Buying a Watch at Auction

Fine Jewels & Timepieces Auctions at Leonard Joel

The secondary market for timepieces has gained rapid momentum in recent years. With several departments at international auction houses dedicated to horology and watches, increasingly buyers are choosing to invest in this specialist collecting category along with fine art, jewellery and vintage cars. With an array of truly unique, rare, and collectable timepieces on offer, auctions can be an excellent place to source a special piece.  

Fine Jewels & Timepieces Auctions at Leonard Joel
Paul Newman wearing his Rolex Daytona, with wife Joanne Woodward, 1973 / Alamy

Recent auction results point to the popularity of international and aspirational watch brands, in some part due to quality and accurate performance being guaranteed. Audemars Piguet, A. Lange & Söhne, Rolex, Patek Philippe, IWC Schaffhausen, Omega, and Jaeger-LeCoultre among others are highly coveted and consistently achieve strong results on the secondary market. Particular limited edition models, prototypes and low production models also drive desirability and collectability in the horological category. The Rolex Bao Dai for example is an exceptionally rare model, combining the Rolex perpetual movement, full calendar, and moonphase display within the iconic oyster casing. Commanding impressive prices at auction, one model with the rare combination of gold case, black dial and diamond markers sold for $5.1 million USD in 2017. It was one of only three of the kind ever produced. 

Even within contemporary ranges, we see there can be a strong demand a specific model or models. With an imbalance between low production levels and a huge demand of high-end buying, difficult to acquire current production pieces are driving prices on the secondary market. The recently discontinued Rolex Submariner 1166LV ‘Hulk’, (a name given thanks to the green dial and bezel) has been in production from 2010. Since confirmation by Rolex in 2020 that the model will no longer be produced, there has been an incredible surge in aftermarket activity. 

As with any collectable item, the provenance and historical significance can bolster value. The staggering price achieved for Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona in 2017 is testament to the value watch collectors place upon provenance. At $17.75 million USD, it claimed the title of the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction. When perusing catalogues, potential buyers should pay close attention to historical and provenance notes in the catalogue as these are very likely to affect the final price achieved. 

Fine Jewels & Timepieces Auctions at Leonard Joel
Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-date Ref 228235 a Fine 18ct Pink Gold Everose Sundust Wristwatch With Bracelet Circa 2019
Sold for $60,000

Condition is undoubtedly one of the biggest differentiators when it comes to the value of a timepiece, particularly those that are categorised as vintage. Ideally, the case of the watch should present with minimal scratches and crisp lines. However, potential buyers should be wary of a vintage watch that seems too perfect; it can be an indicator of over-polishing. In the instance a vintage watch has replacement parts, this will be noted in the auction catalogue. Mention of ‘after-market’ in a catalogue description means there has been an alteration or replacement after the date of manufacture. The advertised auction estimate will reflect both after-market additions and overall condition, and naturally watches accompanied by original box, papers, receipts, service receipts and in as close to original condition are typically most desirable, regardless of age. 

Unlike buying online, buying at auction can give peace of mind to buyers with authenticity guaranteed.  With specialist horologists inspecting and cataloguing items in detail, buyers can be assured that each item has been fully authenticated and accurately described. Whilst auction specialists can provide expert guidance, potential buyers should also take some time to sufficiently research a piece of interest for additional peace of mind. 

BETHANY MCGOUGAN / Head of Fine Jewels & Timepieces

November 2021

Banner Image: Paul Newman wearing his Rolex Daytona, with wife Joanne Woodward, 1973 / Alamy