High-end auction houses make up a big part of the luxury watch market. Read on to learn more about them.
I’ve been a watch wearer ever since my father gifted me a Rolex Explorer. By the time I inherited his Omega Seamaster from the ‘90s, I was hooked on this unnecessary yet so necessary hobby.
By the way, it was the James Bond one. What more could a boy ask for?
Seemingly randomly, it was my career in the art world that really cinched watches as a big part of my personality.
Men utilize watches as a way to express who they are or who they want to be. This peacocking is especially evident in New York, LA, and London’s ubiquitous gallery openings.
Then, when I started working in the auctions branch of this industry, watches became equal to art. Like art, watches needed stories and histories told about them; they needed to be marketed, bought, and sold.
So, here’s my perspective having worked in the auction branch of the watch industry.
I’m going to break down why luxury auctions are so important to the watch world, how to access them, and what the most important auction houses are.
Table of Contents
Heritage Auction Houses: The Reliability Factor
Auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s are, for the most part, highly trusted. This is thanks to decades of establishing a name and reputation.
There’s more clout when you say you acquired your Patek from Christie’s than if you ordered it from eBay. Though I will say digital natives like eBay have really come up in the ranks.
Part of this has to do with the fact these businesses have been operating for so long. They’re connected to royalty and billionaires, and they’re just as big of luxury brands as the watch brands they’re reselling.
They often work with the same small number of collectors, too. So, it’s a bit of a safe space.
Real-deal experts authenticate all of the property that goes through an auction house like Sotheby’s.
Those who understand the property and the market it’s going to. Moreover, provenance is paramount when it comes to what makes it to the auction block.
Hypothetically, you can have a perfectly good piece of property. But, the auction house often won’t consign if they don’t know where it came from and how it got here.
Of course, there are rare exceptions. Christie’s once accidentally sold a frankensteined Rolex Daytona Sotto. Still, these moments become headliners because they are rare exceptions.
Accessing High-End Auction Houses: Easier Than You Think
The commercial art world seems intimidating to outsiders. Unlike museums, which are a public service of sorts, there’s an impression that high-end galleries are only for a certain type (the buying type).
Many assume you’ll be met with attractive gallerinas, head to toe in black Prada, greeting you by not greeting you, occasionally looking up judgingly.
Here’s the funny thing, though. While a lot of galleries and brand-specific watch boutiques are like that, auction houses aren’t.
Previews Are for Everyone
Prior to every auction, whether that’s watches or jewelry, the properties going on sale are exhibited. Everyone is allowed to go to these previews. They aren’t ticketed, and they’re free.
Even more, everyone is allowed to try the watches on. No one is going to ask you for an account number or request you to show them what’s in your bank account.
So yes. If some historical figure or royal auctions off his watch collection, you’re fully welcome to try on any of his timepieces. You just have to attend the preview exhibition.
If you’re not used to this world, the most intimidating part is simply walking through the doors. From there, you’ll likely be met with smiles and welcomes.
The Internet Expanded Auction Clientele
Once upon a time, there was a threshold for what a high-end auction house would consign. If it isn’t worth the time and talents of their team, they wouldn’t bother.
Now, there are online auctions that require no auctioneer, no production team, and as little overhead as possible. Sure, you won’t find the in-the-millions record-breaking watches at these sales.
However, you can literally just download the auction house’s app, register, and bid the same way you would on eBay.
In my time in the industry, I’ve seen the actual change happen. Once, there were gallerinas on the exhibition floors, registering new accounts with new bidders or filling out paperwork for absentee bids. Now, they’re simply there to direct you to the app.
Of course, there are sometimes especially high-priced pieces of property that require a bit more hoop jumping. These are usually the lots that don’t advertise the estimate. And as JP Morgan supposedly said, “If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it.”
But other than those rarities, high-end auction participation is more democratized than ever these days.
The Top Luxury Watch Auction Houses
Here are the world’s top auction houses. To be candid, the market is dominated by Sotheby’s and Christie’s.
However, a big part of this has to do with the contemporary art market. When it comes to watches, our other entries here are pretty great contenders as well.
Christie’s is a British auction house that’s been around since 1766. It’s one of the two most important auction houses along with Sotheby’s. In 2019, they sold a Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime for a whopping $ 31 million.
In 2014, they experimented with a concept called Christie’s Watch Shop. Instead of selling pieces on auction, they introduced a more retail-style format. In the first week, 30% of the inventory, which included Rolex, Patek, and Omega, sold through.
In addition to being record breakers, Christie’s also does online auctions, offering a wide range of prices and reserves.
Sotheby’s set up shop in 1744 in London, though their global HQ is now in New York. Until quite recently, they were a publicly traded company.
In 1932, they sold a Patek Henry Graves Supercomplication for 23.9 million, which was unheard of at the time. They continue to break records to this very day.
Like Christie’s, they have a range of platforms for selling watches, including retail style, private sales, online auctions, and in-person auctions. I will say that Sotheby’s has an excellent dedicated watch department.
Not only are they experts in the craft, but they’re efficient, helpful, and truly some of the best in the game.
What’s great about Sotheby’s is they function a bit like an (almost) 300-year-old start-up. They honor their heritage but delve into contemporary ways of doing things. I remember when they started putting QR codes on their exhibition placards and when they started auctioning off vintage sneakers.
While Phillips isn’t part of the art duopoly that Sotheby’s and Christie’s are. However, they’re definitely a market leader when it comes to luxury watches. They were founded in 1976 in London and are known for several record-breaking watch sales.
One of their most famous accomplishments is the Rolex Paul Newman Daytona, which went for 17.7 million in 2017.
They’re so respected in the watch industry that several digital and physical retailers are in partnership with them in the Phillips Perpetual program.
This means that the expert auction house specialists curate a selection of their watches to sell in these spaces.
Antiquorum was founded in 1974 in Geneva and only auctions watches and clocks. They sold modern and vintage timepieces and were the very first house to execute an online auction of fine watches. This was back in the ‘90s, long before anyone was doing it.
In 1989, they held an auction called the Art of Patek Philippe, which helped make the brand an auction house darling. Today, no other brand is as ubiquitous to the auction industry as Patek — and Antiquorum helped make that happen.
It seems they have a crystal ball or something because they’re famous for several firsts in the industry. Or perhaps it’s just that their expertise is so hyper-focused.
I used to work for Bonham’s PR department, and while I was there, I was quite impressed with their pop culture memorabilia game.
This is part of the reason they also have a pretty respectable watch game. They even sold an old Hollywood poster for $375,000 during my time there.
First of all, like all prestigious heritage auction houses, they boast a top-notch team of specialists.
Second, we all know that watches have an inextricable relationship to pop culture and history. That’s why we love them.
It’s pretty cool that you can get a Rolex Submariner at the same auction house where you can acquire a vintage official James Bond movie poster.
Conclusion: Going, Going, Gone
Here’s the main takeaway I hope you get from all of this info. Many of the barriers between the average buyer and luxury auction houses are imagined.
Do the auction houses help imagine it up with their stately images? Sure. But did you know that, actually, most auctions are open to the public? This excludes special circumstances, like ticketed marquee sales.
And, as long as I’ve been in the industry, hearing the gavel pound is still a thrill.
Have you bought or sold with an auction house? Are you willing to try after this article? Let me know in the comments! And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter at The Slenderwrist to get curated info from our expert team!