Aurel Bacs is the wunderkind of the watch auction market. Under his 10 years as head of Christie’s watch department, the venerable house’s turnover in watches has gone from $8 million to $130 million, and from world record to world record! It was time for us to sit down and discuss with someone who has his finger on the pulse of the market, and to have Bacs’ candid views on auctions and Vacheron Constantin
How did you come to work in the watch auction business?
Watches have been my hobby and passion since I was a teenager, thanks mostly to my father who during the "quartz crisis" of the 1970s and 1980s could no longer find inspiring mechanical watches and thus turned to vintage. In college I studied law and business, but spent more time hunting vintage watches at flea markets, auctions and trade shows than in class. In 1994, an international auction house was looking for a young specialist and I didn’t even know anything about the job. However, I decided, "why not give it a try?" and gave up my plans for becoming a lawyer.
How long have you been at Christie’s for?
My president called me a few weeks ago, reminding me that it has been 10 years this coming June.
What does your job consist of as Head of International Watch department?
This may sound ironic, but I have a feeling that in many companies the higher you go, the less your job description is really what you do day by day. Often I feel this is what it must be like to be a hotel director: besides his responsibilities as manager he also greets the guests, but will also pick up a piece of paper on the floor of his 5 star hotel. He will help carrying out a bag, while at the same time he has the responsibility of running the business, the functioning and profitability and success of his hotel.
In the same way he stands for the values of his employer, and as such I like to think of myself as the warrant of these values for Christie’s. At the same time I try to be as accessible and as human as possible, internally and externally, because what we do is engage with other people for whom collecting watches is a passion. At the same time I am unforgiving when it comes to quality, be it in terms of watches or when it comes to service and professionality.
In the 10 years you have been at Christie’s, the auction house has gone from being a contender to the undisputed king of watch auctions. How do you explain this and what are you doing differently?
It is very satisfying to see how in the past 4-5 years we have taken off a bit like an airplane. At the beginning there is a lot of noise. The engines squeak and then suddenly it accelerates, at first slowly, then faster and faster and at one point the nose lifts, followed by the whole body. That’s how I see our watch department during the last decade. When I joined in 2003, we had to find the best photographers who had the style and designs we liked; we had to re-establish contacts with the clients and brands and all this took time.
I don’t know what we are doing differently, I certainly don’t have a magic wand but I do believe that there are key ingredients which we strictly follow: unlimited professionalism, unlimited honesty, unreserved service. When we sell a watch for CHF 50'000 and imagine what that represents - there are people who don’t make that sum in a year - and someone who entrusts us with so much money for a vintage or modern watch, he or she deserves our undivided attention and presence. Client service is something I have the highest esteem for. Finally, I think that my team and I are passionate about watches: we understand what our clients talk about, watches aren’t simple commodities for us. I personally love watches, I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I can understand and share the hopes and dreams, but also the worries and fears of my clients. Obviously there is also a little bit of hard work involved!!
What is more complicated today, finding the buyers or the sellers?
They go hand in hand. If you have an amazing collection, obviously with the right estimates, then you will likely have the buyers. If you don’t have the right watches you can do all the marketing you want, but it won’t get you very far. But if you want to have the pieces you need to have the buyers, so it’s a circle. However, it is getting increasingly difficult to find the perfect watches, as you have more and more collectors who want the very best but less and less who are willing to part with their beloved treasures. So the gap between supply and demand is widening and this is why we have seen – even at these times of economic uncertainties – one world record after another. Sometimes such a record may for a simple watch at CHF 20'000, a complicated piece at CHF 100'000 or for masterpieces breaking the CHF 1 million barrier! The best pieces sell, regardless of their absolute value, but the average or mediocre quality is struggling to sell even at low prices. This is why you see such watches less and less in our catalogues. Collectors have such an incredible knowledge, know more than ever before thanks to all the forums and blogs, auction catalogues and museum exhibitions.
You have auctions in Geneva, New York and Hong Kong. What are the differences between these markets and how do you chose which watch to sell where?
In theory there should not be any difference between the three locations, since no matter where the buyer is located, he can comfortably bid at any auction and have the watch delivered to him or her.
However, the truth is that collectors are ready to travel reasonable distances in order to attend an auction but will not systematically fly across the globe to do so. Given this understandable reality, we tend to put a watch for auction at a location where we think the clients for it are present or attending. If I have a beautiful vintage wristwatch with a patina, I will tend to sell it in Geneva as I know this type of ageing meets most likely the European taste. If I have a diamond encrusted skeletonized watch with complications or a historical pocket watch with an enameled scene, then Hong Kong is the natural location.
New York is a fascinating melting pot: there are Americans, Italians, Indians, Chinese etc... In my humble opinion, there is not a specific style and I haven’t seen any type of watch which we couldn’t sell there. A few years ago we sold a historical Vacheron Constantin pocketwatch, made especially for Packard. Everyone told us that the watch should be sold in Geneva. Not true! It sold for US$1.8 million and we didn’t miss a single bidder.
|Made in 1918 for JW Packard this unique piece features a chronograph, minute repeater, grande and pette sonnerie as well as a 7.5 minute sonnerie|
Last fall we sold Gordon Bethune’s superb collection, which consisted mainly of vintage pieces and many experts advised us to disperse the collection in Geneva. I am sure you will remember the numerous world records we broke, in each and every category! New York is capable of surprising us season after season.
How has the internet and online bidding changed?
It is a fantastic 4th bidding channel for us (note: paddle, absentee, phone and online)! What is great for our clients that they can watch the auction live, even if you are miles away. To many collectors it is the next best thing after being in the room. Interestingly, we have phone bidders who like the connection with a Christie’s staff, but who are also following the auction online. I even once had a client who was in the auction room but was bidding online via his notebook! However, our collectors will never want to miss the personal contact with our specialists before or after the auction.
10-15 years ago the buyers and sellers of watches at auction were mainly dealers. What is the situation today?
Going back to the 19th century, and not only for watches, the auction industry was set up to sell the possessions of privates to the public. At the time there was hardly any cataloguing done, and information or descriptions were scarce. For obvious reasons this "package" did not appeal to private buyers, so dealers would buy large portions of the sales, take their acquisitions to their shops, restore the objects and then sell to the private parties - with all the service one can desire.
This set-up has substantially changed during the second half of the 20th century, when auction houses realized that they would need to reach out to the "end consumer" if they wanted to achieve higher prices. By introducing state of the art catalogues, top service in all internationally spoken languages and a superb retail experience, all the obstacles which kept the privates away had gone and private parties started considering auctions as their preferred way of buying antiques.
Watches are no exception. During the 1990s and 2000s we gradually moved towards a fully client-friendly environment and the private collectors felt more comfortable engaging at auction. With offices all over the world, where our clients can communicate with specialists who speak their language, our audience has multiplied. I remember the 90s where I had 50 bidders (and 40 of them were dealers!) and the 10 collectors were half-hearted, not knowing if they should bid or not. Today, we have over 1000 bidders from over 40 countries. Dealers, collectors, museums and even investment funds fiercely compete, and the great part is that since the collectors today have the same knowledge as the dealers they can bid at the same level. Actually, they can often go higher than the dealer, who needs to make a living off the piece, and today when I analyse the auction results, 80% to 90% of our watches are selling to private buyers. This explains also how we have gone from a turnover of $8 million to $130 million in 10 years.
What is the position of Vacheron Constantin in the auction market today?
Vacheron Constantin is not one of the “noisiest” of all auction players. 50 to 100 years ago, their production was extremely small, which means that even if you are on the market for a certain number of Vacheron Constantin watches, you can’t find them easily.
Look at Picasso and Modigliani - the latter maybe shows up at auction once a year whereas Picasso’s works are more readily available, may it be oils, porcelain, drawings etc… So, Vacheron Constantin plays a niche role, which shouldn’t prevent it from playing a prominent role just like a Modigliani, which is rarer than a Picasso.
Secondly, Vacheron Constantin is a more discreet choice. I think that there is a saying about Rolls Royce and Bentley: Rolls Royce is for those who want to show their growing success and achievements whereas Bentley is for those who already got there. The one who has a vintage Vacheron Constantin wears it for himself and not for the environment, not to impress his fellow colleagues at the board meeting.
I find Vacheron Constantin's watches to be aesthetically a bit more flamboyant, a touch more playful and of excellent quality. At the same time you can buy a lot of value with a Vacheron Constantin at today’s prices. That doesn’t do much glory for the brand but at the same time it offers great opportunities, since at CHF 20'000 you can’t acquire a complicated Patek Philippe, but can certainly bid on some beautiful pieces from Vacheron Constantin.
If Vacheron Constantin watches are rarer then the prices should be higher? What prevents Vacheron Constantin from attaining overall higher auction prices?
There is a general fact, no matter if we are talking about watches, wines, art or real estate, “A good client is an educated client”. And in auctions, an educated client is a strong bidder! I think that both the brand and the auction houses should communicate and educate as much as possible. Imagine I have a Vacheron Constantin which I know has been made, for example, in 6 pieces for the Spanish market; imagine the excitement this would create if we can share this information with the market. The more information there is, the more the bidder is comfortable bidding, and I think there is not enough communication and noise around the brand, which makes people realize what a fantastic brand Vacheron Constantin is.
As an auctioneer I promote all brands, but promoting a brand doesn’t just mean “bigger pictures”. Promoting a brand means explaining it, in bringing the details forward so that the collectors can appreciate it.
Do you have contact with Vacheron Constantin’s Heritage department?
Yes, we have a great relationship but would I like to receive even more information! Of course, I understand that there are many reasons not to put the archives on-line for everyone to see and that’s not what I’m asking for. But maybe I am suggesting to be less discreet. We’re not taking anything away from them but on the contrary, we are a loudspeaker, but this discretion is commonly shared by many brands.
In the past 2-3 years Vacheron Constantin has nevertheless hit very high prices at auction, how can this affect the less complicated vintage pieces?
This can obviously have a positive impact. It’s like a train: the coaches go where the locomotive takes them. For example, when a Patek Philippe
sells for a million dollars this will not only have a positive effect on other Patek Philippes, but also on other brands such as Vacheron Constantin. Not everyone has the means or is comfortable paying a million for a watch. So, if you can’t afford a Vacheron Constantin minute repeater, you turn to a chronograph or a triple date calendar, which has the same DNA without the price tag. There is always place for a Plan B.
Which vintage Vacheron Constantins do you find iconic and who deserve to be in a collection?
There are 3 to 4 Vacheron Constantins I would like to have in my collection, not just because of their aesthetics or quality but because I consider them icons of 20th century watchmaking, and hence expect them to also perform on a financial level.
I consider the first Chronomètre Royal ref. 6368 or 4838 to be one of the most beautiful watches ever made by any brand! This watch is, in terms of aesthetics, quality and design just above and beyond! For me it has fantastic potential.
Another personal favourite of mine is the “Cioccolatone”, there is nothing comparable from any other brand, this massive, self-confident square watch with its stepped lugs. Be it a manual, an automatic, central seconds or triple date, it is an iconic design. This watch needs more fame, some people don’t even know it exists. A nice example shows up at auction once every 2-3 years when you have Patek Philippe 1518 or 2499 (note: vintage perpetual calendar chronographs) showing up at each auction!
For me the “Cioccolatone” triple-date moon phase can comfortably be the next watch going for over CHF 500’000 to 1’000’000! Why am I saying this? We think that in the next 10 years there will be 1000 Chinese collectors who would be willing to pay $1’000’000 for a vintage collector’s watch, but there are not 1000 watches of such quality and rarity!
There are also the minute repeaters which are amongst the most elegant and sophisticated trophy watches while remaining still affordable. Vacheron Constantin could be a fabulous performer here as the Patek Philipe minute repeaters are going for over $500’000. Other Swiss brands either didn’t make any or their production can be counted on one hand. Buy one as long as you can, for at some point the prices will fly away.
Ref 4261 scan courtesy of Paul Boutros
The most undervalued pieces are currently the chronographs and triple calendars. Today these watches are selling between CHF 15’000 and 30’000. When considering that they are pieces of horological history the prices can only go up.
|Ref 4178||Ref 4240|
In your Geneva May auction there are 5 chronographs and 4 triple calendars, are they easy to come by?
No, very, very difficult. Currently, as far as I know there is no Vacheron Constantin collection “out there” for sale. If I had a collector with 50 pieces who asks you to sell his collection it would be like winning in the lottery, but there is no Vacheron Constantin collector who wants to sell.
How do you explain that?
If I had a Vacheron Constantin collection I wouldn’t sell either! But with my love for watches I would be a bad seller anyhow…
There is a cynical and slightly outdated 100 year old auction house rule which explains why people sell their collections: The 3 Ds: Death, Divorce and Debt!
Today it’s more human and less cynical. Collectors sell their pieces when they’re ready to move on. The truth, is that today I see more incoming collectors than outgoing collectors for Vacheron Constantin because you can have access to fantastic pieces at prices which remain affordable. So, more buyers than sellers!
Do you have an interest in the modern watch market?
Everything at one stage is modern. Le Corbusier and Bauhaus were at one point modern and today are considered classic. Today’s contemporary pieces are tomorrow’s vintage, and of course I’m most interested in seeing where we are heading.
Which modern/current Vacheron Constantins do you see being tomorrow’s collector pieces?
It is important to draw a line between what is trendy and what is classic. I don’t really like trends because trends come and go and sometimes you don’t even know why. We live in a globalized world and it is no longer enough if only a handful of Germans, Americans or Italians like a certain design or not, as today we have also the Russians, the Chinese, the Middle-Eastern or South American clients, and you need to think if the watch has a universally applauded design or a universally appreciated design. You just need to pick up the watch and look at it and ask yourself, “is it perfect? Perfect today, tomorrow or in 10 years?” If the answers are yes, then these will be the watches which will be the success at auctions in the future.
The Overseas is a great example, it is sporty yet elegant, it is not too big and I don’t see it going out of fashion. The Patrimony Contemporaine models have no expiry date and they are everlasting. That is the force of Vacheron Constantin, the brand is a bit more playful than other more strict Geneva brands but they are never fashionable or trendy. If you want to survive, be modern but not fashionable.
What do you say to people who want to know if watches can be a good investment?
I hope that the first reason why people buy collector’s watches, be at auction or retail is because they like them. A good wine should be drunk, a fine painting should be admired, and I believe that a watch should be worn and taken pleasure of. Would I want each watch to go up in value? Commercially speaking, yes of course, but I would be foolish and dangerous if I said so and I don’t say so. However, from experience, those who have been buying with their heart and soul and doing their homework have done well, and those who have bought for purely investment have not performed! The soul and heart are the best advisers when buying a watch!
never buy as investment