CollectionsWatches: Vintage and Modern

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From Winston Churchill’s vintage pocket watch to modern wristwatches powered by liquid, the centuries old art of horology continues to capture collectors’ fascination of watches: vintage and modern.

High-quality watches have long been a wise investment, with some vintage watches soaring in value over the past decade. Former CEO of Continental Airlines (and one of the most notable vintage watch collectors in America), Gordon Bethune decided to auction off 50 of his prized vintage watches in 2012—realising $5,677,425—as he claims they became too valuable to wear: ‘I enjoyed them when I bought them 20 years ago. They’re wonderful, but you don’t wear them because they cost too much money. I want to put the money to use.’ Bethune then donated $2 million of the collection’s earnings to charity.

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Auction houses now sell more than $100 million worth of vintage watches a year, with blue-chip watch names leading the way for record breaking bids. In May this year, Phillips Inaugural Watch Auction saw an extremely rare Patek Philippe single button doctor’s chronograph in stainless steel selling to a telephone bidder for $4,987,383 after 21 minutes of bidding. The result doubled Phillips’ low estimate of $1-$2 million and set a new record price for a stainless steel wristwatch sold at auction.

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However, going with the big watch names isn’t always the best route, especially for those starting their watch collection, vintage or modern. Adrian Hailwood, watch specialist at auctioneers Fellows & Sons, argues that ‘there’s a pressure on a new collector to buy pieces that impress your friends but that ignores a huge swathe of watch making history..’ Hailwood enthuses over a Lange navigator wristwatch made for Second World War German airmen that he sold 18 months ago: ‘a high-precision product that’s also a piece of history’.

Investing in a unique historical piece is appealing to collectors—not only for the return on investment, but also to own a piece of history. For example, on 22 September in London, Sothebys auctioned ‘The Victory’ watch by Agassiz, a fine and rare gold enamel world time watch gifted to Sir Winston Churchill, which was estimated to sell for £60,000 – £100,000 but instead sold for an astonishing £485,000.

Vintage watches are not the only way to invest. Collectors wishing to update their collection with more modern watches need look no further than the ‘Superwatch’. Like the so-called supercar, the ‘Superwatch’ is handmade and highly technical. The pioneering development in this category is the HYT watch. The HYT Watch H1 uses liquid to indicate the time: the hour hand isn’t a hand, but a tube containing liquid. As this evolving and unique method of time telling is very time-consuming to create, to date only a limited number of HYT watches have been made. Dominating luxury brand Tag Heur are also set to fuse the traditional with modern technology by teaming with Google to create an Android powered smartwatch. Jean-Claude Biver, president of LVMH’s watch division, suggests the model will stand out from other smartwatches, ‘it will be a rational look. Our watch will have all the emotion and the DNA of Tag Heur.’

Expert advice: watch collectors should always go for uniqueness and high quality, and when it comes to watches: vintage and modern, authentication and documentation is an essential element of any watch purchase.

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Unique in its broad international coverage of both arts and cultural events, Arts & Collections covers fine art from antiquity to modern times, auction records, a special sale preview by Sotheby’s, as well as market trends that inform collectors of the world’s finest items.

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