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No Time for Hesitation: Geneva Watch Auctions Surge Through Economic Uncertainty

No Time for Hesitation: Geneva Watch Auctions Surge Through Economic Uncertainty
May 19, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

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Over the last week, 16 watches sold for more than 1,000,000 Swiss Francs each in Geneva.

In comparison, May 2022's Geneva watch events played host to a mere seven sales of seven-figure watches.

As in other markets, much has been made of the fall in collectible watch values. And just as in other markets, the trophy assets march higher, unbothered by the struggles of the chaff. When we say chaff, we're not talking Timex and Swatch. We're not talking about the kind of watch Koonu stopped wearing in Forgetting Sarah Marshall because his "cell phone has a clock." We're talking Rolex, Patek, and Audemars Piguet....just of "lesser" desirability and greater availability.

Most measures of the valuable watch market will tell you that the last twelve months have been tumultuous. The WatchCharts Overall Market Index is down 22% over the last year. The Bloomberg Subdial Watch Index is similarly down 26%. Daytonas, Submariners, Royal Oaks, Nautiluses (Nautili?)....all have suffered as the wave of watch market speculation crashes after cresting in 2021 and early 2022. Out beyond the break, though, are the grails of the watch world - the auction headliners - and there remains no shortage of demand at the top of the collecting spectrum.  

Phillips continues to solidify its position as the premier auction house for fine watches. It sold a total of over 47 million CHF in watches across 207 lots, for an average price of just under 228k. The total is up 21% from 39 million last year across 200 lots, an average price of 195k. The massive improvement in annual results is derived from six seven-figure sales, including two watches that sold for in excess of 3,000,000 CHF. A Rolex Cosmograph Daytona bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires, one of just eight known to the market, sold for 3,690,000. Also one of just eight known examples, a pink gold Second Series Patek Philippe 2499 sold for 3,206,000.

Christie's improved on its 2022 tally as well, totaling 26.5 million CHF in its Rare Watches sale to last year's 23.8 million, despite the addition of just one lot. A Tiffany Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711 highlighted the sale with a 2,223,000 result, though that's the lowest price recorded at auction so far for the coveted 2022 release. Still, the house recorded four other Patek sales over 1 million CHF, in addition to selling another bejeweled Rolex Cosmograph Daytona (a different reference than the Phillips sale) for 1,134,000.

Christie's also held a separate "Art of F.P. Journe" sale, which grossed nearly 13.7 million CHF, with three watches finding seven-figure territory. A platinum F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souverain took top billing with a 2.7 million CHF result. The watch was the second example of the model ever made.

Finally, market share appears to be ceded at Sotheby's, where Important Watches Part I grossed 9.5 million, effectively half of 2022's 18.9 million, despite just a 29% reduction in lot count. The house still managed a major 2,238,000 CHF sale of a "John Player Special" Daytona, a record for the exceedingly rare variant.

The volume of Important Watches Part II, which generally contains a lower tier of watches, increased 11% year-over-year to 3.8 million, but the average price actually dropped 37%, which is more emblematic of broader market activity over the last 12 months.

Despite softness there, if you were to tally the volumes across houses for the Geneva sales, they notched a 12% overall gain over 2022, which is no small feat given the market challenges. It's clear, though, that it's the trophy assets playing a significant role in bolstering these figures. It's a sign that the very rarest and most desirable watches have elevated to a new level, previously occupied only by art, jewels, and top-tier museum quality artifacts.

No amount of money ever bought a second of time.....but huge sums of money can buy the world's most coveted timepieces.

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