If you’re impressed by the 10% spike in Swiss watch exports for 2012, then the action on the secondary market should really impress you. It should also clear up any question of whether or not timepieces are a lasting investment. Sotheby’s tallied an astounding 83% increase in watch sales in North America last year, blasting its own record for the highest-ever price paid for a watch at Sotheby’s – for a Patek Philippe gold minute repeater made for uber collector Henry Graves Jr., at $2,994,500. Another top Sotheby’s lot was a George Daniels Space Traveller’s Watch, fetching $2,125,737 and setting a double record: the highest price paid for an English watch and the highest price paid for an independent watchmaker brand at auction.
Over at Christie’s, it was another record-breaking year. A Breguet & Fils rare 18k gold chronometer pocket watch made in 1814, sold in Geneva last May for $4,686,120, a world record price for a watch by Breguet. This is the very first experimental watch manufactured by Breguet with two complete movements (barrels, gear trains, escapements and balances). A standout from Patek Philippe – a brand that is always among the top lots in any auction – was an 18k pink gold perpetual calendar chronograph, circa 1945, fetching $674,500.
Antiquorum’s top results in recent months have come from two Richemont brands. A platinum JLC Reverso Gyrotourbillon 2, introduced in 2008, one of only 75 pieces made, sold for $260,000. And a Lange & Söhne Pour Le Mérite Tourbillon Limited Edition in white gold sold for $300,000, beating an estimate of $195,000.
So what makes a watch hot at auction? Four things, according to Nate Borgelt, watch expert at Antiquorum: maker, condition, rarity and complications. The notion that only vintage watches are valuable is a myth. “Of the top lots seen, two are relatively modern pieces which are either made in incredibly low numbers or unique as well as having multiple complications,” says Borgelt.