Watch Snob on Million Dollar Auction Records
Watch Snob on Why a $2.5 Million Patek Philippe Just Sold for $31 Million
Record Breaking Time Teller
Love your column, Snob. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime sold for $31 million this week, highest price for a wristwatch in an auction. I understand that it was for a good cause, but, on the other hand, what consequences do you think this sale might bring in an already overinflated market?
Generally, I like to answer about three questions per week but yours raises a number of interesting points so I think that I shall, as the youth of today like to put it, go long on this one.
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For those who do not follow the auctions particularly closely (and I suspect many readers here who may have a casual rather than an unhealthily obsessive relationship with watches may not) the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, is a most unusual wristwatch. It can indeed scarcely be called a wristwatch at all — it is a behemoth of a timepiece, at nearly 50 millimeters in diameter and over 16 millimeters thick. Within that case is a movement with 1,366 parts and as the name implies, the watch is one of the most complicated, if not the most complicated, chiming watch ever made. The most complex such watches, contain both a minute repeater (which chimes the exact time to the minute, on demand) with what is called a grande et petite sonnerie. The latter chimes the time at the hours and also at the quarter hours, like a chiming clock (or like the Great Clock Of Westminster, as far as that goes, which Americans will persist in mistakenly calling Big Ben).
The Grandmaster Chime also includes two complications which have never been made before by anyone else. It has an unusual alarm, which actually chimes the time for which the alarm has been set when it goes off, and on top of that, it also has a date repeater — it chimes the date on demand, which of course, means that it has to have a perpetual calendar or it would chime the wrong date at the end of the shorter months. There are a plethora of ancillary indications as well, including a power reserve for the chiming works, a second time zone indication and so on.
Now, if you combine this complexity with a high level of movement and case finishing, and then add a generous premium for the fact that it is a Patek, you get a watch that at launch, had an announced price of 2.5 million Swiss francs (roughly the same in dollars, at the current rate of exchange; the listing for the current version of the watch, on the Patek website, says, coyly, price on request). This is all by way of saying that the watch is already enormously expensive.
A little background on the auction is in order as well. This was not an ordinary watch auction. Only Watch takes place once every two years, and the proceeds of the auction go entirely to fund research into finding effective treatments and, one day, a cure, for muscular dystrophy. The disease is a devastating one and so far has resisted any attempts to find a cure; the founder of the auction lost his son to muscular dystrophy. It is in short, an entirely worthwhile cause, and many, many brands from some of the biggest to some of the smallest, participate. Patek Philippe donates a watch to every auction and they have set several records.
Now all this alone is not enough to explain why the Grandmaster Chime in steel, hammered for such a relatively huge sum of money. However, one must consider all these factors together. Patek Philippe watches in steel are in huge demand at the moment, especially the unfindable-at-retail Nautilus. Historically, Patek Philippe has made very few steel watches and at auction, these always sell, for reasons of rarity, for much larger amounts than their precious metal brethren. The Grandmaster Chime has never been made in steel before and according to Patek, will never be made in steel again; indeed, the version they donated at auction, actually says “The Only One” on the dial. All this, plus the fact that it is a charity auction, plus the fact that in recent years increasingly huge sums have been paid for rare or unique versions of very avidly sought watches, contributed to a bidding atmosphere that encouraged extreme results for this particular watch, at this particular auction.
Now, as to your actual question, which is, what effect this will have on the rest of the watch market. I have given the matter a great deal of thought, and discussed it with some friends of mine who are both collectors and enthusiasts and who moreover collect across a fairly wide range of prices. Both they and I feel that this very high price, will not do a very great deal to affect the larger market for vintage watches. I have not really attempted anything like a very in-depth analysis of the auction results from this or previous years (for several reasons but chiefly because I am incurably lazy and I find that sort of thing even more tiresome than watching the industry try to design a credible ladies’ watch) but I thought that, a few high-interest lots aside, the performance of most of the lots at auction this November, was not especially dynamic. We may in fact be entering a period where there is a bit of a correction. It is worth remembering that by and large, and headlines aside, most lots do not turn into battles between billionaires looking to play the horological equivalent of the who’s-got-the-longer-yacht game.
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