions like Watches & Wonders and Geneva Watch Days, brand representatives are free to interact directly with their customers and explain their novelties, have in-depth discussions, or even give impromptu product demonstrations.
Moreover, this “anything goes” spirit presents newer brands trying to establish themselves with a gold opportunity to make connections with influential people in the collector community for a fraction of the cost in both time and money.
Pro Tip: Pay Attention to What’s Being Sold, Not What’s Being Bought
After speaking with Pierre Biver for a few hours, I realized something important that led me to evaluate this May’s auctions and their results differently: It’s more important to look at what is sold in high quantities than to look at what is bought. It’s not easy to understand, but once you do, it’s game-changing.
Including a bunch of rare watches from a single brand in a catalog or seeing a specific rare reference offered in more than one catalog allows collectors and enthusiasts to see hard-to-find pieces in the metal. However, it also gives collectors the impression (valid or not) that the appreciation potential for the watch or brand has maxed out. Take Christie’s themed “The Art of F.P.Journe” auction as an example: Yes, it took in CHF 13 million in sales, but at what risk?
Themed auctions are both a necessity and a threat to the watch auction market. They are needed in that they make history, set the bar for collecting, and include only the best pieces that could potentially fall under that theme. However, they are also a threat because they tend to cause the market at the heart of that theme to crash, as it did with Rolex Day-Dates, Audemars Piguet Royal Oaks, and Heuer chronographs. Is F.P.Journe next?
Rare watches should have a mystique and be treated as sacred, which doesn’t go well with wide-audience coverage. Moreover, rival auction houses will try to benefit from a themed auction, as we saw from the F.P.Journe pieces in the catalogs of Christie’s competitors. The result is a crossfire of speculators, auction houses, dealers, and collectors all getting what they want at once, leaving no one to support the market going forward.
I am not saying that the market for Journe timepieces is or will collapse anytime soon, mainly because the brand is pretty young and its collector base is substantial, but it won’t benefit much from this auction, even if it was fun to watch.
Quality Never Goes Out of Style
“Quality is everything,” a dealer friend of mine always says, and this May’s auctions proved him correct. And to evaluate the quality of a watch, we need to consider a combination of condition, brand, rarity, and relevance.
For instance, when it comes to pieces like the Patek Philippe Ref. 2497 sold by Christie’s, we can easily see that its excellent condition, historical relevance, and the rarity of its pink gold has great meaning and true value for collectors, resulting in a huge figure for the watch.
The same can also be said for the Paul Newman Rolex Ref. 6241 “John Player Special” sold by Sotheby’s, the Cartier Tank Cintrée also sold by Christie’s, the Patek Philippe Ref. 570 with a black dial sold by Antiquorum, and the Parmigiani Toric Westminster Minute Repeater Tourbillon GMT Platinum sold by Ineichen.
All of these watches performed well above their estimates and are unlikely to go underappreciated when they face the market again, and all for one simple reason: The market will continue to support quality watches.
Quirkiness & Rarity at Its Finest
If you take a closer look at some of the qualitative yet abnormal timepieces in the catalogs, you will see that their results were also quite favorable this May.
There are two excellent examples of this from the recent auctions. First is this Patek Philippe Ref. 3424 “Gilbert Albert” fetching a 6-digit result for Phillips. And second is this tiny Gerald Genta that sold for more than CHF 163,000 at Christie’s.
Of course, the desire for fun and different watches waxes and wanes, but it has been around for a long time now. However, to see their value transcend the sentimental and manifest as above-estimate auction totals sends a completely different message: Quirky watches are finally here to stay; the market tells us so!
Making Room for Everyone
We’ve seen a lot going on in variety this year: Christie’s put together two completely different auctions, Antiquorum and Sotheby’s pushed collectibles for every taste, Phillips got the best of the high-end, and Zürich-based Ineichen broke onto the Geneva watch auction scene, making a name for itself by holding its own against the most powerful auction houses in the watch world.
In the past few years, the four big players of Geneva (Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, and Antiquorum) have found a way to adapt and coexist while also welcoming a new player to the scene (Ineichen). And apart from shuffling auction dates to compete in a silly way that I don’t believe is positive for the market, I think there is room for more players to enter the field in the next few years as long as their catalogs are different enough. For instance, I’d be thrilled to see a new auction house that offers “smaller” watches in an independent and quirky way.
Now, I know it’s not easy to start or expand an auction house. But one need only look at the way Ineichen took on the independents or how Antiquorum has brought lower-income bidders (i.e., people who either can’t or won’t spend more than the low five-figures at an auction) to the table to see the pathways.
The Big Question: Should We Slow Down?
I admit that Geneva watch auction weeks get me super excited and involved, but are we sure that turning people like me into hypebeasts at least twice a year is healthy? Have we lost perspective?
It depends on how you look at it.
When you talk to people like mega-watch collector Sandro Fratini, watch industry royalty like Pierre Biver, or author and watch expert Auro Montanari, a.k.a. John Goldberger, you can’t help but think auctions are a drop in the bucket because watchmaking is not about the hustle and bustle. It is about patience, beauty, harmony, and time! After all, watchmakers need time to master the necessary skills, years to develop prototypes, months to perfect commercial models, and maybe ages for the market to understand them.
However, when I see over a thousand of those watches sold in a handful of frenzied hours several times a year, I become less sure. I wonder how long we can possibly expect this bubble to remain unburst? What will we do if the system collapses in on itself?
I don’t know. But in the meantime, we would benefit from self-reflection and more deliberate behavior. We need to free ourselves of the greedy attitude that auction-induced FOMO seems to breed and embrace smaller catalogs that offer quality over quantity.
That said, we also need to find ways of expanding the pool of potential bidders outside the pressure and confusion we often see at auctions. And we can do this by spreading the culture, gathering youngsters, and giving pieces the importance they deserve.
For me, the May 2023 watch auction week in Geneva was the most insightful of the last three years, brining clarity with its results: Watches are evolving and so are tastes; quality lots will bring in solid results but continue to be underrated; independents are here to stay; and the industry seems solid and healthy.
Finally, though it was great to meet new people and experience the bidding in-person, the risk is it getting out of hand. So, while we prepare for a burst, we need to remain open to quirkiness, diversity, and a wider range of watches and players all around the world.