A TIMELY INVESTMENT
Watch auctions continue exceeding the highest estimates…
As the world’s biggest watch market, there is plenty of interest in watches in Hong Kong, with the most-coveted brands well represented in the city by stand-alone boutiques or multi-brand watch retailers like Phoenix Watch and Elegant Watch & Jewellery and second-hand retailers such as Watchbox and Watchfinder. Many of the world’s most respected auction houses, in-cluding Christie’s and Bonham’s, hold regular dedicated watch auctions to meet demand from Hong Kong and Asian collectors, while an uptick in online auctions during the pandemic has es-calated demand further.
Hong Kong watch auctions continue to exceed high estimates, most recently with the sale of a Patek Philippe. Ref.5033P, a platinum and diamond-set minute repeating wristwatch selling for more than HK$5.62 million (the estimate was HK$4.3-5.2 million) at Bonhams this June. “This top lot, traditionally considered a top-of-the-line watch for men, was bought by a young female collector online. This shows that watch collectors are now already accustomed to buying online, not only for entry-level and mid-range pieces, but for top trophy items as well,” says Sharon Chan, Bonham’s director of watches, Asia.
If that price tag sounds daunting, then take some comfort from the fact that the watch market has options for all would-be collectors, whether you’re looking to start small with a modest in-vestment in a lesser-known independent or second-hand model or ready to make that first big watch purchase.
Hit the auction house
Christies’ Head of Watches, Asia, Alexandre Bigler, observes there’s growing interest in time-piece investment and is upbeat on the future of watches in the city. “We’ve gone from strength to strength, and it’s been very nice to see the growth the last four seasons. This season, we were very excited to offer a day sale and an evening sale, which is the first time we’ve done this in Asia. It was amazing to offer 18 superb lots under the “Legends of Time”, exceptional timepieces dating back from 1800 up to the late 1980s. It was extremely exciting for our clients – some of them had not seen these objects ever in their lives, and we reached out to clients we’d not been in touch with for years, as these objects come up so rarely, perhaps every 10 or 20 years.”
Its recent online auction in May followed another online sale in January, with 100 per cent of lots sold in January. “I think the market is doing extremely well, and I think covid has definitely helped us. People have more time to study and learn more about watches. We’ve also had a lot of new clients coming to auction, as it’s an entry point before really getting into the world of col-lectible watches.”
Whether it’s old Chinese pocket watches or up-and-coming independent brands, Christie’s has a comprehensive selection of timepieces to consider for old and new investors alike. In terms of trends, he says some people are willing to pay a premium as they want to secure a watch quick-ly, and the condition of the watch is key before collectors are willing to make a purchase, par-ticularly in Asia. Collectors are becoming more educated, too. “They have more time to scan the market and keep updated, they can browse online, look at social media and forums and this has helped them understand the market faster.”
Collectors are much more comfortable communicating over Zoom since the pandemic, while before it might be an audio call or a WhatsApp message. Video calls mean Christie’s can show collectors the watches in real time instead of just sending photos. “In difficult times, people come together and clients want to be reassured. When covid struck in early 2020, a lot of clients were sceptical, they didn’t think it was the right time to sell or buy, and maybe prices will go down. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Everything was selling really well and people were really enthusi-astic, and this gave people confidence to consign and buy more.”
As for the continued appetite in the Hong Kong and Asia market for luxury watches, Bigler says it’s all part of the wider demand for luxury goods in the region. “Asians have been buying hand-bags, wine and paintings for the past 10 years, they have the cash flow to invest.” As Hong Kong is a free port, this means clients can come in and out with as many watches as they want, he adds.
In terms of establishing a collection, Bigler says beginners need to do their homework. “You can look at online magazines, forums and auction houses like ourselves offer a lot of information. You can read the foot notes to find out when the piece was made, how many are in circulation and so on.” Bigler says you can focus on one brand, or zoom in on a certain period. “Maybe it’s the golden era – is it the 1950s or 1960s? Or maybe you just like what this brand has been doing recently.” It has collectors that invest in certain metals – only black metals, for example – while others go by complication, just chronographs, or GMT’s. “You really can create collections in so many ways and that’s what makes it so exciting, and it’s very individual,” he says. Interested? Watch out for its Autumn sales in October.
The rise of the independents
Aside from the auction houses, there are plenty of retail outlets where would-be collectors can browse for timepieces and begin watch investment. Watchbox’s director of trading, Josh Srolovitz, explains that Hong Kong is its first international office for the Philadelphia-based opera-tion, with Singapore and Switzerland on the way. The Hong Kong market for watches is very mature, he says. “When you’re out and about walking on the street, almost everyone is wearing a Rolex, or some luxury watch brand on their wrist. It’s very culturally ingrained.”
Watchbox provides a platform that enables customers to sell or trade their watches from its retail store. “What we’ve been trying to do the past few years is drive the independent watchmaker scene. Brands like FP Journe, or A Langhe & Sohne, which isn’t independent but has been for-gotten.” As certain rare watches – the Pateks and limited-edition Rolexes and so on – become more difficult to procure, it is encouraging clients to look elsewhere. “A Langhe & Sohne has al-ways made watches comparable to Patek Philippe in terms of movement, finishing and decora-tion and the overall quality, but because they’re not a Swiss brand – they’re German – they can be overlooked.” That is changing, however. “The Langhe Datagraph was a timepiece that only two years ago traded for maybe US$30-40,000. Now it’s a US$60-80,000 watch,” he notes.
The pandemic has seen Watchbox attract more local clients alongside other Asian clients. With a client base made up mostly professionals, particularly bankers and lawyers, Srolovitz says sec-ond-hand timepieces have become a lot more acceptable than a few years ago. “There were a few pre-owned watch shops, but the idea of buying one as a gift to yourself or someone else wasn’t so normalised, as it’s a used item, and culturally that can be a problem. We spent a lot of time educating people and putting the focus on the watch’s rarity rather than its previous owner.”
The majority of Watchbox’s timepieces are as new, fully warrantied and can be shipped out of Hong Kong. Do more people purchase or sell? “It’s a pretty healthy mix. Generally, they’ll sell first.” In terms of establishing a collection, Srolovitz says many collectors make questionable purchases over time, so he advises doing plenty of research before making that big purchase. He also advises checking out the brand’s YouTube channel, where experts introduce different watches.
Zoom meetings with clients globally have become a staple, and they’ll focus on everything from vintage Pateks to timepieces with stone dials. “We did a Zoom VIP exploration of our most ex-ceptional watches from the Watchbox vault, pieces not for sale publicly, which gave them an opportunity to view special things that they wouldn’t see otherwise under professional cameras and lighting. This really fosters a sense of community and enables us to reach out to people who aren’t based in Hong Kong.”
Building a specialist collection
If you’re looking for a niche for your collection, then why not invest in watches that have gone into space, or models created for that purpose? Bobby Livingston is executive vice president of Boston-based RR Auction, which recently sold a Russian Cosmonavigator watch, first carried to the International Space Station by cosmonaut Salizhan Sharipov on Soyuz TMA-5, and an Omega Speedmaster flown on expedition 38/39. The pieces fetched US$32,439 (estimate US$10,000) and US$55,000 (estimate US$25,000) respectively. This online auction, like most of RR’s remote sales, attracted plenty of Asian bidders.
“When you wear watches up in the space station and into orbit, they have to be really good quali-ty time pieces. Any time we get cosmonaut watches, we never know how high the price is going to go,” he says.
RR Auction has been holding space-themed auctions since 2011. Livingston says there’s great interest not only in the Apollo programme but others, too. “I grew up seeing man walk on the moon, and there’s a whole generation of collectors my age that were inspired by these astro-nauts. Now they have a disposable income, they’ve got into collecting,” he says.
While Livingston admits it’s always difficult to get good consignments, he notes that RR is re-nowned for selling flown watches and it holds two space sales a year. “We sold a Bulova chronograph for US$1.6 million dollars (he’s wearing a replica), the only one worn by a US as-tronaut on the moon that you can own. All the others were Omega Speedmasters owned by the US government and still belong to the US government. This Bulova was a watch worn by Com-mander Dave Scott from Apollo 15 and we sold it for him in 2015 and it was a world record for a while,” he notes.
When space and watches come together, they generate really competitive prices, he says.“We’ve sold several Omega watches… the Speedmaster remains popular as it’s so iconic. And some people just collect Speedmasters, and the early astronauts chose to buy them them-selves. Watches play an incredibly important role in space travel, it’s a mandatory piece of kit.”
The people that purchase the space watches generally lived through the Apollo programme. While it’s a really niche market, the client base comprises everyone from CEOs to college pro-fessors. “The buyers are usually very into science, rockets and how things work. There’s only so many things that have been to the lunar surface that astronauts were allowed to retain, so there’s a supply issue and high interest.”
Starting a collection is all about provenance and authenticity, says Livingston. “In the space-collecting world, provenance is everything – the watch needs to have come from an astronaut and be backed up with solid paperwork. For the Apollo Programme, there’s always photos of them on the space station so buyers can match the watch to the photo, plus the serial numbers are widely known.”
Like many watch auctioneers, Livingston advises would-be collectors to buy what they love ra-ther than simply investing in something as it’s likely to make you the most money. “If you buy a watch from us, whether it makes money or not, at least you were able to own something that went up in space.”
Livingston says RR will host another space sale this October and he expects to have a watch or two that’s flown to the moon among the auction lots. He is already excitedly anticipating who will secure the most coveted watch lots. “The crossover aspect is really interesting to me as I never know who’s going to win, a space collector or a watch collector.”