Vintage Watch Prices Keep on Ticking

The best pieces are ‘fetching phenomenal sums of money right now,’ a longtime collector says

Watches appreciate, but prices swing. Watches appreciate, but prices swing.

The market for vintage watches continues to see strong price bids for collectible watches.

A recent Antiquorum Auctioneers’ event drew sales of over $6.7 million. Many watches sold for six figures.

Watches with unique stories are attracting buyers’ interest. A Jaeger LeCoultre that belonged to U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur sold for roughly $93,625, four times more than its top estimate, according to Antiquorum.

Although prices are generally higher than in the past, the vintage market is experiencing the same “flight to quality” seen with other collectibles, says James Dowling, co-author of “The Best of Time Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History” and editor-in-chief of

The expert notes that the price differential between top-tier watches and what he calls the 95% tier used to be 25%-30% but has widened considerably in recent years.

“Now it may be 100%, because everyone wants the very best,” he says. “And the very best pieces are fetching phenomenal sums of money right now.”

Dowling cites prices in the Rolex market as examples. In the past 18 months, earlier versions of Rolex sport watches – the Submariner, Explorer, Explorer II and Sea Dweller -- have “really taken off,” he says. Vintage Tudor sport watches, also made by Rolex, are doing well, too.

Some of the models have increased in value between 50-100% over the past two years or so, he adds.

Caveat emptor, of course: Watch prices are subject to the same market swings as other collectibles, and move when buyers’ tastes and perceptions of value change. Rolex bubble back watches experienced steep price declines in the 1990s, Dowling points out. (Bubble back watches, made in 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, had protruding case backs to house their mechanisms.)

In the 1980s and ‘90s, U.S. collectors focused primarily on American pocket watches such as enameled and art-form watches, according to Jim Wolf, director of watches and fine timepieces for Heritage Auctions in Dallas. That interest eventually peaked, though.

“Now it’s gone sort of the other way, where the vast majority of young collectors are collecting wristwatches only,” Wolf said. “That’s what they’re gravitating toward. The pocket watch market is still very strong, but it’s very specialized now in terms of what will bring good results.”

Buying Smart

Of course, collectors can avoid the vintage market and buy a modern watch, which is how many high-end watch buyers first get involved in the market, Wolf adds.

But while new watches come with factory warranties, buyers should realize that retail markups could mean it may take 20 years or longer before they can recoup their purchase price on the secondary market, experts say.

Fortunately, those venturing into the vintage market can level the playing field with dealers, auctioneers and other buyers, to a large degree. The first step is to figure out what you like, Dowling explains.

For instance, collectors can focus on complicated watches, sport watches, or watches with an historical connection.

After choosing a specialty, the next step is to start researching the history and market for that watch type. Auction catalogs and sales results, books and websites provide a wealth of information.

Dowling suggests collectors allocate 2%-3% of their collection budget to the cost of research material each year. Focusing that research on a particular category can give the individual collector an advantage, he adds.

“Don’t try and become a generalist. In other words, don’t collect across the entire spectrum — because if you do, you will never become an expert,” Dowling stated.

“If you focus, if you laser in like a sniper on one particular area, you can learn enough about it; but you may know as much as a dealer, because the dealer has to deal in everything,” he explained. “If you just collect in one area, if you just focus on one area, you can learn all the problems. You can learn all the things to look out for.”

The new collectors should also talk to other collectors and develop a sense of trends in the market, says Wolf. When it comes to specific watches, condition and originality are the two most important factors to evaluate with a prospective purchase, he shares.

The watch should be in good condition — as close to the original as possible, i.e., without alterations like refinished dials or a case that’s been excessively polished or buffed.

One option for beginning collectors is to consider watches from the 1950s and 1960s, including chronographs and models with complications. Collectors should consider high quality automatic pieces like the Omega Constellation, Wolf adds.

“When I started selling vintage watches back in the 1980s and, then, of course, into the ‘90s, you could buy a gold Omega Constellation with a pie-pan dial, which is the most popular period of that particular model,” for $300-$400, he explained. “Now you can’t touch that watch for less than $2,000.”

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