Signs of the times: interest ticks up in watch ephemera
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Eric Wind makes a living selling vintage watches, but the self-confessed “hoarder” prefers not to part with the associated ephemera he finds. His office in Palm Beach, Florida, displays a collection that includes vintage Rolex signs, an advert for the original Patek Philippe Nautilus, and a 1940s Longines store display clock shaped like an oversized watch.
“I love the history of watches so much and these things are really part of watch culture,” says Wind, who owns Wind Vintage. “It’s more than the watch itself, it’s understanding how they were marketing these things, who was buying them, the channels they were selling them [through] and, like vintage watches, there’s no way these things will ever be produced again.”
Wind’s passion coincides with a wider uptick in interest in watch memorabilia as collectors seek to acquire rare products by favourite brands. Much of the appeal is the “thrill of the chase”, says Steven Yambo, a senior watch specialist at UK auction house Fellows. “They want the unusual, the things that other collectors can’t get. The only problem we have is sourcing [the lots].”
There was increased interest at Sotheby’s during the first Covid lockdowns, when many US collectors did some “spring cleaning” and consigned items for sale, says Richard Lopez, the auction house’s senior watch specialist for the Americas. He says the then weekly online auctions provided a “perfect platform” to test the market, by offering more space for lower-value items, with memorabilia continuing to return some “amazing” results.
Watch boxes are a draw. While collectors might have thrown a box away in the past, Lopez says having the original case and papers provides added value in the market so people are “chasing” the box to complete the set. “A box could represent 10 per cent of the value of the watch,” he says.
The cork Patek Philippe Nautilus presentation boxes are particularly sought after. Sotheby’s sold one made around 1980 for HK$106,250 ($13,500) in 2020 and a modern version for $15,000 in a private sale last year.
Fellows, which has long sold lots of multiple watch boxes targeted at trade buyers, has increased the number of individual boxes it sells in recent years to meet demand from collectors — some of whom use them as decorative storage.
Yambo says there is a “strong market” for Rolex boxes up to the 1990s, and the brand’s modern boxes have at least doubled in value in the past five years.
Interest in vintage watch advertisements is also growing. Nick Federowicz, who founded Chicago-based specialist marketplace Ad Patina in 2017, exceeded his total customer count for 2021 in the first nine months of this year.
He says owning an original advert “is the next best thing to owning the watch”. Expense, competition and limited supply can make it difficult to obtain watches, he says, so ephemera offer “another way to collect”. His average price for an unframed advert is $75.
Some people buy to match their watch. Wind owns the original advert for his Rolex Explorer 1016, awarded to bull rider Gary Leffew for winning the Calgary Stampede in 1969. Others choose an advert for a “grail watch” they might never own, for the watch’s significance to a brand’s history, or simply the nostalgia, says Federowicz. “These ads are very personal. They’re hung up in an office, in a home, where family, friends, colleagues see it.”
The aesthetic appeal is not lost on interior designers who, says Lopez, buy unusual timepieces to decorate clients’ homes. In March last year, Sotheby’s sold a world-time dial wall clock, made in around 2000, which Patek Philippe issued to retailers, for $44,100.
Collectors are acquiring everything from catalogues to branded paperweights. Audemars Piguet steel bookends achieved $2,772 in June — more than double the highest estimate. A Rolex window display trident fish bowl from around 1960 (used to demonstrate a watch’s waterproof capabilities) fetched HK$237,500 ($30,255) in 2019.
Lopez has been “shocked” by the interest in marketing displays. “When I worked for an authorised dealer years ago, we used to throw them in the garbage,” he says. A circa 1980 Rolex retailer’s window display stand sold for $2,016 last December.
“You have to be really into the world of watches to be wanting to collect displays and things like that, but many of us are,” says Wind. He says “serious” collectors and dealers can get more excited about a piece of memorabilia no one has seen before than a watch.
Wind says it is hard to price ephemera. In many cases, there is only one example known. “The only way I sell these things — which is occasionally — is [when] sometimes a client comes into my office and they’re begging me on their hands and knees for something,” he says. “If I have a moment of weakness, I’ll say yes. But you want these things to go to a very loving and appreciative home, so it’d be hard for me to put it online and have no idea who’s buying it.”
Lopez thinks the market for watch ephemera has “peaked”.
“Until [the items] start getting into crazy prices that are sustainable, I don’t think it’s going to go any further than what it is at the moment, but it’s grown quite large for what I ever thought it was going to be,” he says.