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Time for Timepiece Investing?

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We don’t really need wristwatches anymore — cell phones and smart phones do a perfectly adequate job of timekeeping.

But for clients who have a passion for collecting and are seeking alternative investments, this could be a good time to consider timepieces, particularly vintage wristwatches.

If you’re thinking that collectible wristwatches are still the province of stuffy antique shops, think again.

All the major auctioneers — Antiquorum, Bonham, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, for example — have regular timepiece auctions and numerous companies sell them online, too.

Although sales prices haven’t achieved the levels seen in fine art auctions, it’s not uncommon for rare watches to sell for over $1 million, and the top prices paid have surpassed $5 million.

Still, this doesn’t mean watch-investing is limited to the wealthiest investors.

Charles Tearle, director and watch expert at Antiquorum’s New York office, says that his firm’s clients trade vintage watches ranging in cost from a few thousand dollars to over a million dollars.

Much of the demand for both new and vintage wristwatches is being fueled by growing disposable wealth around the world.

According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, Asia accounted for more than half of Switzerland's watch exports last year, and Hong Kong was the largest single market for the industry.

Overall, auction activity and prices have recovered since the onset of the financial markets’ crash, says Tearle.

“Right now, I think, people are looking at assets that are not simply on a screen and that have an international market, as well,” he said in an interview.

“Wristwatches fall into that same type of category as diamonds, certain antique jewelry, gold, etc.,” he explained. “They are an international, portable commodity and really can’t be replaced, either.”

It’s not just individual collectors who have noticed watches’ financial performance.

Elite Advisers S.A. of Luxembourg launched Precious Time, an open-ended Luxembourg Specialized Investment Fund, last year.

The fund’s goal is to build a diversified portfolio of roughly 400 vintage and contemporary watches; its marketing materials say “the outlook for long-term yields is high at around 15% net per year, coupled with low volatility.”

Buying watches with a goal of profitable trading requires specialized knowledge — spending power alone isn’t sufficient.

As Tearle notes, it’s very easy to walk into an auction or a dealer and buy something at the wrong price or that lacks the originality to increase its value over time.

His advice? Find an expert resource with knowledge of and experience in the field. That expertise costs money, of course, either through dealer’s auction fees or experts’ fees.

But, working through these channels reduces the risk of buying counterfeit antique watches and misjudging market trends.

Collectors can also do their own research, says Tearle says, and auction-house catalogs and sales records are an excellent starting place. Plus, a great deal of price information is available online. Collectors who enjoy tracking prices can develop expertise fairly quickly.

“We have new buyers from China that come to us very green, as it were, to make a first purchase,” said Tearle.

“Then three months later, they seem to know quite a lot more about the subject, and six months later they know as much as I know, because they’re just spending so much time researching.”

As with any collectible, it’s prudent for clients to limit the amount they invest in illiquid items like watches.

For those clients who enjoy owning watches, though, there are benefits in addition to potential price appreciation.

“It is one of the few usable, everyday aspects where you can walk around, should you wish, wearing your purchase or it can just go into the safe,” Tearle said.

And should a client ever be caught without a cell phone, a good watch can even tell time.