The trip started moments after the Sabbath ended rushing me into a new week and off to an exciting week in Europe.
The stars were high and bright in the sky and so were my hopes for a successful journey.
At my wrist, my recently acquired Audemars Piguet Royal Oak C series, reference 5402. Thin, sleek and comfortable I had it on since the start of the Sabbath the day before and felt that was the right choice for the flight as well. The dial matched perfectly with my blue / gray distressed leather jacket and jeans I had prepared for the departure.
I knew I was going to miss the first session of the Phillips “Auction: TWO”, as they call it, but time spent with my wife and kids is more valuable to me than seeing timepieces at auction sold for record prices. I was sure there would be plenty left in store to see and lots of action at the second session on Sunday night.
A quick ride in the Taxi with little to no traffic (thank God) and here I am at Terminal 8 of JFK airport ready to board the 755pm American Airlines flight to London Heathrow.
I got lucky with an upgrade and I was happy to see my legs had plenty room to stretch. Of course there had to be the buzz kill: this time manifesting itself in a crying baby in the row behind me.
The movie selection was plentiful and surprising. Lots of Classic movies to choose from (after all, I am the Classic Man of Classic Watch) and in the end I opted for James Cameron’s “The Abyss” just to stay in theme with the Rolex connection.
Five hours and fifty minutes later here I am in London Heathrow finding my way to the beautiful Terminal 5. I love that place that bridged me so many times in my three careers to the destinations that I was blessed to visit. What a classy terminal indeed!
After my morning prayers I took a quick stroll to visit my favorite duty free shops as I waited for the next flight to Geneva to be ready.
Browsing through the magazines I was amazed to see a few issues specifically dedicated to Land Rovers and others to Porsche collecting.
The Rake magazine proved to be the usual taste maker and it was also cool to see a nice article dedicated to the history of the Rolex Oysterquartz along with some pictures of Reinhold Messner climbing mountains in his Fila gear (if you know me you know I’m a sucker for that Fila Borg 70s shit), at his wrist his loyal Rolex Explorer II 1655 Freccione, or Steve McQueen. I’ve said it already, but can someone freaking tell me why it’s called Steve McQueen? Nobody can come up with any picture of the King of Cool wearing one but at this point given the facts we can call it “the Reinhold Messner”. On immediate second thought I don’t believe it would be a striking marketing choice for this reference…Steve McQueen sounds better than the Sud Tirolean climber after all.
It’s always good to visit World of Whiskey and have that free taste of whatever rare boutique-only single malt they are marketing (even at 9 am GMT!).
Slightly euphoric I continue my procession of shops this time going inside Hermes and looking at all those magnificent leathers, fabrics, accessories and uber rich things my wife would kill me for if I bought.
A quick tour in the Rolex shop proved to me once again that you can’t really walk inside and buy those models you crave. Two tone, lady sized, non sport models and the usual gold President in its typical variations were available by the bucket but no sight of those GMTs, Subs, Daytona or yet alone Deep Sea Blues (just to tie it in with the James Cameron thing again ). It made me happy to think that if a client calls me and asks me for the above watches I’m pretty confident I can deliver in one day.
Boarding the flight to Switzerland proved to me I was going to a classy place indeed as all the passengers were very European looking with their fancy Sunday knits, nappa leather jackets and a plethora of fine watches at the wrists. It is very rare to see the timepieces we love out and about in the wild but on this flight it seemed like it was the order of the day. After all we are flying to the capital of watchmaking in one of its busiest weeks.
It was pleasing to meet the Bonhams timepieces consultant as I was making my way through the row. A familiar face is always good to have on a flight.
The flight to Geneva was a breeze thank God and we touched down shortly after an hour welcomed by a stunning view of the alps against the lake glowing from the beautiful sun. A little mist was framing the view giving it an aura of great beauty.
I haven’t been here in at least 8 years, going back to the times I was trading in sapphires and rubies visiting the likes of Jewelers Boghossian, Adler, Horovitz and Totah etc. on behalf of my aunt Sara (from World renowned gem stone firm Sara Gem).
At the arrivals I encountered world famous Parisian tailor Lorenzo Cifonelli garbed in some dapper yet surreal outfit that we yet have to grasp.
The train ride from the airport to the central Geneva station was as long as the ride from Great Neck (my hometown) to Douglaston (neighboring village), not even enough time to look outside the window.
I was spit out of the station to find myself in the town center and my hotel was literally across the street (I didn’t quite believe it’s described vicinity to the station when I booked).
I rested and groomed myself to attend the second session of Phillips Geneva: auction TWO (it still bugs me out this name) that had previews until 6 and action starting at 630.
I already had some news from the charity auction ONLY WATCH that Phillips held. A Patek tourbillon sold for $7 million and the Tudor Black Bay unique piece sold for 200 times its regular brother retail price. The hype was high and I was sure I was going to witness a show shortly.
Another super duper quick and free train ride from the central station to La Tuileries where Hotel La Reserve is located and here I am spit out again literally in the middle of the street slightly disorientated. The walk from there was exactly 4 minutes on my AP Royal Oak.
Garbed in my favorite jacket (Royal blue cashmere herringbone cloth) and wearing my grey flannel pants I made my way into the fancy hotel and then down to the tent where the auction and preview was taking place.
The room had few collectors and dealers perusing watches at the tables, attended by numerous young looking Swiss and French accented girls.
I recognize Josh from European watch company in Boston and Philippe Stahl ( Rolex passion report website) with his bearded Dutch friend (don’t know his name).
I recognize Pucci Papaleo (author / curator of the Daytona and Day Date books quoted in all the auction catalogs) that I’ve seen in pictures on the web before.
Other prominent colleagues from Italy and U.S. are also present perusing the selection and looping dials.
The man himself Aurel Bacs is also in the room entertaining his guests and clients with a confidence and personality I rarely come across.
I am reminded of the time I went to Pitti Uomo in Florence (clothing trade show ) and the circus of people fueling the sartorial industry chumming with each other and holding big smiles. Well here it’s pretty much the same, sans the purple and checkered suits pea cocking.
The watch selection is prime and includes the choicest of the choicest from vintage Rolex, Patek, Universal and more.
Everything is cherry picked and very interesting to me.
Up my alley are a few items in the catalog I’d like to land for my collection.
The first one is certainly the complete box and papers Milgauss 1019 with black dial , 6 million serial. I ask for this and few others lots pictured below.
I receive the timepieces in a nice black tray and I’m left to do my studies and examinations with no pressure.
The 1019 is nice as expected, nice chamfered case, nice clean dial with no defects. Upon further examination I notice the hands luminous still glowing so I don’t know what to make of it really. A mental comparison with the other 1019s I sold make me conclude that this specimen is indeed nice although not better than the ones I had. I decide I’m in the run for it but I have my limits.
I was interested in the Universal Geneve Navy/ black Tri compax with box and papers and the Nina Rindt. Universal is having a moment of incredible strength in the collector’s market and is starting to be a main player. The market wanted something fresh and iconic similar to Rolex but at a more affordable budget and here is Universal commanding the scene and coming close to Rolex in evaluations.
Both Universal are nice and attractive although I find the Tri Compax more appealing with its full set (a rarity for UG) and in better conditions. The Nina Rindt is cool but not in top condition. The bezel has some wear and the dial isn’t mint and sharp. I was sure it was going to be expensive so I mentally passed even running for it.
I was very motivated to land the Royal Oak A series and I studied it in depth. I was disappointed to see it wasn’t in the sharpest condition with a moderately stretched bracelet, pitted case back (that for me was a killer defect) and a satin case finish that wasn’t so prominent as I wished. I was going to be in but within my limits.
I was not so shocked to learn that the Nautilus 3700 signed Gubelin and with cork box went for roughly $55000 all in. I haven’t seen it in the flesh but I’m sure it was nice as they presented it. I was very doubtful though about their claim of only three Gubelin signed 3700s. I’ve seen two myself in the past month and I also have the pictures to back my statement. So with this one it makes three, can I assume I’m lucky enough to have seen all the existing examples?!
The auction timely stars at 630 and the room is packed with the best of the best of our industry. Unlike all the other auctions I’ve attended in New York, this one has really a lot of people on the floor and the excitement is very strong!
The show starts with Aurel Bacs taking the lead and man, this guy knows what he’s doing. Such charisma, such great salesmanship, he really knows to sell the product and get the people hyped.
It helps of course that he’s the engine behind everything, knowing the product, knowing the collectors personally, knitting ties with the dealers and just making the Phillips auction the place to be.
The Bacs entourage is comprised also of the foremost watch consultants coming from other auction houses such as Paul David Mausley formerly from Bonhams and Paul Boutros, formerly Antiquorum. Also Nathalie Montbarron formerly from Christies is helping for the phone bidding and you can see the team is united in the goal of making this the prime event in the watch business.
The lots fetch mostly above their estimates and the vibe in the room is very optimistic.
Laughter, ovations and heat fill the room and the crowd enjoys the show.
I bid unsuccessfully on the lots I studied but I was happy to see the end result and price fetched for them. My only peeve is that I should have bought this beautiful NIGA chronograph that was to die for but at $6000 hammer + 25% commission I don’t know how far I’d go.
I leave few lots from the end, excited and tired from the flights. A short train ride later I’m back to my hotel.
The next day it’s the Christies auction starting at 10 am. I make my way to the Four Seasons hotel des Bergues where the Christies firm set up camp.
Gorgeous hotel in front of the lake with a majestic aura of old world money and pure European class.
Wearing my double breasted navy blazer and a pair of beige jeans I look very Italian with my wood dial day date at my wrist and stroll my way to rue des Bergues.
The room of the auction is dramatically different than the one from the night before.
Less chairs, less space and overall less excitement. Perhaps it’s the morning time making everything feel more “business formal”.
Many lots are to be sold, unfortunately I did not have a chance to preview the merchandise and make a sound decision about anything plus I wasn’t particularly thirsty for anything in the lineup . I didn’t have much interest in this catalog as most of what was offered wasn’t my niche or I already had it in my stock. I was curious though to see how things would end up.
Lots of different brands offered and lots to pick especially for the Omega collectors.
As the auction starts there are some bargains to be picked up but I’m not a price guy, I am more of a quality type of buyer.
A Patek yellow gold chronograph reference 130 is hammered at $24000, a slew of modern Patek 5146 annual calendars are just being given away to the bidders and so proving Modern Patek and mediocre Patek vintage timepieces are taking a bath lately.
If there is one thing I summed up after all the trip is that really, it’s not the time for Patek at the moment. Speaking to other dealers we conclude that things dramatically changed since a year ago where the brand had one of the strongest runs for about 7 years. Their production increased from 25000 total units manufactured to double as to satisfy the thirsty Russian and Chinese market (both of them suddenly out of the picture ). What remains is a big supply and a shorter demand obviously driving the price down. Trends also change and the collectors are ready for something a little bit more “New World”.
The only and again the ONLY Patek to have strong following is the Nautilus in all its variations from vintage to modern.
The Nautilus at Christies, namely the only real piece there I wanted to snatch, went for $44000 + commission. All the other Nautilus achieved also good results (the 3712 at $40000 total , the 5980/1a at $35000 total).
Vintage Rolex was holding its pace without any crazy results but solid prices fetched proving that quality is always in demand.
The real Rolex bargain was the 6262 Paul Newman with box and papers sold only at $80k plus commission. The other Paul Newmans got their price but nothing insanely crazy like the years before.
The shocking moment at the Christies auction was the withdrawal of the cover lot, the Patek chronograph / calendar with black gloss dial belonging to Haile Selassie.
They just skipped it as nothing happened and half the room left in disapproval and disappointment.
Supposedly a family member claimed the watch was stolen from the estate and disapproved the sale. People, couldn’t you have realized it before the last minute?! That was absolutely crazy and a very low blow to Christies watch department that already was suffering from Phillips stealing the thunder of undiscussed market maker.
I take a break and have a coffee with my Italian colleagues and suppliers at the Four Seasons bar and I realize that the most important thing here is not to fetch a deal but to knit further my relationships and bring my clientele the best of the iconic watches available.
The afternoon finishes with the last hammered lot and everyone retires to their hotels to later meet for a nice dinner with friends and colleagues.
Tuesday is the last straw of the auctions with Sotheby’s entertaining us with two sessions.
The auction takes place at Beau Rivage Hotel, a five minute walk from the Four Seasons and virtually the same kind of setup of the day before.
The auction room is narrow and smaller than the Christies one and so was the same with the selection offered.
I managed to preview the lots the day before during the break and here I finally found more bread for my teeth. I am particularly motivated lately on curating a top selection of Nautilus and Royal Oak so there was something here for me.
I had strong interest for a Nautilus reference 3800 which was virtually mint and beautiful and I was ready to snatch the 3700 offered.
Vintage Rolex wise there was nothing for me that I didn’t have or had to have.
The session started kind of muted and many mediocre lots just went unsold.
Sotheby’s really hurt from the Phillips storm and I’m also not so sure they have a driving force in their watch department making the hype and curating hot offerings for the buyers.
The auction is just a blood bath in my opinion and there isn’t much interest in anything. The big players have already left and the people still in the game aren’t so motivated.
Overall it was a soft day at Sotheby’s, even the Swatch mega lot sold for just the low estimate.
I decide it was enough time for me spent in Geneva and early the next morning I take a train to my hometown of Milano.
The train ride is simply majestic with lovely views of mountains and lakes at my sides.
Couple of hours later here I am at the Duomo welcomed by gorgeous weather.
I make my rounds and eye a couple of beautiful Royal Oaks I will be having soon in my hands.
The quality of life in Europe is just so much better I realize, with shorter distances to be covered, better air, better food and more emphasis on enjoying it rather than running the rat race. The seconds hand here turns slower on my watch and I’m just happy to be here for the day.
My trip is at its end and the next morning I hop on to the Cadorna Express and in 30 minutes I’m at Malpensa airport ready to board my New York bound flight. Mind you this plane doesn’t even have TV screens at the seats, I’m able though to finish this article and review once again the catalogs.
Once again the conclusion is that at the moment collectors are very astute not throwing away money for silly things. The market is absolutely ready for Rolex and Patek alternatives materializing in Universal, Omega and other vintage watch makers using the same parts and supplies of the big two.
High Quality pieces fetch high numbers and mediocre things go unsold. The days of the craze are over luckily and only what deserves takes the result home.
In comparison to all what I’ve seen, my collection is absolutely prime. I am pretty confident my selection is very astute and very cherry picked. My strategy of box paper sets, unpolished cases and no compromises is proving to be the right one. The clients that purchased my watches can certainly consign them to Phillips and Christies and see them look better than their counterparts.
Next auctions coming up are the December sales in New York and the Phillips auction in Hong Kong.
I am back at home with the loves of my life..