Why Are There More Million-Dollar Watches At Auction Than Ever?
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Last week, I caught up with Sacha Davidoff, of the beloved Geneva-based vintage shop Roy & Sacha Davidoff, before the big Geneva auction weekend. He had 40 or so watches he wanted to bid on and even more intel gathered. I jumped back on the phone with Davidoff to see how the weekend went for him and the watch world at large.
1️⃣7️⃣📈 By my count, 17 lots (16 watches and one Abraham-Louis Breguet pocketwatch, which looks like it once belonged to a great and powerful wizard) sold for over a million dollars this weekend. “Breaking a million at auction used to never happen,” Davidoff said. “Maybe once a season and it used to make headline news. Now it’s fucking 17!”
Here are some highlights from the million-dollar-mark obliterators.
- For Rolex, a black-and-gold ‘John Player Special’ Daytona sold for 2,238,000 Swiss francs (all figures in Swiss francs, which is slightly stronger than the dollar) and a Rolex Milgauss went for 2,238,000 francs. Then there were a pair of gem-set Rolex Daytonas: the 6269 for 1,134,000 francs and 6270 for 3,690,000 francs.
- There were many more from Patek, like a Tiffany-dial Nautilus 5711 for 2,223,000 francs; the legendary 2499 Perpetual Calendar—made even rarer because it spits out its calendar in German—for 1,739,000 francs; and another perpetual calendar made in white-gold for 1,618,000 francs.
- A trio of F.P. Journe pieces broke the million mark, including one with a jade dial and another with a tourbillon. Those sold for 1,134,000 francs and 2,707,000 francs, respectively.
- The last million-dollar watch was a prototype from the recently-launched eponymous brand of Jean-Claude Biver, an industry legend who steered Blancpain, Omega, Tag Heuer, and LVMH’s watchmaking division. The watch wildly exceeded expectations, selling for 1,270,000 francs. “The people who already ordered a Biver watch are feeling great,” Davidoff said. “ They’re like, ‘I thought I was a sucker but now I’m a fucking genius.’”
😈 Every season, at every auction house, Davidoff typically uses the same paddle number: 69.
“And everyone thinks it’s because I’m a perv,” Davidoff said, “but it’s actually because I like Speedmasters.” (The Speedmaster was the watch worn during the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.)
Is it a little bit of both? I asked.
I didn’t know you got to pick your own paddle number.
“You do not,” Davidoff explained, “but when you live in Geneva and you go out to lunch with these people, and you annoy them all the time…I’ve had 69 at Philips since the 2000s when they opened and same with Antiqourum.”
However, his routine was almost disrupted at Christie’s on Saturday morning. Christie’s was Davidoff’s first auction of the weekend. He arrived 30 minutes before the 10:30 a.m. auction, where he was promptly told his passport was expired and they needed a letter from his bank. This was a problem! Davidoff puts in the type of preparation—filling out Excel sheets and scouring over a thousand lots—that’s typically only possible with an Adderall prescription. Now, it seemed all that groundwork might have been for naught. Luckily, the head of the department walked by and vouched for Davidoff.
👨⚖️ Davidoff went into the weekend with roughly 40 targets. He got blown out on several, including a few Audemars Piguet skeletonized perpetual calendars. “My mom always tells me, ‘If somebody is willing to pay much more than you at an auction, it means that you still have good taste,’ ” he said.
He had better luck at Antiquorum. Let’s set the scene.
Towards the end of the first session, a Patek Amagnetic (literally a watch that isn’t affected by magnetism) came up for auction. The auctioneer started the bidding at 55,000 francs… crickets. Davidoff pounced in the absence of any action. He asked if he could take it at 55,000 francs—typically a bid needs to be a step above what the house initially sets the floor at—unwittingly grinding the entire auction to a halt.
The auctioneer stopped, turned around, and grabbed his phone. After plugging in the figures to calculate how much profit the house would rake in if it accepted the bid, he countered: “I’m sorry, I can only do 58.” Davidoff, who was partnering on the bid with Menta Watches’ Adam Golden, then took his iPhone out to use the calculator and decided he couldn’t. The auctioneer then offered it at 57, and a deal was made.
“That is the first time in my entire career I have ever seen anybody negotiate down a bid,” Golden told him.
🥼 One of the most surprising million-dollar results was a Rolex Milgauss, the recently discontinued antimagnetic watch originally made for scientists. Even more surprising than the price was the buyer: Rolex itself.
“How did everyone know the bidder was from Rolex?” I asked Davidoff.
“Because I’ve seen her in past auctions,” Davidoff said. “She looks a little bit like a librarian. She never says anything, she never raises a paddle, she just lifts her finger or nods.”
😛 Here is the “cheat sheet” Davidoff creates for the auction weekend.
Note the “Yum” next to the Rolex 6269 at the center of the page. “Yum, Nice, and Meh are my categories,” Davidoff jokes.
💸💵💶💷💴 Davidoff didn’t just come away with that amagnetic Patek. The dealer also landed a Patek Philippe Nautilus, and a Rolex Day-Date with a lacquered green “Stella” dial. (“Dial is perfect,” his notes read of the latter.)
🧠 So what did we learn? The Rolex bidder is smooth as hell. Oh, and, while there were fears going into this weekend that the market was softening, there’s a more complicated conclusion to draw. Yes, some pieces are not performing like they were a year ago—mostly the standard sport watches—but collectors have never been more willing to splurge on really special pieces. Buyers are thinking, “instead of spending $130,000 on a regular Nautilus, I’m going to save that $130,000 and buy one incredibly rare watch for, like, $1.3 million,” Davidoff explains. “So we’re finding a huge gap: It’s either sold for under $100,000 really well”—meaning those watches over-performed—“or for over a million.”
This is a complete 180 from last year’s auctions, which were a stainless steel sport watch bonanza. “Money was meaningless last year,” Davidoff jokes. Collectors are on an extremely fast learning curve right now. If the market was flooded over the last couple of years, those same people who bought their entry-level Daytonas and Nautiluses might now be looking to fatten their collection with much rarer pieces. “There’s a lot more smart money in the market right now,” Davidoff said.
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