Inside the Frenzied World of Rare Watches and the Rich People Who Love Them

On the morning of December 11, a young, nattily dressed, largely unmasked crowd streamed into the lower level of Phillips in midtown Manhattan for the 2021 New York Watch Auction, abuzz with the kind of anticipation you might expect in line for a concert. Phillips’s brand-new glass-box headquarters sits at the foot of 432 Park Avenue, the matchstick-thin luxury residential tower that teeters over a short stretch of Midtown commonly known as billionaire’s row but that might as well be called the watch district: On the same block are multilevel flagship stores for a number of coveted luxury watch brands, including Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille, some of whose timepieces retail for seven figures.

The auctiongoers took their seats in the brightly lit white-walled room, iPhones at the ready to document what promised to be a momentous event. Just a few days before the sale, well after catalogs had been printed and shipped to collectors around the world, Phillips had announced a surprise first lot: a new Patek Philippe reference 5711 Nautilus sports watch, made in partnership with Tiffany’s, complete with a robin’s egg dial. The watch’s retail price was $ 52,635 — spare change for the kind of big-game collector auction houses typically target. Earlier in the year, Patek Philippe (perhaps the ne plus ultra of luxury watchmakers) had sent the watch world into hysterics when it announced that it would discontinue the 5711, perhaps its most iconic model. The Tiffany’s iteration would be among the last ever produced. Patek made just 170 of them, so unless you were one of Tiffany’s 169 best customers, your only chance to buy one new was to bid on it this morning at Phillips.

The star of the event, aside from the watch, was the elegantly grizzled man behind the rostrum, Aurel Bacs, whose company, Bacs & Russo, has partnered with Phillips since 2014. Bacs is as close to a celebrity as an auctioneer can get, having presided over numerous record-shattering watch sales during the last 20 years at three major houses. Born in Zurich in 1971, Bacs has a flair for finding unique pieces and a genius for the coup de théâtre. In 2017, Christie’s sold an ultrarare watch previously owned by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and within two days Bacs stole their thunder with a Rolex that belonged to Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai — it sold for almost twice the price.

His fondness for spectacle was on full display last December. Exuding a wolfish, Mitteleuropean charm, Bacs wielded his gavel like a baton, the room both his audience and his orchestra. Lot # 1 started off pianissimo: Bacs opened the bidding at $ 20,000, less than half the retail price. Starting with such an unrealistically low bid is often designed to generate momentum before the real bidding begins.

Crescendo: Fielding bids from the dozens in attendance as well as from phone banks and thousands of online participants, Bacs effortlessly drove the price to six figures, then seven. His voice rising in intensity, he cajoled, teased, flattered, and prodded to coax the number ever higher. When bidding reached $ 4.9 million, Bacs turned to the sole paddle raiser left in the room — a young man standing by the stairs, in a white T-shirt and camel hair coat — smiled, and said, “You know what my ambitions are here , right? Come on… ”to the delight of the crowd. When the laughter subsided, Bacs let a tense silence reign. A Phillips employee shouted “5 million!” on behalf of a phone bidder, and Bacs belted out a flamboyant “Bravo!” leading an exultant round of applause.

Fortissimo: Several minutes later, the bidding having stalled at $ 5,150,000, Bacs began to swing his gavel down with a flourish when a higher bid — made online from Miami — stopped it a few inches from the rostrum, interrupting Bacs halfway through the word sold. Amid the hubbub, Bacs wheezed and clutched his heart. The sale continued, as if bidders were as eager to keep watching the maestro as they were to win the watch.

Bacs’ hammer came down at last three minutes later. The lot went to an unnamed online buyer in New York City who had bid $ 5,350,000, handily setting a new record for a Patek Philippe Nautilus. With fees and commissions, the buyer would end up paying $ 6.5 million, more than 100 times the retail price.

Though the proceeds of Lot # 1 went to the Nature Conservancy, the sale was nonetheless a marketing coup for Phillips, Patek Philippe, and LVMH, which owns Tiffany’s. Four days later, Jay-Z (a Tiffany’s brand ambassador) was photographed wearing one. Not long after, LeBron James showed off his own robin’s egg Nautilus on Instagram.

The watch would have sold high no matter what, but Bacs’ performance had turned it into a moment. “That was auction theater at its finest,” says a top watch-industry insider. “It was masterful in the way it was orchestrated. I think it was only when the final two bidders were going at it that we saw the real auction. ”

In a dramatic twist, the transaction never went through. In late January, Phillips executive Paul Boutros told the watch site Hodinkee that the item was “unable to go to the original winning bidder,” providing no further explanation. Tiffany’s and Patek Philippe ended up deciding to sell the watch to Taiwanese actor and watch collector Zach Lu — the underbidder in the camel hair coat — for his final bid (plus fees): $ 6.2 million.

“IF YOU WEAR THEM, YOU’RE AN IDIOT”

The sale capped a triumphant year for Phillips, which in 2021 boasted the highest total watch sales of any auction house in history, at $ 209.3 million. Phillips’s competitors also had their best years ever, with Christie’s reporting $ 205 million and Sotheby’s $ 148 million, a 50 percent increase over the previous year and well ahead of pre-pandemic annual sales.

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