Buying

What is a vintage watch?

There is no firm rule here, but the term “vintage” generally refers to a period starting at least 20 years ago. I find that most collectors, when using the term “vintage”, are referring to watches made in the 1980s or earlier. I personally use the term to refer to pieces from the mid-1970s and earlier.

Some people use the word “antique” in reference to timepieces, most often in describing pieces from the 1920s and earlier. Personally, I lump those together under a broad classification as “vintage”.

Where to buy a vintage watch

To search for watches, I follow and visit:
– forums,
– dealers (both brick-and-mortar and online),
– auction houses,
– eBay,
– Instagram,
– jewelry and antique stores, and even
Goodwill.

Over time you may develop relationships, or knowledge of, specific sellers, and whether you are comfortable purchasing from them. If you start working with dealers, it is generally best to pick one or two with whom you would like to work, and focus on those. You would likely receive differing opinions on watches as often dealers like to talk smack about each other’s timepieces, so that may muddy the waters. In addition, dealers trade amongst themselves, so you aren’t limited to the breadth of just a single dealer’s ability to source pieces separate of the rest of the dealer community.

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

My preferences for purchases are through a few specific dealers, as well as auction houses. Having said that, one of my 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. And 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). Do I recommend eBay? Not for most – I was both very lucky with one watch that worked out, and the other…turned out to be a multi-year headache to eventually get repaired, and then sold thereafter.

Researching a vintage watch before purchasing

The seller
You may want to limit your purchasing to just dealers with brick and mortar locations so you can knock on their door. Or maybe you are fine with an online dealer. Or auction houses.

Also check out the FAQ on who to trust when buying a vintage watch.

What matters to you?
Figure out what matters to you. Do you need a watch in NOS (New Old Stock) condition? Do you even care if it has original parts? What if it has a beautiful-looking replacement dial? Is it polished? Hands? Does the strap matter? What if it was relumed? How easy will it be to find replacement parts when needed?

Time to research!

  • Know what the watch should look like: the text, the dial, hands, case, the movement, the case and caseback (see our Vintage Watch Resources section). Do your homework on the model and history. Find others of the same model that have previously sold. Read books. Find old manufacturer catalogs. Check images of the same reference online. Talk to other watch fans. Search, search, search the forums. Go through the basics – do the hands look as expected? The dial? Crown? Case? Walk through these one-by-one.
  • Does the watch even “look” right? This “sniff test” is one that I use more and more, as I start to focus less on the seller (though it is still key).
    • Is it a 60 year old watch that has not even a ding?
    • Is the bezel beat up but the case is perfect?
    • Does the dial show signs of water damage but the hands are perfect?
    • Does the lume just look too good for a watch of its age?
    • Does the hand lume match the dial lume?
    • Is the printing on the dial correct? (and make sure there are no errors, as we see in this example from Roman Rea with a misspelling on the dial (incredible that they sold that this as-is, without even referencing a redial…or error)
    • Does the serial/case number look to be etched correctly (consistent with other examples)
    • Are the brushstrokes on the case correct? (this is subtle)
  • What are the serial number/movement/case numbers (some watches may only have one number, some multiple, and they can appear in different locations). The seller should be willing to provide these. I would not buy a watch without knowing the serial or case number, unless I had a guarantee that I could return the watch. The seller may have a completely unnatural fear of someone stealing the serial number, engraving it perfectly on another watch, selling it online, someone else finding both the original correct watch with the number and the fake watch with the number, that person then would not be able to tell which is fake, and this will then call into question whether the watch that they offered for sale long ago was fake or not (which would have no impact on them, regardless). But I digress.
    Having the serial number allows you to:

    • Confirm against production date tables to ensure it is correct
    • Research if the watch has been previously sold, and if so, the sale price (to make sure you aren’t getting taken, or at least to provide a reference point) and the condition at time of prior sale(s)
    • The watch is stolen or is a forgery, and by providing the number you will be able to run a search and determine this (see the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry, for starters)
    • Some watches do NOT have a serial number. It is possible that it wore off over time from use, or overpolishing. These watches generally receive lower prices when sold, due to this lack of information. It’s not a dealbreaker for everyone, just keep in mind that when and if you sell the piece, that it does rule out a set of potential buyers. In addition, you will not be able to get an Extract.
    • If you aren’t a watchmaker, check the movement images versus others found online through an image search or using Ranfft Watches (unfortunately the images are rather small and can be of poor quality, but this resource can still be useful). Look at all the detail…are all the screws there? Any rust? Correcting stamping on the components?

    Requesting images
    If you are not able to inspect the watch in person, you will want to get all the images you can:

    • Movement photos, preferably multiple, with the rotor in different positions for automatic watches. There are lots of dealers who will push back on opening a caseback to provide images of the movement and inside caseback. Some will say they don’t have the right tool, some will say they don’t want to risk damaging the movement or case. However, every watch dealer, if they are not comfortable opening a caseback (understandable at times), should have a watchmaker at their disposal to assist them. I would not recommend purchasing a vintage watch without seeing movement images. You’ll never know what you might find…the movement scratched to bits…rust…swapped movement or parts… If you decide to press on with the purchase without pictures of the movement from the seller, then all you can do is make an educated guess based on the condition from the rest of the watch. So ask yourself: Does the dial look OK? Original crown and pushers? Crystal? Is the caseback not scratched up from someone trying to claw their way inside (if so, what does it look like on the inside)? And what level of risk are you willing to take?
    • Pictures of the dial under UV light (tritium, for example, has a half life of 12.3 years, so the lume on vintage pieces with tritium won’t glow brightly or for a long period of time as compared to other dials).
    • The watch from all angles, so you know exactly what you are getting

    Condition
    Regarding overall condition, and you have to decide how much these matter to you, if at all, consider:

    • Has the case been polished (are the lugs thinner than they should be? Are the lug holes for spring bars crisp at the edge, or are they rounded, possibly indicating polishing)
    • What is the lume condition on hands and dial?li>
    • Are the lume marks/dots (if any) still on the dial?
    • Does the movement show sign of rust or abuse? Any missing screws, heavy scratching, etc.?
    • Beware any signs of water in the watch. Some nice patina (aging) is fine, but water marks on the dial or lume that looks dirty can be a warning sign of damage to the movement as well. Movement photos will help provide information, but even then we have had watches that needed to be removed before we could see what rust issues were inside, and weren’t visible from the a movement picture.

    Help from others
    And for additional help (since everyone can use another opinion):

    • Post a request for feedback on a watch to forums.
      And thank all those community members that are generous enough to share their knowledge! Of course, the downside is someone might see the watch only through your post, know more about the watch than you do (more assuredly in our case), have the dollars at the ready, and snap it up themselves.
    • If there is an individual that has spent significant time researching that model, reach out to them. The watch community is filled with people who are generous with their time, and happy to help others. Just don’t take advantage of anyone’s kindess!
    • Get a Certificate of Authenticity, if available.
      There are a few manufacturers that will certify that your watch is original through a physical inspection and provide a Certificate of Authenticity. This differs from an Extract from the Archives, which provides production information and is generally based solely based on case and movement number, does not require physical inspection, and does not guarantee the authenticity of a watch or its components. I have heard secondhand of one company that actually knowingly authenticated pieces that weren’t correct, and boy do I hope that is that only case where that happened (one situation for a limited time). You can read more on details of the (significant) limitations of Extracts.

    Questions for the seller
    When you have found a watch of interest, feel free to ask the seller questions. When I first started getting into this crazy hobby, I would ask a slew of questions about the condition. It took quite some time to grasp that many sellers will flat-out lie, or conveniently neglect to mention important information.

    So while I might still ask questions like the below, I do it with a grain of salt, and often just to see how the seller will respond (especially if I already know the answer to one of the questions):

    • Have the hands or dial been replaced? Or refinished/redial/repaint/restored/washed?
    • Does the movement show any signs of rust? Scratches?
    • If on a bracelet, what are the markings on the bracelet (manufacturer, date of production, etc.)? Does it come with all links?
    • Where did the watch come from? The original owner? Another dealer? How long has the seller owned the watch and why are they selling?
    • What is its service history? What was done to the watch and who was the watchmaker?
    • Is it keeping time (how much time does the watch gain or lose in 24 hours)? How long does it run when fully wound?
    • Does the selling believe all the parts are original to the watch? (never blindly believe the seller answer – I like to ask just to see how they respond, and if they call out something I might have otherwise missed)

    Sellers may modify in any number of ways, some mentioned above. Those changes aren’t necessarily “bad”, and you may not even care, but it should always be disclosed. And this is one area in which the business is notoriously poor.

    For context, here is a nice quote from Ben Clymer from Hodinkee (from the Hodinkee Radio podcast with Eric Wind, Episode 75, starting at 1hr 10m):
    “I would guess that three dealers in Italy have touched more than half of, say, the 1518s yellow in the world…And so, if those guys are into fixing up cases or polishing or whatever for ten years of their career, then 50% of those watches have issues and have had some work done to it.
    And the idea of dial-swapping, you have a killer unpolished 6241 regular dial, and then you find an amazing 6239 Paul Newman, put the dial into the 6241, and that’s just what people did.” [some might say do]
    We know those watches are in the market, we know it still happens, but if people found out they would freak out, they would explode…[if] they had a watch that has a dial swapped on. If they really knew what was happening over the past 20 years, they would be shocked.”

    So just keep in mind that even if sellers say “mint condition” or “original”, they might be omitting information or stretching the truth. ‘Trust but verify’ is the key (or just ‘verify’, if you prefer). Oh, and generally speaking, “lightly polished” or “previously polished” = polished (sometimes a LOT). “Original condition” for some sellers simply means that has period-correct parts, though they might be swapped from other pieces. “Mint condition” to me usually means that the watch has been polished to look like new. Not my thing, but you might not mind. Again, just as long as it is disclosed.

    Manufacturer information
    For some pieces you may be able to obtain information from the manufacturer on the production history of the watch (production date, where first sold or destination, case/movement numbers, etc.). And for a fee you can also request a ‘Extract from the Archives’ (note, not the same as a ‘Certificate of Authenticity’) from some manufacturers as well.

Vintage watch pricing

Once you’ve targeted a watch (or what the heck…a bunch of watches!), you’ll need to figure out whether to pay the asking price or what to bid/offer. And don’t assume that regardless of what you pay for the watch, it will be worth more when you decide to sell it. And you’ve heard this a million times: if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Researching sale prices
Don’t get so caught up in the moment that you don’t step back and research the market price for the watch.

Good sources for finding market or comparable price points include:
– Auction houses that post their results (for major houses, this will happen only for auctions that are held in person; online-only auctions may not display final sale prices). If you are searching specific past lots, make sure to note whether the lot successfully sold, and if so, to include the buyer’s premium as well.
– eBay. As with auction houses, you’ll want to see watches that both sold (you can use both ‘Completed Listing’ and ‘Sold Listing’) and those that did not successfully sell, as reference.
– Forums. You may not know the final sale price for those offered, but likely close.
– Dealers. Some dealers continue to shown their asking prices after the watches were sold, though of course final prices may be lower than shown. If we look to dealers for comparables when buying, we factor in up to a 20% discount. Don’t forget taxes if applicable.
– Books. The Complete Price Guide to Watches 2017 by Cooksey Shugart, Tom Engle & Richard E. Gilbert is one option. We have never used this book to research prices, however. With some prices moving very quickly, it is difficult to believe that a book would be better than researching the latest sales online. Maybe useful in conjunction, but not alone.
– Online guides. Some websites, such as Gallet World and the Vintage Heuer Price Guide, offer estimates. These may provide starting points, but should always be supplemented with additional research.

Which sales channel has the best vintage watch prices?
Prices vary for each channel, and you see both low and high prices on forums, eBay and auction houses (there are tons of auction houses worldwide, both large and small, that sell vintage pieces). Looking across all sellers, you will likely see highest prices from dealers, particularly those will brick-and-mortar locations. That’s not a reason not to purchase from a dealer, however. Perhaps they have a watch that is hard to find, in great condition, or you appreciate the comfort that comes from a retail store (their guarantees, return policy, etc.). Most individual sellers and dealers, even big-name with brick-and-mortar retail locations, are willing to negotiate on price, so it never hurts to make a counteroffer. If you never ask, you’ll never know.

The most important factors are that you trust the seller, and you have done thorough research to understand what you are buying.

Don’t forget to add service costs
Unless we see a receipt for a recent service for any watch we purchase, we assume that the watch we are buying will require a service at a minimum, and cross our fingers that no expensive repair is needed (don’t forget to ask about how the watch is running before purchase, and also any return policy). We have purchased more than one watch advertised as running and in excellent condition, only to have it wind up in service shortly after receipt.

If you think there is a chance you’ll need to service the watch, and you won’t be performing the service yourself (and given we have only taken HSNY’s Watchmaking 101-104, we won’t be doing any servicing on our own anytime soon), you will want to consider what additional costs you may have for service and/or repairs when determining how much to pay. Servicing a watch doesn’t come cheap, and the more complications or rare a piece, the more dollars you may want to set aside.

You don’t need to buy a watch with Box and Papers (B&P)

Do you need to have box and papers with your watch? Absolutely not.

“Box and Papers” (B&P) refer to the original box that the watch was delivered in, and a variety of items, including original purchase receipt, certificates of authenticity/origin, manual/instruction booklet, warranty/guarantee card, and even hang tag (the little tag that is attached to the strap of new watches). Owners may also have kept service papers over time, decommission papers for military watches, and so on. “Extracts from the Archives” are of course not included at the time of purchase, so will be called out separately from B&P in offers. “Certificates of Authenticity” may be provided at the time of purchase, and included with B&P, or may be ordered (depending on manufacturer) later.

To find a vintage watch with (original) box and papers is exceedingly rare, so don’t expect to find these being sold with the watch you are purchasing…ever. And if they are, the inclusion doesn’t guarantee the authenticity of the vintage watch you are purchasing. Do a quick search on eBay for loose boxes and papers, then guess out where they go. Correct – they get paired with watches and then sold as sets. While box and papers included in a sale of a set may not be original to that specific watch, the accessories may still add to the appeal for many collectors. As vintage watch dealer Eric Wind says about those that ask for only watches with box and papers, “…it’s like having a sign on your back, instead of it saying ‘Kick Me’, it says ‘Rip Me Off.’ Because so many of the box and paper sets are put together, or added after, that’s not the criteria that you look for first…you look at the condition of the watch, then the provenance, and then it’s a nice thing if it has box and papers, not the first thing you look for.”

Unless there is provenance for the watch (and B&P), I am indifferent to whether vintage watches come with box and papers. While it will add value to most sales, and may make it easier to sell a package when the time comes, to me those don’t provide additional enjoyment or satisfaction in the interim. Plus the boxes and papers just take up more space. Now, if we had a watch room where I could display these items, I might feel differently.

Who to trust when buying a watch

Who to trust? Nobody! Just follow the rules for buying watches in order to stay safe.

“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.

Many say “buy the seller,” believing that if an auction house, dealer, or fellow collector is well-known enough that they can be trusted unconditionally. Unfortunately, many collectors (and even dealers) have found out the hard way that this mantra can’t blindly be followed.

The best all-encompassing read is the story of the franken “Unicorn”, in which Perezcope breaks down the sale of the unique white gold Rolex Daytona 6265. Call it what you want, but lets leave it as a lack of transparency by all parties. This story includes a collector, dealer, auction house, and the watch media. It highlights that you…well…can’t trust anyone in this business. Not well-known dealers, not the most respected collectors, not the largest and most prestigious auction houses, and not the watch media.

The only reason this all came to light was due to a post on instagram, where photos showed that the watch didn’t begin as was presented for auction. After this, the collector/seller and auction house provided their side of the story, and the watch media remained quiet, lest they rock the boat. Incredibly disappointing to say the least.

So what to do when buying? Tops on anyone’s list of considerations is provenance of the watch. Do you know whether it has been traded among dealers or sold multiple times at auction houses, passed around like a hot potato? Or is it new to the market, coming from the original owner (or family of the original owner)? Even if it does come from the original owner/family, it doesn’t mean that you should blindly take their word as to the history of the watch – whether it has been serviced, if parts have been swapped, etc. – often the owner or family member simply won’t have knowledge of details (and we wouldn’t expect that the current owner of a watch handed down between generations would know if their great-grandfather brought the watch in for service and had it polished 60 years ago).

Dealers
Depending on what you are purchasing, eventually it likely makes sense to start establishing relationships with one or two dealers with whom you are comfortable and trust. While that sounds straightforward, even well-known dealers are involved in lawsuits around bad watches, and sadly it isn’t uncommon that dealers intentionally do not share information with 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 modify watches it’s your prerogative, but if you do make a change and don’t disclose it = not OK! And depending on the dealer, some will stand by their watches and some don’t, which tells you what they think of the pieces they are selling. To make a point, consider inquiring as to whether the dealer will help in selling the watch later if you decide to move on (or ask other collectors that have a relationship with the dealer).

If you want some additional transaction protection, you may wish to purchase through an online platform such as Chrono24, assuming the watch is available there in addition to the dealer site/instagram. You may see prices differ based upon the channel, but don’t hesitate to negotiate on either (note that Chrono24 will charge a dealer 6.5% on the sale, and anecdotally it appears that prices on Chrono24 are about ~20% above where watches are trading). Some watches will be posted at the same price on Chrono24 and the dealer website, and if the dealer is well-known, you may still see a benefit by purchasing through Chrono24 due to the ability to use a credit card for travel points (and if looking for a card, I recommend the American Express Platinum, albeit a high annual fee, you can get those dollars back due to all the benefits – full disclosure: that link goes to a referrer page where I would get some points if anyone signs up).

Read examples of lawsuits between collectors and dealers.

Auction houses
While you might expect that all information is disclosed to buyers, think again. Even with all the pictures in hand, if can take a practiced eye to spot issues with watches that are described as “incredibly well-preserved”. ALWAYS get a condition report, but even then know it may not include all details. Check out a list of frankens at auction.

While auction houses do provide a great opportunity to look at a large number of pieces before bidding, this also presents a downside as well. As watches travel during previews between locations, and are handled again, and again, and again, invariably there are pieces that were damaged prior to the auction. So while the catalog picture provides a starting point, there is always the change that by the time the auction starts that a dial has cracked, a lume plot has exploded or fallen off, or functions no longer are working as noted. The auction house should provide an update or call issues out to prospective bidders, but won’t always.

Lastly, one point to consider at the different auction houses is the number of pieces that are coming from original owners. As dealer pieces start to dominate auction sales, we need to think about why the dealer watch is at auction at all. The correct answer: they weren’t able to sell the watch on their own (if they could, they wouldn’t have to pay the seller’s premium to the auction house), so off it goes. One common reason for an inability to sell is due to issues with the watch.

And speaking of where the watch comes from…the auction houses may not even do the research to know if the watch has been stolen (such as in this example of Antiquorum selling a stolen watch), so always do a search of serial numbers online and in stolen watch registries before purchasing.

There are interesting relationships between auction houses and manufacturers, as we have seen most clearly with Antiquorum and Omega in 2007. As a collector would you want to know that Omega was bidding against you on one of the estimated 80 lots on which they bid (of 300 in the auction, including those that Omega provided specifically for the sale)? You would, but I would never expect to know that I am bidding against a manufacture on a piece, as they would not want it known that they are a bidder, which would likely drive up the bidding. However, in a case where the manufacture has either provided the pieces for the auction, or has no intention of buying pieces, is it ethically acceptable for them to bid? I leave that for others… Undoubtedly it is good press for Omega when you hear one of their vintage pieces sold for $351,000…or $3.1m CHF – just keep in mind they may be conveniently excluding the fact that they were the buyer.

Read on for examples of lawsuits between collectors and auction houses.

Private sellers and lesser-known dealers
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 (and sometimes you can even read dealer feedback of another, such as Menta Watches’ review of his experience with Rare Vintage Watch).

If you can’t find any feedback on the seller, 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?

Unfortunately, on instagram, where we see an increasing number of these reviews of sellers, it is difficult to search for comments in a systematic way.

It’s useful to remember that there is a reason the collector is selling, and whether you’ll get an honest answer isn’t really known. They may likely have information about the watch that you don’t, and, if you do sell one day, aren’t going to be one to help you as a dealer would/might.

Read on for examples of squabbles between collectors and with lesser-known dealers.

Manufactures
And if you think you can blindly trust the manufacture, sadly you’ll find that isn’t the case either, as we can see most blatantly in the case of the Omega Speedmaster sold for 3.1m CHF at Phillips in November 2021. It’s disappointing, but as mentioned in the Alpha Hands Extracts and Certificates section, insiders such as Ben Clymer, founder of Hodinkee, recognize that you need to treat information from the manufacture with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Third parties
Lastly, you might turn to a third party to be your resource of choice, believing them to be unbiased and without fault in their work. If so, you are going to be disappointed when you find that even the largest watch publications highlight their favorite auction houses and timepieces they sell. Hodinkee’s Bring a Loupe (BAL) may be a place to start a search, but always take a closer look.

So never purchase based upon one recommendation, but dig in more – reach out to the community and read comments, research in books and online, and do everything you can to see the piece in person. Forums are a great place to start to tap into the knowledge of other collectors, and the collective wisdom of the group, but this is no guarantee either. There are many individuals with great knowledge who are willing to share information (don’t be scared off if you are new – many people are more than willing to help), but many more that don’t have a clue of what they are talking about (while professing themselves as experts).

Purchasing a vintage watch from a dealer or individual

The below is in the context of purchasing a watch from a collector/individual/dealer. I am willing to overlook some of the below, of course, depending on what kind of existing relationship I have with the seller.

Some suggestions to avoid losing your hard-earned dollars:
Payment
– Don’t pay by wire or personal check. Ever. There are tons of stories on the boards about people burned by paying via wire transfers. Go read them. Then try to find stories of people getting taken when paying by credit card (and send me those if you find any).

I use forms of payment where I consider myself to be (more) protected against situations where watches either never show up, or are other than described. Yes, this results in letting some watches pass us by, but we find that even (reputable) sellers saying “wire transfer only” are often are willing to be flexible on form of payment. For example, paying by credit card using PayPal (and NOT sending payment as a “gift” just to avoid fees). Right or not, I feel like we have additional recourse if something goes wrong. Even if the seller demands an additional X% to cover the resulting PayPal fees, it worth it to us for peace of mind. Plus…miles! If seller asks for additional dollars to cover that payment, you should ask if they are willing to share or split the amount, as sellers have done for me in the past.

– If you are still unsure about PayPal and credit card funding, it is possible to step up to the next level and use an escrow service (which generally have reasonable costs for the insurance they provide). This is absolutely a rarity, but provides a way to ensure you receive the watch. No, you can run into issues depending on the condition, as we sell in discussions around the Chrono24 escrow service in forums.

– If you are looking for additional purchase protection and there are different channels through which to purchase, such as a dealer Instagram account (as simple as via DM) or website, and online platforms such as Chrono24, consider purchasing through a platform that provides additionally protection for you as a buyer.

Trustworthiness
– If you are looking at a watch posted for sale on a forum, remember that it is possible that a reputable seller’s account has been hacked and a scammer is posting a watch for sale (often at a too-good-to-be-true price). This doesn’t happen frequently, but it does occur. And if you send a wire to someone other than who you think it is, you can kiss your hard-earned dollars goodbye.

– People say “buy the seller”. Sadly, you can generally never do that either, as chances are you most likely don’t really know the seller (just like all those buyers who thought they ‘knew’ Horology House, as an example). So always research all you can on the seller (even set up a phone call or meet in person, it doesn’t all have to be on WhatsApp) – never simply buy the seller.

And there will always be cases of sellers that have sterling reputations, where the buyer didn’t received what was advertised. I like this quote from Man on Time: be careful not to confuse prominence or standing within a community with integrity or trustworthiness. The biggest test when something goes wrong is…does the seller rectify the situation, or just walk away?

I’m not saying you will ever be able to guarantee a purchase without issues. On a personal note, I once purchased from an individual who I didn’t trust (!). As a result, I simply didn’t put any weight in the information he provided me (though I still asked them questions in order to see what I could learn and then layer that into my decision). Ultimately, I felt that it didn’t matter as I had done extensive research. I bought in person, had the opportunity to inspect what I was buying, and was comfortable with my decision.

Watch details
– If the seller isn’t forthcoming with information, including the case/movement number, pass. This includes if someone brushes you off with a “refer to the pictures”.

– Get a current photo of the watch to confirm the seller has it, set to a specific time you choose, or against today’s paper or with your email exchange in the background.

Prior to your purchase, make sure to save all the posts/images from the website for the watch (if there is one) along with the description of the watch, and any written exchange you have had with the seller. As these pieces of information could disappear at any time, always retain a backup copy.

Shipment
– Make sure when the watch is sent that tracking information is immediately emailed to you.

– If you do not have insurance for the watch, make sure it is sent fully insured. Some insurance companies do offer policies where watches in transit, even to you upon purchase, are insured (mind you, these policies aren’t inexpensive).

– If you want a specific shipper, like FedEx, make that clear. If cross-border, don’t ask the seller to reduce the declared value for custom reasons. Depending on the cost versus taxes to import, it may even make more sense to hop a flight to pick it up in person.

– Make sure there is a return policy. Or if there isn’t, consider paying with a credit card which, depending on the card, may offer purchase protection.

It is safe to buy watches from sellers in other countries

Is it OK? Sure. We still simply follow the same rules as above.

There are many buyers that simply won’t purchase from certain countries (some in South America, the Far East, Eastern Europe…Italy). End of story. We aren’t that extreme, but as with any purchase, just make sure to do your homework.

Shipping caveats fall out of our area of knowledge. Just make sure to research so you understand what can’t be imported/exported from certain countries, including components such as straps that may include endangered animal material that can’t cross borders, and additional fees can be due for importing.

Manufacture Certified Pre-Owned Watches

A select few manufactures offer certified pre-owned watches for sale.

    Rolex
    The first to take this on was Rolex, introduced their Rolex Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) Programme in December 2022, and subsequently rolled out in the United States in May 2023. Their program, available through select boutiques (such as Tourneau | Bucherer locations, followed by Watches of Switzerland) that have the Rolex Certified Pre-Owned plaque, is available for watches more than 3 years old, and has a Rolex Certified Pre-Owned seal that comes with your watch to certify its status as a certified second-hand Rolex watch, and attests to its authenticity on the date of purchase and, in addition to functioning correctly, is accompanied by an international two-year guarantee. And to answer the question that you have…the prices are not determined by Rolex, but rather set by the Official Rolex reseller.

      Cartier

    In March 2023, Cartier entered the pre-owned market leveraging Watchfinder (like Cartier, a Richemont subsidiary), as it’s “official Pre-Owned partner.” Watchfinder will be in charge of the verification and authentication process for Cartier’s pre-owned watches, and buyers will benefit from a two-year warranty issued directly by Cartier. This is also tied to a Cartier part-exchange service in partnership with Watchfinder, available in selected boutiques, which allows collectors the opportunity to exchange any Cartier timepiece for a new timepiece.

      Chronoswiss

    Chronoswiss certified pre-owned watches offers collectors the change to purchase pieces no longer in production. These may be found exclusively on their online boutique.
    Each Chronoswiss certified pre-owned timepiece has had a complete service of the movement, with replace parts with original spare parts if necessary, and the external parts are meticulously polished. As with the warranty from other certified pre-owned programmes, Chronoswiss certified pre-owned watches carry an international two-year warranty.

How dealers and auction houses source watches

Sure you can go it alone, but a wiser course might be to establish a relationship with a trusted dealer, particularly for more expensive pieces, and/or those where you need an expert’s eye.

To find pieces, dealers look in many of the same places you would on your own:
– eBay (I shudder to think how many saved searches they have),
– Chrono24, where private individuals in particular may have interesting pieces, and
– auctions worldwide.

If you have the ability to attend auctions, here you can get a firsthand look at dealers actively looking to purchase for clients or themselves. You might not know why a dealer is purchasing – sometimes it can be just to protect the price(s) of their existing inventory of the same/like pieces.

Beyond these “basics”, dealers have a number of advantages:
– will be contacted directly about pieces for sale by individuals (as well as other dealers) who may know of them from industry articles, social media, referrals, and so forth,
– may be a part of WhatsApp and other groups of dealers who regularly buy and sell pieces within their network,
– relationships with their existing clients looking to sell,
– “pickers” who find watches at estate sales, antique stores and the like, and
– retailers, who will see watches come in from an owner and then offer them out to a number of dealers, with the best offer winning the piece.

You CAN afford to buy a vintage watch at auction

We’ll make an assumption here and say “yes” (and we do appreciate that budgets wildly 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, and some without reserve (which means that the watch will sell, regardless of dollar amount, to the high bidder).

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.

Participating in watch auctions

If you haven’t participated in a watch auction, you should absolutely check one out – either by attending in person or by joining remotely. Major auction houses generally have auctions you can attend in person, in addition to participating in other ways remotely (see below), and a number have added online-only auctions. Some auction houses, generally smaller houses, offer online auctions only. It’s a great way to go hands-on with a large number of pieces, often over a few days when the major houses have aligned their auctions. And hey, free biscotti and bottled water if you go to the right ones!

With auctions you don’t have to be in the right place at just the right time when a watch is listed (such as on a forum), instead you have time to research the piece and consult with others before bidding, and have the chance to see the watch in person during preview days, if available. The auction format can arguably provide a more level playing field. Plus, at least one other person values the watch at the same level you do, right? Ok, that might be up for debate depending on if the house has some of their buddies shill-bidding for them…look around the room to spot!

Even if you aren’t going to buy, consign or appraise, the auction house specialists are there to help educate and support consumers. So go ahead, pick up the phone (or meet them in person), they want to talk! And you don’t have to ask about a particular watch, but reach out if you are interested in learning about the auction process and how different auction houses work. They work with people who have no knowledge of watches as well as seasoned collectors, so you shouldn’t be put-off from calling them just to talk.

In terms of how to bid, the best options are, in order:
– In person. See the pieces you are bidding on, who else is bidding (and if they are the same shill bidders that the auctioneer calls on frequently to bump up prices). You also have the ability to ask the auctioneer to deviate from the bid increment. For example, if the bid is increasing in $500 increments, in the room you can ask if they will accept an increase of $250.
– By phone. For those that aren’t at the auction in person but still want to participate in real-time, you can bid via phone during the auction. With this option you have the benefit of advice from the specialist at the auction house on the piece, and who can provide color for what is happening in the room. As with being in the room, you have the ability to ask to deviate from the bid increment.
– Online. If the phone isn’t your thing, and you want to watch the auction, some houses have online platforms that work quite well. These auction houses may allow you to watch the auctioneer, and generally have very clear interfaces showing the current lot description and image(s), bid (in multiple currencies), bid increment, and so forth. Generally speaking, you cannot see the bidders in the room for the most part.
The downside to online bidding is that you might have difficultly logging in to bid, lose your internet connection, or there is some lag that impacts your ability to bid. In addition, you can’t offer to modify the bid increment.

Previously, the only way to bid at most major auctions in advance was through “written” advance bids. I put this at the bottom of the preferred ways to bid as there is the possibility that less scrupulous auction houses might magically “find” others collectors to bid against you…individuals that might not otherwise bid on the lot…and take you up higher than you would have had to pay otherwise. It should never happen, but with your written bid you are giving the auction house the ability to push the bid up to your maximum. We are comfortable submitting beforehand with some auction houses, though this method may not be for everyone. This refers to the old school auction sheets where you would write in your maximum bid, as well as online advance bidding that is becoming more commonplace for auctions that are open for bidding in advance of the date of the live auction.

Basics of live auctions:
1. Everyone is welcome
You can attend auctions for the biggest auction houses in the world, no invitation required. There isn’t a cost, tickets aren’t required, and you don’t need to register for a paddle if you aren’t going to bid. Attire is varied, and ranges from jeans and sandals to suits.

2. Attend the preview days
In advance of most auctions there will be preview days, which you should attend if you are considering bidding, and even if not to get a great education. Again, no tickets are required.
Some houses also take selected pieces on the road for previews, so even if you don’t live where the auction is taking place, they may come to your town (provided you live in a large city or one where the house also has auctions…think Los Angeles, New York, Geneva, Hong Kong, London). Nothing compares to seeing the watches in person, and is a reason why online-only watch auction sites such as Auctionata will struggle went out of business. Attending preview days are also a great way to meet other collectors, dealers, and auction house specialists who can help you sort through the lots.

Stroll on in, take a look at what is available, and then ask the assistants to pull some out of the display cases. Some pieces may catch your eye that didn’t from the online images (which are often awful) or printed catalog.

If you do NOT attend preview days, make sure to get lots of additional images and video of the watch for review.

3. Handling and inspecting the watches (on preview days)
Almost without exception, you can ask to view any of the lots at auction. Generally there is a section near where the items are on displayed where you can take a seat and view the watches at your own pace, with loupes and condition reports available, and other collectors to meet. Don’t hesitate to grab the auction house specialists to ask for their help – that’s why they are there.

In most cases, you’ll write down lot numbers on a piece of paper, and assistants will then bring the lots to your table, where you will need to sign for each watch that you “check out”. The pieces may not come in any particular order, and will depend on what other collectors have requested the same pieces at the same time. It is considered polite to keep the number you request to a just handful at a time, and then have the assistant take the pieces away as soon as you are done, so others can view them. You can stay for as long as you like, and go through as many lots as desired, but it is somewhat frowned upon to go through dozens of lots with no intention of bidding in the auction.

If you want to test out any of the watch functions (testing alarms, setting dates, testing split-seconds, etc.), we recommend asking a specialist to help you. And you should do this for pieces of interest to confirm they function as expected. While there are people who will test the functions and complications on their own, you can’t go wrong with asking for assistance. And that way you are ensured of not causing any damage to the piece.

4. Check out the movements
You should always see the movements for watches you may bid upon, and the best way to handle this is to request pictures in advance. We recommend contacting the auction house with requests or questions on lots at least a week prior to make sure your request gets handled. Once things get closer to the auction, requests may slip through the cracks as things get increasingly hectic. You can of course, see movements at the preview. If you are interested, we highly recommend you let a specialist open the case for you.

5. If you are bidding, pre-register
You can do this on auction day, but better to do in advance if you attend a preview day. One less thing to have to worry about the day of the auction. Especially if you are prone to oversleeping.

6. The day of the auction, know what watches you are interested in and your bidding threshold
Make sure to consider the Hammer and Premium, VAT/duties/taxes, and conversion rates.

7. Don’t make any sudden movements during the auction, or you may accidentally bid
Okay, that isn’t really true. You can, however, bid with your paddle (you need to have a paddle, regardless of whether you kick off bidding with it), with a motion of your hand, nod or your head, or whatever you have seen in the movies. If you are successful bidding, you’ll flash your paddle number so it can be recorded.

8. If you can, attend!
It’s a great way to meet others in the community, learn more about the interest in specific watches, see different bidding strategies in person, and find out who is bidding on pieces (assuming they are in the room – you can see the pieces of interest to specific collectors and dealers).

9. Paying for the watch
Auction houses may have different options for payment, generally due within 7 days for live auctions, though policies vary by auction house. The most flexible offer a cash option (up to some maximum amount, often on a calendar year basis), credit card (again, up to a limit…that is more than we can charge on our card anyway), personal check or wire. You will receive an invoice setting out the hammer price plus all other applicable charges, such as the buyer’s premium, local taxes, shipping expenses, loss and damage liability fees, and any other charges that may apply. If you are a successful bidder in an online-only auction, you will most likely pay from your online account via credit card.

Provided the watches are at the location of the auction, which most often they are, and you aren’t paying by a method that requires some number of days for funds to clear such as a personal check, you can take home your watch the day of the auction.

Actually, you can even pay and pick up a watch while the auction is still going on. Suck on that, competing bidders! *flashes watch just won*

How to bid at auction

I wish I could say that watch auctions are a nice safe place to bid.
My advice: do tons of homework in advance, see the piece in person, and set your limit.

Thoughts:
– Beware being the only bidder on a lot.
– Watches being handled during the previews can take a beating. Never hurts to see it on the last preview day, and also take video/images of the condition at the time.
– Know that you might be bidding against:
— The chandelier in the room (these are legal bid…the auctioneer can go up to the reserve amount making show of things, but none are real bids). Note at times you can bid *under* the reserve and win the watch.
— The owner of the watch. Yes…they might be there bidding against you to drive the price up.
— Dealers that own the same reference and want to protect their current inventory of pieces
— The manufacture, to either prop up the value of their pieces…while some may be bidding to purchase the piece (for their museum or otherwise)
— If you are bidding at an unscrupulous auction house, they may be driving up the price without bidders, either for a written bid you submit beforehand, or during the auction above the reserve (though not legal). Examples shared on The Waiting List featured one of the hosts talking about sitting in her car with a former Phillips’ employee as he was on the phone talking about what fake bids to put in the upcoming auction (Waiting List podcast, Episode #55 37:30 [1]), and likewise around the hosts skepticism over the phone lines not working for certain lots. The Waiting List a good listen as you rarely (never?) hear people talk publicly about auction houses in this manner. But the takeaway here is that some people would recommend *never* submitting an absentee bids, and may start at your bid, or shill bid up to your maximum.
— Those just looking to launder money. Yup.
– Pay attention to the catalog notes/symbols for the lot. For example, does the auction house have a direct financial interest in the lot, either in whole or part? Is there a 3rd party guarantee on the lot (and consider whether that shows a lack of confidence in the lot)? Is there no reserve?

[1] “In Hong Kong recently…I can say this since he’s not there anymore, he worked at Phillips, but he doesn’t work there anymore…he had to take a call for the auction that was happening that night and they were basically discussing which fake bids he had to put in.
And then suddenly it was silent and I think the guy on the other end was like ‘whose car are you in?’ and then the guy casually was like ‘I’m in Lung’s car…like, Lung Lung’s car’, but you know no matter what I’m still a potential customer, you can’t say that shit in front of me, right? Um, so he got off the phone and he’s like, ‘this does not leave the car.’
And I was like, yeah, okay, I don’t think I can bid from auction again. I don’t think I can buy from auction again, it’s so bad. But it was literally like, ‘what bid are you going to put it in, at what price, how many times are you going to do it?’…you already your client really well so you know what price he is going to put, so you just got to push him a little bit…”

Buyer’s Premium at auction houses

So the gavel comes down and you’ve won the lot. Don’t forget that there is, usually, more to pay the auction house. In addition to applicable taxes and shipping fees, there is also the buyer’s premium. This premium is added to the hammer price of the lot, and may vary by the amount of the hammer fee (tiered, declining as the hammer increases), depending on auction house.

Rates listed below are based upon the highest (starting) buyer’s premium. The rates also assume online bidding as some auction houses add additional fees if you bid online, as crazy as that sounds.

These rates are subject to change. Please confirm with the auction house before bidding.
Please let me know if you see any updates required.

Buyer’s Premiums, from high to low:

Auction houses to check out

Virtually every auction house has sold franken vintage pieces, knowingly or not. That’s just how it goes. But this doesn’t mean that we avoid auctions (check out our watch auction calendar for upcoming events.

A 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 (well, perhaps home).

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

What may come as a surprise to you (it did to me when first diving into collecting) 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. Some houses will withdraw pieces when evidence is presented if authenticity is questionable (or just plain wrong), some won’t.

What’s the difference between auction houses?

Not all auction houses are created equal. Below are similarities and differences of some 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.
  • The auction house customer is the consignor, not the buyer.

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/Skinner

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

Christie’s

  • Pieces ranging across years of manufacture
  • Most vintage pieces available 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)
Auction house frankens and deception

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) focused on that piece.

Eric Wind, in a Waiting List podcast, said he “see[s] a lot of bad watches pass through auction houses – as in, watches that have been altered, have very distinct restoration that maybe the auction house is not aware of, remember the expertise at the auction houses in my opinion is not always the best as they are constrained by compensation… Some people feel a false sense of security that if you buy an auction from a big auction house you are safe, but many times the most sophisticated restoration that is undisclosed happens in watches that go through auction… If you think you can go to this auction house and spend millions of dollars and I’ll be okay, it’s equivalent to having a sign on your back that says ‘Rip Me Off.'” (Waiting List podcast, Episode #55 20:15)

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 (in alphabetical order).

Antiquorum:

Auctionata (no more):

Bonhams:

Christie’s:

Phillips:

Patrizzi (no more):

Sotheby’s:

Dealer frankens and deception

You might expect that auction houses, under serious time pressure, would be where bad watches slip by. But we can’t leave dealers out. On the below, I am not implying that in all cases the dealer knew that they were selling fakes, of course. But good dealers (and this applies to really any online seller) have turned bad, some have sold known fakes, some have simply stolen goods.

Everyone: please do your homework before buying (Google dealers, find references, see if they have been banned from forums, search their past…)! Even better if the dealer has a permanent storefront you can visit. If there are alarm bells in your head going off, step away. Pay with a credit card. Always. No wires. Use an escrow service. Don’t send money using PayPal to “friends and family”. Buy safe!

How you know that a watch is original

See also our FAQ on authenicating a vintage watch and researching a vintage watch for sale

My definition of an “original” watch is one that hasn’t had any modifications from when it was first sold. No replaced parts (even if the same part from the same manufacture), no polishing, no relumed dial or hands. Just an honest watch with dings and dents, as opposed to a piece that was restored and polished to look like new. That’s my dream, although these watches are exceedingly difficult to find.

Given the challenge of finding a watch that hasn’t been modified with since it left the manufacturer, many are flexible in collecting and are readily purchase watches that may not have all original parts, but include watches with replaced parts from another watch of the same model/period, such as bezel or hands. Perhaps polishing and restoration are just fine with you (and, Restored Vintage Rolexes Are More Common Than You Think), or perhaps not (and if you care, time to learn how to tell if a case has been polished). Some dealers, HQ Milton for example, appear to polish the vast majority of vintage pieces so cases look as new. Which may be just what you would like.

By expanding the condition of pieces you collect, such as to those that are polished or have service parts, perhaps have been relumed, you’ll both find it simpler to find a watch, and those you find will be less costly as well. The downside is, of course, that the set of customers that would later be interested in purchasing your watch will be (at least slightly) smaller than it would be otherwise – with the impact being greatest on specific types of vintage where originality is prized. But for many watches, restoration will be required at some point in their lifetimes. A good example of this is lume (radium, tritium or otherwise), which over time will degrade and eventually flake off, which is often seen in older pieces. Those delicate luminous hands that have no metal backing…that lume won’t survive forever.

An interesting read on modified watches is a Hodinkee article on Christie’s auction of the Patek ref.530 with black dial. This watch was born with a black dial, and sold at auction in 2004 with a silver dial for just over $30K. The watch then went back on the block with different black dial, selling for $416K in the May 2017 Geneva auction. The good news? The disclosure of the background by Christie’s, something you might not get from others.

Unfortunately, the seller may know that they are offering something other than what they advertise, and/or will conveniently leave out pertinent information (a restored dial, which can look good), or perhaps simply don’t know otherwise. This doesn’t just apply to sellers on forums or eBay (with even perfect feedback scores), but also holds true for the dealers and auction houses with seemingly sparkling reputations. There absolutely are well-known dealers and large auction houses that sell trash, and don’t make any efforts to tell you what you are getting.

Don’t take this to mean that it is only around the sale of high-value pieces that people may bend the truth. Even on the smallest of deals, it isn’t unusual to hear sellers advertise a watch with a “dial in original condition without any flaws.” We have to translate their statement that “the matching tritium hands and lume plots have achieved achieved a wonderful golden coloration and show no lume degradation,” means that the hands are service replacements, then relumed to color-match the dial.

Read the FAQ on researching a vintage watch for sale for pointers on areas to focus for a particular watch.

One of the most important ways to reduce your risk is through building contacts throughout the watch community. The more people you know, the better. There are too many pieces sold of dubious origin, and all too often you need to be well-connected to sort the good from the bad. I no longer expect sellers (or most anyone) to voluntarily share any information, and I assume there is a reasonable chance that the seller will stretch or hide the truth, or simply lie. And well-known dealers do mess with watches (swap dials, switch bezels, have parts made for them, have serial numbers added to watches that weren’t born with them, etc.) and don’t mention anything about it. It’s the sad (semi-secret) of the industry. As a result, the most important thing you can do is educate yourself.

I recommend visiting watch forums, where there are experts (that are hobbyist collectors) that are often the most knowledgeable in the field, and trying your best to find professionals who act as advisors in navigating this (insane) hobby. Unfortunately, it is incredibly difficult in this business to find experts (really dealers) that haven’t messed around with watches…swapping dials, recutting cases, and so on. It’s completely disappointing, and unfortunately the norm. You’ll hear lots of dealer names commonly referenced as one to trust, and I don’t trust any of them.

Check out our FAQ on authenicating a vintage watch to learn more about which manufacturers provide certificates and extracts.

How to tell if a Rolex is fake

How to tell if a Rolex is fake? Good question… First off: I could probably never tell.

If you already own the Rolex (modern), the easiest way is to have it serviced by Rolex, which essentially provides a seal of approval. Also review articles and videos (see bottom) on the best clones and how to identify – for me the key items are the finishing of the movement, and the use of a regulated balance instead of free sprung. Otherwise, if I didn’t have a legit and fake Rolex side-by-side…I’m not sure I could tell.

If you are talking about vintage Rolexes, then doubly beware. You should probably throw away the whole ‘Buy the Seller’ since there are so many fakes about with dealers selling them as well. Provenance is key. And anytime it passes through a dealers hands…even for a moment…well…it’s not an original owner piece, and presumably even more review is warranted.

Some examples of vintage Rolex fakes and frankens that have been for sale:

What to do after your watch arrives

We like to document stuff. A lot. When we receive a watch (which signature should be required), if there are dings or dents in the box, we take pictures. Open the box, then take some more. Then we make sure the watch is as described – if the numbers match, if it is running (or not), what is included, etc. Then we look to experts such as our local watchmaker to give the once-over of purchases and best determine if it checks out in terms of originality or condition. We are pretty anal, and with many vintage watches our first stop after purchase will be a service. See our ‘Care & Servicing’ section for more details.

After everything gets the green light, we will go ahead and leave nice feedback for the seller, tell them all is well. We might let the seller know when we’ve received the watch, but not give the final OK until toward the end of the return policy (there is one, right?) if we want to spend more time with the watch to make sure everything is okay.

If you care about the possible loss of the watch, don’t forget to consider whether to add it to an insurance policy. It could fall under an existing homeowner policy (most insurers have a limit for watches/jewelry as a part of a homeowners policy) or a personal articles policy, which will provide additional coverage. You’ll want to save the receipt of your payment, take photos, and save the case number and movement numbers for your records.

Frankenwatch examples

This section links to reporting of frankenwatches (watches that are made up of pieces from different watches, but presented as otherwise). I try to limit links below to those to articles and information that contain enough supporting evidence that I believe the community would accept the accusations as credible.

The below articles, to start from @perezcope (Jose Pereztroika), are the most detailed articles on frankenwatches that we see available. It is unfortunately rare for frankens to be called out – both unfortunate in that people simply don’t do it although they may know of these bad watches, and of course also as there are the bad actors that make these often so hard to detect. Props to those that put in the time and are willing to provide the information to the community.

Perezcope

  • Phillips Caught Doctoring Engravings With Photoshop, May 11, 2023
  • ‘Tropical’ Speedmaster 2915-1 – A Record-Breaking OmeGaga At Phillips, April 9, 2023
  • Rolex Daytona Ref. 16520 With Fake ‘Beyer’ Print, January 30, 2023
  • Rolex Daytona 6265 – The “Unicorn” Frankenstein Plot, December 31, 2022
  • Trash Cartier Crash London At Phillips New York?, December 9, 2022
  • Rolex Daytona 6240 Paul Newman “Neanderthal” – A Myth Goes Extinct, November 3, 2022
  • A Mediocre Patek Philippe 1518 Supercharged By “King Farouk” Hot Air, September 15, 2022
  • A Curious Rolex Daytona 6264 “Paul Newman” At Antiquorum Geneva, May 6, 2022
  • A Questionable Patek Philippe 2481 At Christie’s Hong Kong, Hidden Case Numbers And The Bigger Picture, January 8, 2022
  • Franken/Fake Oyster “Sotto” Daytona (RCO) At Christie’s Hong Kong, September 23, 2023
  • Escape From The Planet Of The Fakes: The French Foreign Legion Explorer, June 1, 2021
  • Return To The Planet Of The Fakes: “Albino” Daytona Made In Tuscany, April 30, 2021
  • Planet Of The Fakes: A Rinaldi “Big Crown” 5510 At Antiquorum Hong Kong, April 13, 2021
  • Rolex Daytona 16520 Or Converted 16523 Two Tone?, March 23, 2021
  • Fake Rolex Stamps On Anonymous Rolex-Panerai Ref. 3646 Watches, March 14, 2021
  • Monochrome Promoting a Fake Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller, January 23, 2021
  • Vintage Panerai 2533 “Frankenstein”, August 2, 2019
  • Vintage Daytona Scandal in Monaco, July 16, 2019
  • Fake Rolex Panerai 3646 on Chrono24, December 17, 2018
  • Caution! More fake and made-up stuff from Antiquorum, December 11, 2018
  • Fake Rolex Daytona 6263 YG, 3300740, October 5, 2018
  • The Garibaldi Chronicles – Part One, August 13, 2018
  • Fake Panerai GPF 2/56 at Antiquorum, August 4, 2018
  • Vintage Rolex Daytonas from Hell at Antiquorum, July 17, 2018
  • Caution! Fake Pre Vendôme Galore at Sotheby’s, May 24, 2018
  • The Mysterious Case of a Vintage Panerai 6154 sold at Sotheby’s in 2013, May 4, 2018
  • Caution! 5218-207/A Slytech at Sotheby’s, December 7, 2016
  • Manipulated Vintage Panerai Dials
  • Early Panerai 3646 on ebay
  • Vintage Panerai – Entering the grey zone
  • Panerai 6152/1 on ebay
  • Stolen watch registry

    Please use the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry submission form if you would like to have any watch(es) added. Please note there is little chance of recovery without a police report! So if you haven’t submitted a police report yet, please do so before reporting the watch to the Alpha Hands stolen watch registry.

    The Alpha Hands stolen watch registry is the largest free registry in the world, and is used and contributed to by:
    – Collectors and enthusiasts
    – Insurance agencies
    – Retailers/dealers
    – Auction houses
    – Manufacturers
    – Police departments
    – Pawnbrokers
    – Service providers
    – Watch associations/foundations

    The registry doesn’t just include stolen Rolex – this database includes a wide variety of manufacturers, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, TAG Heuer, Vacheron Constantin and others. But in addition to searching the Alpha Hands registry, always perform a broader search (aka Google) for the serial number of the watch you are purchasing (or even a fraction of the serial number). There are also manufacturers with databases of stolen watches, including Rolex.

    Alpha Hands does not take a position as to the proprietary rights of the watches recorded in the registry, rather we are just aggregating watches that have been reported as stolen on or to a variety of sources: watch forums, instagram, Facebook, auction houses, police departments, manufacturers and directly to Alpha Hands. As such, there may be disputes over ownership. If you are interested in the original source of a piece reported stolen, please contact us for details. Prospective buyers should always do their own due diligence regarding watches that have been reported as stolen, as well as watches they are purchasing.

    Alpha Hands does not assist with recovery of stolen timepieces. We recommend that you work with a company that has experience in navigating the legal process to recover your watch. We do not recommend that you contact the seller/reseller of your stolen watch directly, but rather engage a third party in recovering the watch. We recommend Chris Marinello at Art Recovery International – Chris regularly works not just on stolen art cases, but stolen watches as well.

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