Published: December 29, 2020
In the past few years, wristwatches have become one of the hottest collecting categories at auctions. Perhaps no department has seen such a rapid ascendancy than that at Phillips, where the global team has been led since the end of 2014 by consultant Aurel Bacs. During his tenure, he has presided over the record-setting sale of Paul Newman’s Rolex, which sold for almost $18 million to become the most expensive vintage wristwatch ever sold. We spoke with Bacs both before and after Phillips’ December 12 “Racing Pulse” sale to get some insights into not only the market but what makes him tick and drives his passion for wearable timepieces.
When did you first get interested in watches?
My father is a collector of all things mechanical – vintage cars, electric and steam trains and watches. When I was a kid, I became fascinated with the idea of collecting. Much like kids in the United States collect baseball cards, I collected soccer player cards, trying to complete books. My parents explained that I’d needed to spend a lot of money to do that and for that amount of money, I could put together a really good watch collection. So, I broke my piggy bank and started going around with my dad, looking for watches. Now, 35 or more years later, I am consumed by thinking about watches. It’s not work because I enjoy it so much. I’ve never been bored, not for a single day.
How did you get into the auction business?
Funny story, it was rather by accident. I went to law school, planning to earn a living that would let me pursue my passion for collecting watches. I was in law school when I saw an ad in a watch magazine for a Geneva auction house that was looking for a watch expert. My parents encouraged me to apply, if for no other reason than it would be good experience. After a series of interviews, in Switzerland and London, I got a call offering me a job to start the following Monday. After a few auctions went well, I started to feel happy, that I was in the right place.
How does the watch team at Phillips differ from that at other auction houses?
There’s no secret recipe; it starts with the people in the team. At Phillips, we don’t look to hire people just for a job; we hire people who have a passion for watches, even if they don’t have auction house experience. Half of our team comes from outside of the auction business. Paul Boutros in New York left a career as an engineer at Lockheed Martin; James Marks in London was a successful banker and Alexandre Ghotbi in Geneva was a lawyer. To them, watches were always more important than their jobs; now they are living that passion. By hiring such a team, the approach is different. We’ve said to ourselves that if we wouldn’t want to own a watch, we can’t stand behind it and promote it.
In terms of innovation, we have utilized the digital experience to create content: stories, videos and interviews – which are on our YouTube channel Phillips Watches and on Phillips.com. We are not just thinking about how to sell the next watch, we are thinking about how to grow the community of watch aficionados for the next five to ten years.
How has the watch market changed in recent years?
The market has really erupted over the last five, ten, 20 years; each chapter has its own specific revolutions. Twenty years ago, the internet, social media and online bidding were in their infancy. Thanks to these, the awareness and flow of information on watches has exploded. Today, anyone can go and find reliable information by going to Phillips.com or other watch websites, which creates transparency, awareness and confidence.
Watches used to occupy a level with toy trains and posters but it has broken through and now it is safe to say watches have become the most popular, widespread international collecting field.
Why is that?
In 2016, the first wristwatch sold for more than $10M and in 2017, Phillips sold Paul Newman’s Rolex for almost $18 million. It became breaking news around the world and people started to pay attention. Now, you can choose between a great vintage car, art, jewelry…it’s not just toys for boys but it’s become serious. That degree of maturity has given confidence and respect to the field.
Manufacturers have recognized that collecting is different than consuming and made their archives accessible, to feed the knowledge within that community. Today, watches are more accepted as an integral part of the art market – mechanical art if you wish – and we’ve seen the market grow and become more accessible.
Is the global watch market truly global, or is it centralized?
It’s extremely varied. About one-third are based in the Americas, one-third in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and then about one-third in Asia. Watch collecting transcends professions, age, religion, political party, you name it.
But it is still largely a fraternity?
Yes. Regrettably, there are not as many women collectors; I wish there were more women who enjoyed watches and who would see them not just as an accessory. It may be my last mission in my career to make the field more balanced.
How would you characterize the demographic of buyers in your sales, between private and trade? More or less of one or the other? Fairly evenly split?
Whereas we are broadly supported by trade bidders, the private collectors prevail by large – by definition, logically, as they don’t need to resell at a profit. In recent years and in contrast to many other auction houses, we are catering our selections to the demanding, private end consumer and close to 100 percent of the watches are finally selling to collectors.
Are there still discoveries being made?
Every day. We have watches in our New York sale that have never been published or watches we knew of that had never come to market. That’s part of the chase, the adventure. We constantly look for the next discovery. Often, discoveries are made because people don’t recognize that they have important watches.
Three of the watches in the sale were known before but have never been to market. We have Paul Newman’s “Big Red,” which he’d been photographed wearing for 25 years. Steve McQueen wore his Heuer Monaco while he was filming Le Mans, and Sylvester Stallone wore his Panerai in the movie, Daylight. Then we have a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar watch that had been the gift from a wife to her husband in the 1960s. He never wore it and now, 54 years later, it comes out in absolutely untouched condition. I like to call that a “Half Century Sleeping Beauty.”
The title of this sale is “Racing Pulse.” Where did that come from?
McQueen wore the Heuer while he was racing a Porsche 917 during the filming of Le Mans and Clea Newman consigned the Daytona that Paul Newman wore when he raced and was also photographed wearing the watch on the set. We imagined the emotions they experience as they raced. Paul Boutros is doing just one watch sale in New York each year and he is holding back the best of the best for that sale; we wanted the sale to convey the emotion wearing one of these watches will give the owner.
“The best of the best” summons expectations of estimates at consistently high levels (high five figures, etc), but there were a broad range of estimates in the “Racing Pulse” sale. Is that typical of your watch sales?
The “best of the best” isn’t about the price tag, but about our core criteria – quality, condition, originality, rarity, history and provenance. This can be a Zenith El Primero with an estimate of $4/6,000. It ticks every box but at a different level than an important Rolex, Patek Philippe etc. To give you a parallel from the world of fine food: the best is about freshness and when we run a Michelin star restaurant, it is ok (even necessary!) to offer the best bread, apples and even still water, as long as it is the best, freshest and tastiest.
Of all the watches you’ve been able to handle in your career, which has been the most memorable?
The Paul Newman Rolex has probably been the most intense and memorable of my career. It wasn’t because of the record-setting hammer price but because I’d considered it a Holy Grail for years. We worked for a year and a half, between legal, press, marketing and speaking to his friends and family; I felt at the end that I got to know the man, who was an exceptional human being. I’m sorry I couldn’t meet him personally.
Is there another “Holy Grail” you’d most like to handle?
There are still plenty of “Holy Grails” we’d like to find and sell. In 2014, Hodinkee published “Twelve of the Greatest Missing Watches,” the list included Fidel Castro’s Rolex, Pablo Picasso’s Jaeger LeCoultre, Buzz Aldrin’s Speedmaster. Since then, a lot of them have surfaced and many have sold at Phillips. One of the holiest of the “Holy Grails” is John Lennon’s Patek Philippe 2499. But the crazy thing is, there may be “Holy Grails” out there we don’t yet know exist. I know today of watches that I’ve already unearthed that I’ve not been able to bring to market but when I do, the world will say, “We never knew this existed.”
Was there a memorable moment from your December 12 “Racing Pulse” sale?
The most memorable moments were, to me as the auctioneer, the sale of the iconic watches owned/previously owned/consigned by Paul Newman’s daughter Clea, Steve McQueen’s Haig Alltounian Heuer and the Panerai/Mille watches from Sylvester Stallone. They weren’t simple watches used only to tell time, instead they told us stories of the Twentieth/Twenty-First Centuries. Selling for many times their estimates and achieving record results, they reflect everything a watch collector in 2020 is looking for: quality, condition, originality, rarity, history and provenance. After weeks and months of speculation by the world-wide community but also internally among our team, it was good to bring down the gavel at such wonderful levels, seeing that justice was done and finally knowing what “they are worth.”
How many watches do you currently own and which is your favorite?
In all honesty, I do not know how many watches I own but certainly more than anyone with a reasonable mind needs. My favorites are not the rarest or the most valuable, but those that I connect to a person or particular moment in my life, notably watches that were given to me by my family, my wife, on special occasions.
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