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 Timezone.com.
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.”
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.