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Set Your Watch to Big Sales in Geneva: High Prices at the High End of the Fine Watch Market

Set Your Watch to Big Sales in Geneva: High Prices at the High End of the Fine Watch Market
November 9, 2023
Dylan Dittrich

Photo: Phillips

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A broken watch is only right twice a day. But the market for true rarities of the watch world appears to be intact, and it can be counted upon to deliver significant results twice a year in Geneva.

In just four events over the last week, Phillips, Sotheby's, and Christie's combined to sell over 105 million CHF (about $117 million) in rare watches. Nearly 28 million of that total came from 13 seven-figure pieces.

Those are staggering numbers, but both the total sales volume and the quantity of splashy, seven-figure sales were down year-over-year from 2022's edition. While the spring season was able to deliver growth, this fall in Geneva saw total sales volume at the marquee events drop 7% from 2022. And those 13 seven-figure sales couldn't stack up to 23 such sales at the same events a year prior.

Given the collecting climate, those declines were to be expected, and the results of the events mostly fell right within adjusted expectations. Across the events, 72% of lots hammered within their estimate ranges. That figure was boosted by a heavily-guaranteed single-owner sale at Christie's, where 112 of 113 lots sold within their estimate ranges, including 74 lots hammering exactly at their low estimates.

Only 12% of watches across events hammered below their estimates; combined with 7% of lots going unsold, that's a small proportion of disappointment. Bidding was only ravenous in select pockets - 9% of lots hammered above their estimate ranges. But 82% of lots in total selling within or above their ranges is a healthy metric, indicating the sales were well managed and well received.

Phillips continued to stand above its peers. While it didn't sell the greatest volume of watches overall, it did have the largest single event, grossing 39 million. More importantly, just one lot failed to sell, and only 8% of lots sold for less than their estimates. That left 92% of lots either within their estimate ranges or above them, though only 6% achieved the latter feat.

The most expensive watch of the week was Christie's sale of the 5,127,000 CHF Philippe Dufour Grande and Petite Sonnerie Minute Repeater. That watch - which features one of the most difficult complications to make - sold at Phillips two years ago for 4,749,000 CHF. While the result surely didn't make for a lucrative profit to the seller, the advance in value is notable given declining markets elsewhere over those years.

Dufour took top billing, but the esteemed work of George Daniels was a recurring theme at each auction house. Pieces by Daniels accounted for 3 of the 13 seven-figure sales, an impressive feat given the limited number of wristwatches he produced in his lifetime. The White Gold Millennium, co-signed by Roger Smith, sold for 2,177,500, while two platinum Anniversary watches from 2013 and 2017 sold for 1,143,000 and 1,860,000 respectively.

While those watches largely performed to expectations, there were some standouts in the events, primarily at Phillips. One Patek Philippe Calatrava sold for 279,400, more than 22 times its 10,000 low estimate. What made it so special? It's the only known example of a reference 2455 to feature Cartier's signature (Cartier retailed the watch in the 1950s). The condition, combined with that rarity, made it a target for hotly contested bidding.

A much more modern piece, a Horological Machine 2 from Maximilian Busser in collaboration with Alain Silberstein, also blew its estimate out of the water. It sold for 304,800 against a 25,000 estimate. This example, the brown "Chocolate Box," is the rarest of the Horological Machine 2.2s, and there were only 8 of the model made in total.

While the volume of activity may have declined from 2022, the market for rare watches remains both active and reliable. In a matter of mere days, more than 600 coveted pieces were hastily served onto the market's plate, and with select few hiccups, the market happily digested them. The events illustrate the appeal of true rarity, running counter to the pronounced declines in value experienced by more trafficked references.

Twice a year in Geneva. You can almost set your watch to it.

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