- Nicholas Biebuyck
The mantra of the past few years among savvy watch buyers has been that condition is everything. Prior to that, many of the most distinguished collectors were almost totally focused on rarity above all else, resulting in spectacular bidding battles for references that have fallen by the wayside as tastes have changed. We are now moving into an age where provenance is becoming increasingly important, with fresh-to-market finds that have continuous history from production through to today, preferably with the original owner or their family, generating the most excitement among enthusiasts. When this trinity of attributes comes together, it results in a truly exceptional object, whether it is worth a few thousand dollars, or many millions.
Lot 836 - A very fine, attractive and rare stainless steel Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6262 with “Paul Newman” - link
These factors of rarity, condition, and provenance are excellent barometers, but require a scholar with a depth of experience to attribute a relative assessment, especially when the difference in pricing for an example above the 80th percentile and one exceeding the 95th percentile is so large; this is a game of diminishing returns after all.
For rarity, it is important to have a grasp on what rare really means, especially when some watches were produced in the same reference and configuration over thousands of examples, and we are fortunate to have rich data composites to benchmark this, be they factory records or enthusiast-collected matrices.
With provenance, the days of accepting a seller's words that a watch is from the original owner are long gone, and we are now seeing increasing amounts of documentary evidence such as letters and photographs to support the narrative.
For condition, as values have increased in recent times, there has been room for a degree of deception, especially when the market has been so demanding for “perfect” examples; perhaps a service replacement dial has been substituted for a period correct equivalent, or that nicely aged luminous material to the hands has been carefully colour matched, without this information being passed on to the new owner with the watch.
Lot 1017 - A possibly unique Patek Philippe Ref. 3448/14 retailed bu Gübelin - link
This last point is perhaps the most challenging, as there is little substitute for having inspected many, many, many watches. Those who are employed in the profession and have a discerning eye, including those at the auction houses, trusted dealers, as well as the most experienced collectors who have been attending the viewing rooms for years, have a distinct advantage. As an individual, it may feel intimidating to be bidding against this mountain of experience, but we are fortunate in the watch world that it is an extremely friendly group, bound together by this relatively unusual passion. In the age of social media and virtual interconnectedness, you are just a direct message away from having an obscure question answered by a world authority on the subject.
This should be presented with the proviso that it is important to not rely on only one source for information, and as time passes, it is possible to build up an advisory board of contacts who can assist in an acquisition decision. Even among the most accomplished scholars of horology, they will often confer with colleagues known to have more experience in a particularly nuanced facet of watchmaking, which only the most ardent enthusiast of that particularly tributary of minutia can comprehend.
For all this talk of the three criteria though, they should never detract from the aesthetics of a watch, and their ability to move us emotionally. When we understand what has gone into the creation of this object, the hours of toil from its creators, and can see the beauty of the design with our own eyes, that should be the primary motivation in deciding what to acquire, especially in an object that is so personal.