Hong Kong vies with Geneva for global top spot in vintage watch sales
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Geneva has long been the global centre of high-end watch auctions, home to twice-yearly flagship sales staged by Christie’s, Phillips, Sotheby’s and Antiquorum that regularly attract some of the most valuable vintage timepieces in existence.
But an increasing number of buyers, sellers and auction house experts believe Hong Kong is set to take over as the biggest player on the scene. And their prediction has been backed up by an announcement last week that a significant part of one of the world’s finest publicly known collections will be sold there next month.
French businessman Patrick Getreide has chosen Christie’s Hong Kong to disperse his celebrated OAK Collection, starting with a 142-lot sale taking place at the Convention and Exhibition Centre on November 26.
The collection, which comprises more than 500 items in total, was first revealed to the wider world in May last year in the first exhibition of its type, prior to which it had been kept so private that even the owner’s sister was unaware of it.
Held at the London Design Museum, the event showcased 160 of Getreide’s most prized watches, many of which were unique pieces, hence OAK: ‘one of a kind’.
But Getreide says it was not his intention at the time to part with the collection, which took him more than 30 years to amass and which pundits and experts have variously estimated to be worth anything from $100mn to more than $300mn.
“I believe there is always a time to do certain things, and now feels like the time to sell my watches,” says Getreide. “My children are not at all interested in taking them on, and I would rather part with them now as I approach 70 and while I am still in good shape. I can’t say it isn’t a very sad thing to have to do, but it is definitely the right thing to do.”
The collection is expected to be dispersed in as many as five separate sales running through to the end of next year, but Getreide cites Christie’s current dominance of the Asian watch auction market as the reason to sell the first tranche there — helped by the decades-long relationship that he has established with Alexandre Bigler, the auction house’s senior vice-president and head of watches.
“I think Hong Kong is a very good place to sell, not least because a few more billionaires are created there every month — that’s something we don’t see in Europe.”
The first half of this year has seen Christie’s account for 50 per cent of the Asian watch auction market by value, racking up HK$443.8mn (US$56.6mn) in sales to leave main rival Phillips in second place (30 per cent share, $33.8mn) and Sotheby’s in third (20 per cent share, $21.9mn).
The house has also proved to be something of a specialist in dispersing single-owner collections in Asia, notably through the sale of the 107-lot Ultimate Collection of “world-class modern and golden age” watches that alone realised HK$127mn in May.
Bigler is confident the OAK Collection will achieve even greater numbers, not least because of the exceptional condition of the pieces on offer. “Asian buyers want impeccable watches in original condition and, preferably, with boxes and papers, even in the case of vintage models — and that is exactly what Getreide has always gone for.
“This is the first time we have had a collection of such quality and scale, essentially because no one else has ever had the time, the means, or the guts to go out and put something like this together. The fact that last year’s OAK Collection exhibition was so widely promoted is also going to have a very positive effect — provenance has become more important to the new breed of buyers from Asia and the Middle East.
“They have been very smart in the way they have learnt about the subject, and that is partly what is behind the really big prices being made in Hong Kong.”
Next month’s sale will test the appetite for the OAK Collection with a wide cross-section of watches. Offerings range from true vintage pieces — such as an Audemars Piguet Reference 5516 from the 1950s, estimated at up to HK$13mn, and a 1950 Patek Philippe (HK$4mn-HK$8mn) — to rarities from contemporary, independent makers such as Akrivia and Kari Voutilainen.
But collectors who fail to secure a piece from the OAK Collection will have plenty more opportunities to bid at Hong Kong-based sales between now and the end of November, with five further live auctions scheduled and another taking place online.
One of the former will be held by Bonhams on November 27.
Sharon Chan, the firm’s director of watches, Asia, expects bidding to be brisk as collectors get back into the swing of “live” sales after the unusually long Covid lockdowns imposed in some parts of the region.
“I have just returned from trips to Japan and Singapore, places that I haven’t been able to go to for a while due to the Covid situation,” says Chan, who has been in the auction business for 18 years, five with Bonhams.
“As with retail sales, Covid attracted a lot of people to the world of online watch auctions and gave them time to really study the subject — and one of the results seems to have been a shift in taste among Asian buyers, in particular.
“People still appreciate the typical sporty, steel watches that were previously making very high, often inflated prices, but they are now starting to pay attention to what we are calling ‘neo-vintage’,” she says.
“By that, I mean watches made from around the 1980s until the very early 2000s, which are somewhere between sporty and classic and fit in with the return to smaller sizes that the brands have recently been addressing with new watches.”
Chan says models such as the reissued Cartier Crash, the 35mm diameter Patek Philippe Reference 5050 perpetual calendar watch, and pieces from “rediscovered” makers such as Daniel Roth and Roger Dubuis are proving especially popular.
“A lot of Asian collectors are becoming very passionate about the new vintage style, and it is bringing them to dial names that they often didn’t know about before,” says Chan, who has also noticed another post-Covid phenomenon: buyers are getting younger.
“A decade ago, the majority of buyers in our Hong Kong sales were in the 40 to 60 age bracket. Now, I would say that has broadened out to cover people from their late 20s to around 50.
“Many of our collectors are still at university and belong to groups of watch geeks who started collecting at a very young age — even though they might have had a limited budget.
“They became very used to buying in online auctions during the lockdowns, and that method of selling has become so popular that there now tend to be far fewer people in the room at a live sale, and the atmosphere is far less vibrant — but the number of bidders is far larger, as so many take part via the internet.”
Clicking a mouse rather than raising a paddle seems to be no barrier to their willingness to spend, either — as evinced last summer when a rare Cartier Mystery clock tipped to fetch HK$2mn was knocked down for a triple-estimate HK$6.8mn.
It went, of course, to a “mystery buyer” — bidding virtually.
Forthcoming Hong Kong auctions
October 7 (live); October 7-17 (online).