The close of The New York Watch Auction: SEVEN in December last year (2022) marked two consecutive years of 100 per cent sales for Phillips Watches, a first for any auction house. Not just this, the year also saw the auction house collaborate with Bulgari over a special, limited-to-50-pieces Octo Finissimo, and partnerships with Piaget, and Zenith and Kari Voutilainen. And there was the sale of several extraordinary watches. WatchTime India caught up with Aurel Bacs, head of the watch department at Phillips, to learn more about the year that was.
WatchTime India: Phillips Watches has had a phenomenal year. What has contributed to that?
Aurel Bacs: At the beginning of the pandemic, we thought that everything will implode, given that an auction is a public event with hundreds of people. It was inconceivable that the auction market would continue to flourish. [But] watches are still a hobby that you can enjoy in confinement. And thanks to a good digital strategy, a perfect storm was created. It all came together.
WTI: Participation in online auctions have increased. What has led to this growth?
AB: Online auctions as we see today were unthinkable five years ago. An online auction for any pre-owned object has one fundamental flaw—that it is pre-owned. The purpose of an online auction is that you bid and hopefully win from the comfort of your sofa at home. And in the absence of a first-hand examination, it all boils down to trust. This is why online auctions at Phillips are different—smaller, more curated, more quality focused.
Aurel Bacs, auctioneer, and senior consultant, Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo
WTI: What is the kind of traction that you have seen in online auctions and how different is it from a physical auction?
AB: An online auction by definition is not the same value. There are no George Daniels, no Patek Philippe Grand Complications. In terms of value also, it is smaller, maybe 10 per cent value of an important live auction. We are still in the early stages of experimenting, trying to find out at what levels clients are comfortable to engage.
WTI: Personally, which are the brands you feel don’t get their due in auctions?
AB: I do believe that it was Phillips and my colleague Alexandre Ghotbi under whose leadership the independents became an integral part of every Phillips Geneva auction. In every auction, we have about 30 independents, which has led to world records with Philippe Dufour, F.P. Journe, Roger Smith, and Kari Voutilainen. Everything we do, there is a threshold below which we lose money. [Yet] we allow ourselves the luxury of putting in watches of US $2,000-5,000 because we feel they need to be promoted and shown.
WTI: How have you seen the watch market evolve over the past five years?
AB: The watch industry has exponentially grown, along with the pre-owned and collectors markets in the past five years. I would have been very happy with a much more humble growth if I knew that it would be sustainable for many more years to come. Of course, Phillips has greatly benefitted—we doubled our best year in a matter of two years. How insane is that? But it’s not the way I think and feel and love watches.
WTI: Your thoughts on Indian collectors...
AB: I recently had the pleasure of talking to two collectors from India, and I must say their reasoning was about passion and personal satisfaction. I could see in their eyes the love for watches, be it the history, the rarity, the aesthetics, or the craftsmanship. This is to me a sign of a very high degree of maturity. Eight years ago was when the GPHG highlights first came to India with Ethos Watch Boutiques, I was told that I will not recognise the watch landscape when I come back next. I have huge expectations and a great deal of optimism for the growth potential of the Indian market for high-quality watchmaking and collecting.
Paul Newman’s Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona Ref. 6239
WTI: Your most memorable auction and favourite watch?
AB: It’s such a usual suspect [Paul Newman’s Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona Ref. 6239], but not necessarily for the reasons you think. It’s not the US $17 million either. Usually a watch is with us for two to four months from the moment a collector consigns it and we do the research, catalogue it, photograph it, study and analyse it, until the auction happens. In case of the Daytona Paul Newman, it was 18 months. Six times the normal amount of work went into it. Meeting Paul Newman’s daughters, friends, Hollywood actors, race car drivers, to hear from those who knew him—I got more and more emotionally drawn into it. Needless to say it was a media storm from the moment we announced it, which means there was pressure and expectation. And then, of course, in the end, the relief. So from a human and emotional aspect, that was most likely the one that I will remember the longest. But there are also watches that are US $10,000-$20,000, which you have never read or heard about. But an encounter with the consignor who told me the family history of the watch that’s not known publicly—that’s equally touching. There are those unsung heroes, too.
The story first appeared in WatchTime India's January-March 2023 issue.
Images: Courtesy Phillips