The Art of Vintage Watches

What it means to own a collectible, and valuable, watch.

In three short decades, the market for collectible vintage watches has gone from flea-market transactions to multimillion-dollar auction deals, pitting reclusive billionaires against both private museums and recently founded watch investment funds, like Precious Time and Vintage Watches Fund. And prices continue to climb: In the last major sales in June, Christie’s gaveled a 1963 Patek Philippe for $1 million; Sotheby’s sold a Patek minute repeater for almost $3 million; and a simple Omega Constellation (albeit one owned by Elvis Presley) went for a record $52,500 at Antiquorum.

But does the fever pitch of these sales endanger what has made mechanical watches so fascinating in the first place? In contrast to these brand-driven, investment-oriented buying frenzies, Sotheby’s November auction in London features creations by George Daniels, who handcrafted watches one at a time. His creations remind us what true watchmaking is all about. It’s clear, though, that the business of serious watch collecting is here to stay. We sat down with the respected Milan-based watch connoisseur and dealer Max Bernardini for an insider’s view on collecting—and to talk about the watches of today that might become the collectibles of tomorrow.

The Art of Collecting

Q: When you entered the world of watch collecting some 20 years ago, what was the market for vintage watches at auction like? Who were the collectors?

Max Bernardini: The market didn’t really begin until the early 1980s. That was when Antiquorum started holding its first wristwatch auctions. You would find a Patek Philippe chronograph next to a Compax watch, and they would have the same estimates. And the dealers and collectors were mostly Italian—and they really helped to create this culture of collecting we now have today.

Q: So then who are today’s watch collectors?

A: The market has reached an interesting dimension. There are not only individual collectors bidding but also players like the Patek Philippe Museum. There are even hedge funds in existence now—like the Paris-based Precious Time—that invest in vintage watches. And the collector has no demographic limits—you could have a big investor from Asia sitting next to a young guy in jeans. But they all speak the same code.

Q: What’s today’s collector looking for, exactly?

A: A collector evolves. The essence of a collector is that he always desires something else. It’s not that he lives in a state of disappointment, but there will always be a better or more rare watch out there. And for some, the movement, or the mechanism inside, is actually the last concern. Originality is a concern, and desirability is the deciding factor. Even if a collector has ten Paul Newman Daytonas, he might lose interest and go after that next, more perfect one.

Q:What’s the deal with the Rolex obsession, anyway?

A: To a young collector, a 31mm chronograph has no attraction. I, myself, happen to love rare vintage movements, but that’s an interest I’ve acquired after 20 years. The young collector wants a big watch with a cool strap, and Rolex has a good market for that. Then he starts to learn about the different types of collectible models and the discrimination of the market; for example, why an original Rolex bezel that has turned brown is worth something, or why one Steve McQueen is more valuable than another. Pateks are more expensive—the Ref. 1518, for example, usually goes for $200,000 to $300,000—so the barrier of entry is higher. Rolex is a more attainable type of collecting.

Q: Sotheby’s London is holding a sale in November that features pieces from English watchmaker George Daniels. How will this sale compare with the Pateks and Rolexes that have been fetching astronomical prices lately?

A: George Daniels is not a name the average collector knows, but he was one of the last great watchmakers of our time. The Sotheby’s sale includes both the watches he made himself, which are technically very important, and those he purchased as a collector. There are not only wristwatches in that latter collection—also clocks and other non-wearable timepieces, all of extreme rarity. This will be a sale for a very small portion of collectors—the true connoisseurs—because there are so few of these pieces. We have seen a lot of sales lately, including historic watches, curated by a collector with a certain point of view and a certain taste. It gives the watches an added value, and the prices fetched show that.

Q: Your shop at Via Caradosso 2 in Milan is not just about watches—it’s filled with vintage Chesterfield sofas, trunks and other pre–World War II items. What’s your inspiration?

A: I’m creating a world. Vintage luxury is real luxury; you have to understand that items like watches—and jewelry, automobiles and art—were made for a clientele that did not work. Having the physical time to appreciate beautiful objects was the biggest luxury of all. In any type of collecting, a certain culture forms that appreciates this truth. The luxury we see in vintage pieces was the result of leisure and wealth, not, as is often the case today, the result of advertising.

Q: Do you see this watches-as-investments trend as a fad, a short-term type of investment, or is this here to stay?

A: Vintage watches have gone through terrible crises, but they’ve always remained liquid. Investors still know that they have something that’s worth money. It’s often the case that the more expensive the watch, the easier it is to sell. All emerging markets are going through an evolution that builds this culture of collecting, which allows items to appreciate. The culture of vintage watches has certainly arrived.

Bernardini’s boutique is at Via Caradosso 2 in Milan (39-02/481-8697; bernardinimilano.it). Fall is one of the auction world’s most important seasons, and watches are no different. Sotheby’s will sell the George Daniels Horological Collection on November 6 in London (sothebys.com); Christie’s will hold its Important Watch sales on November 12 in Geneva and November 28 in Hong Kong (christies.com); and Antiquorum will have a Geneva sale on November 11 and a New York sale on December 5 (antiquorum.com).