An Insider's Guide to Vintage Watch Auctions

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A Sotheby's watch expert tells all.

The vintage watch market is thriving. In just three decades, the market for collectible vintage watches has gone from flea-market transactions to multimillion-dollar auctions. Watch collectors find they get serious bragging rights and a real appreciation for beautifully handcrafted mechanical objects with the purchase of a rare vintage watch found at auction. Whether it's a watch covered in hundreds of carats worth of jewels, a Patek Philippe chronograph, or a Rolex made for a race car-loving Paul Newman (like this Cosmograph Daytona that went for $17.8 million), rare watches are attracting a younger audience than ever

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And yet, the world of luxury vintage watch auctions can still feel like a closely guarded secret. There are hundreds of brands, styles, and auctions to choose from all over the world, and each vintage timepiece has an important narrative that shapes its allure. First-time luxury watch bidders wonder why some timepieces go for millions while others seem like total bargains. How does a first-time bidder know whether they're bidding on a worthy investment? Should you only be looking at big names like Rolex? And what is it really like to bid, by phone, in the room, or online as the tension builds? 

To answer our burning questions, we turned to Sotheby's Vice President and Senior Watches Specialist Jonathon Burford for an insider's take on the fascinating world of vintage watch auctions. Turn to these tips before raising your digital or physical paddle

Related: The Most Beautiful Vintage Rolex Watches Ever Sold at Auction

Online vs. Traditional Watch Auctions

Whether you’re bidding online or in person, the process is the same. The big perk of on-site auctions of course is the ability to physically handle the items. That shouldn't deter anyone from an online bid though, according to Burford. The perk of an online auction is its immediacy and frequency. Many online auctions happen on a weekly basis now which gives collectors a better chance of uncovering a rare timepiece (and means you can bid from anywhere, even if you're working remotely from a luxury resort).

When it comes to online auctions, always turn to a trusted auction house. For a timepiece to even get to the likes of Sotheby's or Christie's, it has to be vetted and cleared by the experts. “It speaks to the relationship between collectors and their trust in auction houses to have done their due diligence for them,” Burford told Departures when talking about the super-rare 1969 Rolex Daytona that went for $1.5 million in an online sale. 

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When and Where to Scout Vintage Watches

While weekly auctions are now commonplace, there are still two major seasons each year to look out for when it comes to standout vintage watch auctions—one in fall and one in spring. These auction seasons are made up of events from Hong Kong to New York to Geneva.

So where should you look? It's worth knowing which city you should focus on depending on the style of watch you're looking for. According to Burford, watch collectors look to Hong Kong for contemporary timepieces and Geneva for a focus on very historic Swiss brands. New York is a "cross-section of everything," according to Burford but collectors can usually find a very strong focus on vintage when it comes to NYC auctions. 

Related: Why Luxury Watch Collectors Need to Add This Swiss Village to Their Bucket List

Your Vintage Watch As an Investment

It’s very important to set a budget before attending an auction. That said, if you’re investing in a luxury vintage watch, you want to make sure it’s the very best. This is especially important if you are going to sell it in the future; think about the return on investment. Burford's advice is, "if the watch speaks to you, then it will also very likely speak to others as well.” So don't get something you're not passionate about, wait for the right piece. For those keen on one day reselling, Burford also advises looking for price trends among similar watches. "If one particular watch sells for an extraordinary price, that might not set the market price," he said. 

Doing the Necessary Research

Don’t focus on a brand name. Watches come in different sizes, shapes, and styles. So instead, Burford's advice is to "really look into what you like and why you like it." What speaks to you? What are you passionate about? These are the questions to ask yourself when looking at what’s available. 

Once you’ve settled on a timepiece, always read the watch's condition report. Look up what the watch looked like before it went up for sale, and what it looked like when it first came out of the factory, for comparison’s sake. In the watch world, small details can make a huge difference in price. In some cases, like Rolex's Paul Newman Daytona watch, a few details could mean a $100,000 price difference. 

And when in doubt, don’t hesitate to ask the auction house staff. Remember, auction house staff members are typically well-briefed on the items and accustomed to discussing high-end pieces with collectors. For tips, or to find out more about a sparkly item that has caught your eye, remember to reach out and talk to the specialists. "We handle the watches every day, and it's in our interest to inform you," Burford advised.