Buying

What’s the difference between auction houses?

Not all auction houses are created equal. In the below I’ll cover similarities and differences of the largest.

Similarities across auction houses:

  • Bidding is available via a number of methods: in room, absentee, phone, online (website or via mobile app; may be through a third party aggregator).
  • Authenticity warranty applies to only a portion of the text for a lot. For example, only uppercase words in the first line of the catalog description. That’s right…everything else in the description is not warrantied.
  • Will indicate if from the original owner (or descendant), or if this is the first time offered in public.
  • Auction catalogs should provide detail, via symbols, as to whether the house has a financial interest in the lot (and if so, if a they have received funding support via another party), if they own in whole or in part, if there is a minimum price guarantee, if a third party has provided a financial guarantee, and if where is any material from endangered/protected species (for the straps), which will result in import restrictions. Some auction houses will note if a lot has no reserve.
  • Bidding increments (the increase in amount between bids) increases as the bid increases. While there are general ranges for bid increments, say $1k for bids between $10k and $20k, the auctioneer has the discretion to vary the bid increment at any time.
  • Buyer’s premiums start in the 20-25% range for the least expensive lots. Some smaller auction houses, more so those that use third party auction platforms, have even higher starting premiums, so be sure to check these when you are bidding. As an example, if you just won your favorite piece with a hammer of $1,000, you would be forking over $1,250 if there is a 25% buyer’s premium. Don’t forget subject to state taxes, and shipping or service costs. For international purchases, beware import taxes as well.
  • Auction houses will generally not offer only wristwatches, but also an assortment of pocket watches, desk clocks, pendant clocks, and even grandfather clocks. Depending on the auction house and location of the auction, what is offered may have a different focus, by either manufacturer, type or timepiece and/or manufacture date.
  • Payment can be via wire, credit card (may have a limit), cash (up to a certain limit per year), bank checks, and checks.
  • Employees can bid on pieces.

While any particular auction can be skewed in terms of what is offered if there is an individual that is selling a number of pieces, here is a comparison for New York Watch Week (December 2018):

Some high-level comments:

Bonhams

  • Will have a wide range of types of lots, not limited to wristwatches, but often a large number of clocks

Christie’s

  • Offers pieces ranging across years of manufacture
  • Most vintage pieces among the major auction houses
  • From my experience, the most vintage pieces from original owners

Heritage

  • A completely different method of bidding. At Heritage, the opening bid is the reserve. Allow me to repeat that – IT IS THE RESERVE. So once a bid is placed, the watch will be sold. This is radically different from other auctions houses, where opening bids start below the reserve to encourage bidding, and you may be bidding simply against the reserve, or against the chandelier in the back of the room.
  • Bidding for auctions begins online prior to the day of auction. So Heritage, by the time the auction starts, has in effect sold all of the pieces that have bids.
  • “Service and handling” costs (even if you pick up the watch)

Phillips

  • Looking for a party? You’ve come to the right place! This auction house is an absolute marketing machine, and their auctions are more appropriately categorized as “Events”. The look and feel is completely different than the others – the dollars they put into the auctions, the setup of the space, the appearance of the bidders and also (ahem) the staff.
  • Brightest and shiniest pieces.
  • Focused on wristwatches – you won’t find the pocketwatches, clocks and other timepieces you will at other houses.
  • Fewer original owner pieces than other major houses.

Sotheby’s

  • Leans toward modern pieces
  • Large number of lots available
  • Can have clocks and some timepiece jewelry interspersed (though limited)
Where to buy a vintage watch

You don’t have to buy from a brick-and-mortar (or online) watch dealer. One of our favorite watches was purchased on eBay as a ‘Buy It Now’ (we actually made an offer below the BIN price that was accepted) from a dealer of all types of vintage goods. Another on eBay was purchased from an individual who sold everything from hunting bows to pots and pans. In both cases we did all the research we could on the sellers, made sure we knew the watch references well, requested a number of additional images and asked questions, and had a very good sense for the market value of the watches (from researching forums, blogs, eBay, auction houses, and dealer websites). And before buying/bidding, we asked for advice on the watches from other collectors.

But eBay and dealers aren’t the only routes.
We follow and visit:
– forums,
– dealers (both brick-and-mortar and online),
– auction houses,
– eBay,
– Instagram,
– jewelry and antique stores, and even
Goodwill.

Dealers and independent sellers may leverage multiple channels, offering watches both on their own website, marketplaces and on eBay. Some dealers after sitting on a watch will eventually post on eBay as an auction. So if you have found the perfect watch, just make sure to double-check other channels for pricing, which may vary.

You can afford to buy a vintage watch at auction

We’ll make an assumption here and say “yes” (knowing budgets do vary).

Christie’s, Philips, Sotheby’s, Antiquorum, Heritage… All the largest and most well-known houses have, virtually without exception, watches in their auctions with low estimates starting around $2,000 USD.

A great example of the range of prices at auction is a stainless steel Patek Phillipe 1518 that sold for over $11M USD at Phillips: The Geneva Watch Auction Four in November 2016, setting a new world record for a wristwatch.
The low estimate of the next lot? $2,000 USD.

Auction houses to check out

Virtually every auction house has sold franken vintage pieces, knowingly or not. That’s just how it goes.
Having said that, you can’t throw out the good with the bad.

The short list of auction houses to check out, in alphabetical order:

If you are new to auctions, one great way to dip your toe in the water is to watch an auction that is streamed live with video. It’s not the same as being there is person, but can provide a fun and interesting introduction from the comfort of your cubicle.

There are new players in the world of auctions, and these can be worth checking out also, though you may have a rough experience as they get the kinks worked out. And not all survive.

What may come as a surprise (at least it did to us when we started) is that buying from an auction house doesn’t guarantee originality (or truth). You may have to look past the flashy marketing material and big auction numbers, or years in business and industry praise. All that doesn’t mean that you won’t find watches at auction that are redialed, polished, or just plain “frankens”. Some houses will withdraw pieces when evidence is presented as to their authenticity, some won’t.

Auction house and dealer frankens

The below examples of frankens are to make the point that you always need to do your own research, even when purchasing from well-known auction houses or dealers. I fully appreciate that auction houses have an incredibly difficult job in vetting every piece that comes in their door. And I don’t expect specialists at auction houses, or dealers, to have the depth of knowledge on every piece that you can find on forums. For specific pieces, absolutely, but it would be impossible for them to be as knowledgeable about every piece as the most knowledgeable community member (or group researching together) of that specific piece is.

Swapped parts aren’t necessarily a bad thing, provided it is called out in the description of the piece. There can be some honest mistakes, but if you spend a lot of time reading watch descriptions, you’ll find that an inordinate amount of the time the seller and/or auction house description is clearly intentionally ambiguous or untruthful.

As examples I would recommend forum discussions around an Omega 2913 FAP, a fake Dayona “Solo”, fake Rolex papers, and following perezcope on instagram to learn what to watch for around Panerais (you may not be a Panerai collector, but it will open your eyes to the world of fakes).

If you have additional examples beyond the below, feel free to drop me a line.

On with the examples of bad pieces and/or misleading descriptions:
Antiquorum:

Auctionata (no more):

Bonhams:

Christie’s:

Phillips:

Patrizzi (no more):

Sotheby’s:

You might expect that auction houses, under serious time pressure, would be where bad watches slip by. But don’t leave dealers out:

And what fun would the industry be if there weren’t some lawsuits?

Who to trust when buying a watch

Who to trust? Nobody!

“Over the last 20 or 30 years, information has been controlled by a small amount of people and that’s changing now…More people are sharing, but they’re also sharing inaccurate information. That’s where it’s still “Let the buyer beware” more than ever before…” – John Reardon, Christie’s.

You might try to find an unbiased party as a resource of choice. However, you might be disappointed when you find that someone like a Hodinkee spends their resources focused on their friends at Phillips, and seemingly ignoring the others. Even worse is that Hodinkee highlights a Hodinkee-branded Laurent Ferriers as one to watch. Ugh… And it would be nice, if a watch is featured, to call out the faults, such as the Phillips’ Patek Philippe steel 570, with missing screws and a possibly restaffed balance. And if you like their Bring A Loupe (BAL) articles, just make sure to do your own research before you accidentally buy a polished Skipperera with service hands.

Even well-known dealers and auction houses are involved in lawsuits around bad watches, and there are cases where the auction house intended to deceive prospective buyers. And for all those that have been sued, many more should be: there are dealers that scrap old cases and reuse serial numbers for new cases, swap parts, relume and repaint dials…and either not disclose what has happened to the watch, or simply lie about its background. If you want to do those things it’s your right, but if you do and don’t disclose it = not OK!

Don’t think this happens at your favorite auction houses? Check out a list of frankens at auction.

If you don’t know the seller personally (dealer or individual), search forums for reputation feedback. This holds whether the seller is on a forum, eBay, or a dealer site. If you can’t find any feedback, ask on forums if anyone has dealt with them before. And even if the seller isn’t advertising on a particular forum, that community can often still help. Some forums have a section dedicated to reputation, such as watchuseek’s ‘Feedback & Reputation’ sticky And take note, even a perfect eBay feedback score, great reputation, references, or the fact the seller is a large auction house doesn’t guarantee anything. Sadly, fakes are getting better and better all the time. The last thing you want to do is drop $52k on a franken Omega 2998-2 on eBay, right?

Some sellers seem to have more negative feedback than others:

Alpha Hands stolen watch registry

-> If you would like to submit your watch to the registry, please complete the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry submission form.

I don’t think much of the stolen watch registries that require you to pay to access the database (or even submit to it!). Who knows if they even have any pieces of your manufacturer and reference (maybe they are searching for your Lemania across their database of 2 Lemanias)? Why even submit to those databases if people don’t use them? And if you are the one with the loss, don’t forget if your is recovered through the database company (not necessarily a bad thing), there are fees to pay. And there can even be fees just to submit to the registry.

So with that, I’ll aggregate watches I find publicized as stolen. If you would like to have a watch added to this database, please contact me with details, including manufacturer, reference, images, any comments to help identify. Best if you can also send a police report, if you have one (will be noted in the database).

I will only be adding watches for which there is either a known serial/case/movement number or some clear identifying mark(s). To simply have a lost Rolex Daytona with no other information won’t be of help. Repeat after me: “nobody will be able to help me find my watch if I don’t have a record of the serial/case/movement number at a minimum,” so make sure to keep a record!

In addition to searching the below, always make sure to do a broader search (aka Google) for the serial number of the watch you are purchasing (or even a fraction of the serial number) to see if you can find information in addition to this database. Make sure your pieces are insured appropriately, and get a good home safe!

As with the rest of this Website, the following table, and data contained therein, is subject to Alpha Hands LLC Terms and Conditions