Watchmaking, when the hammer becomes virtual

Are watch auctions giving up the hammer? Under pressure from customers, the zeitgeist and more recently health restrictions, they are setting up online. Not just as a means of bidding or inquiring about lots, but as an actual place of sales. Until then, the Internet channel had remained constrained by the weight of history, prestige and the nature of the watchmaking object, very tactile. But here as elsewhere, the context of the crisis shifts the lines. Christie’s thus highlights its fully digitized sales, spread over several days and without any human intervention. Antiquorum, a house devoted solely to watches, prefers to stage physical auctions held behind closed doors and distribute them online, accompanied by digital purchasing tools.

A small revolution that the pandemic has inevitably accelerated: “When the first containment arrived in March 2020, we had a sale scheduled that month in Monaco, explains Romain Réa, Managing Director of Antiquorum. Sellers and buyers confirmed their interest, so we made the sale, all confined. It was a physical sale, live and without an audience. The first of its kind. And she made five world records, with very good sales percentages. “

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The success of these events continues to grow, as evidenced by their attendance and results. “These sales are attracting a new audience, a customer base that we did not know and that we are seeing arriving on our analysis tools. We once had a bidder in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan ”, Aline Sylla-Walbaum, international luxury director at Christie’s, is still surprised. Christie’s thus advances a proportion of 48% of new customers to each sale.

What are they buying online? Star models, known to amateurs, referenced with a lot of books and catalogs. They mainly come from Patek Philippe, which reigns supreme there, and from Rolex, which has reached the forefront of the market in five years. In this duopoly, the public focuses on well-known watches. The most famous include several Rolex models, Daytona chronographs like the 6263 or 6239, or Submariner Comex and 6538, but also Patek Philippe ref. 6300, 1518 or 2499. Despite the collector’s jargon which designates them above all by their references, they have such a reputation that they can more easily be bought without having been tried beforehand. This same factor allows used watches to sell well online when their new counterparts are struggling …

Seven-figure prices

Until now, the brake that prevented record lots from arriving on virtual auction rooms was rather psychological. “When we started online watch sales in 2016, the perception was that we had to put in what was not good enough for our normal sales, a secondary channel, remembers Aline Sylla-Walbaum. Since then, the glass ceiling has been steadily rising. “ Despite everything, the noblest pieces are reserved for so-called “evening” sales, these gala events where the elite of private and professional buyers flock to the theater.

Indeed, it is difficult to give up a tool as established and effective as the man (or more rarely the woman) with the hammer. Auctions remain above all a show, for which the director is the auctioneer. Some are stars of watchmaking, like Aurel Bacs at Bacs & Russo. Others are more discreet, like Romain Réa at Antiquorum, who nevertheless sells thousands of watches a year. Christie’s, for its part, refuses any principle of personification and starification, and assumes its digital revolution. Non-physical sales therefore coexist with traditional sales held in auction rooms. “The question is whether these changes are the new normal”, lance Aline Sylla-Walbaum.

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It’s hard to forget that these sales are bastions of a certain conservatism, where the object must be treated with all respect. Especially when hammer prices go up to seven digits, a psychological threshold that has helped make the collectible watch an investment product. An unfinished process, because it is not yet as clearly associated with the auction world as art or jewelry. “Some collectors were unaware that Christie’s sold watches; even the father of one of our fifteen-year-old employees sold his watches at Artcurial ”, says Aline Sylla-Walbaum.

But attitudes are changing, and the growing weight of the Asian public on the watch market is not for nothing. The uninhibited relationship to digital tools that prevails in Asia and its growth dynamic, less interrupted than in Europe, amplify the movement. The Christie’s sales which took place in Dubai in April and in Hong Kong on May 22 indicate that the logic of watch auctions has followed in the footsteps of watch sales in general: the gaze turned to the East.