Published: February 12, 2019
Jonathan Snellenburg has been the director of clocks and watches at Bonhams since 2009, capping a career that began with an education in history, geology and geochemistry. After heading the jewelry and silver departments at Christie’s East, Snellenburg set up a watch department for Christie’s New York. He later went into business as a dealer, consultant and appraiser and was on the board of directors for the National Antique & Art Dealers Association of America before returning to the auction world. Snellenburg is best known for his expertise in the field of antiquarian horology, is a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. With the auction market for wristwatches seemingly on the ascendancy, Antiques and The Arts Weekly stopped the clock and took time out to chat with this auction veteran for his take on how the watch market has changed, what buyers are looking for, and what watch he would own personally.
How and when did you get your start handling watches at auction?
It’s been almost 40 years, when they opened Christie’s East and I was hired to run the jewelry and silver departments. One day, a consignment of watches came over from Park Avenue, literally in a shoebox. At that moment, I became the watch department.
Were you interested in watches initially?
I studied science in college, and I suppose they thought I was technically interested. Watches are interesting objects, but I did not start as a watch collector; I came to appreciate them as I learned about them.
How has the market changed since then?
It has changed drastically, on two levels, namely what people are interested in and how they buy. Wristwatches rarely appeared in auction catalogs until the mid-1980s, Before the advent of the internet, everyone had to view watches firsthand. Thanks to the internet, the market expanded and became more international. Now, the majority of client inquiries come from the internet and with digital photography, we have a better ability to convey the conditions to people who don’t attend the auction themselves. The mechanics of running an auction has changed as a result: with the ability to view digital photos and online bidding, physical attendance has fallen off, people are increasingly more comfortable bidding and buying online.
Because wristwatches are considered wearable collectibles, people want to see all aspects of the watch – the crown, the case, less so the movement, and the general condition and appearance of the watch. On the spectrum of the wristwatch market, you have at one end the person looking to buy a single luxury watch, while on the other end you have the serious collector looking to buy a very rare, very unique item. Tastes have changed, too. For example, the classic Patek Philippe Calatrava (reference 96), which was one the most elegant wristwatches developed in the 1930s, is now considered too small; people are drawn to larger watches and the size of the diameter of the watch now matters.
Of all the watches you have handled in your career, are any particularly memorable, and why?
The watch that comes to mind is a Patek Philippe chronograph (reference 1463) that Bonhams sold a few years ago. In good condition, the watch typically brought between $90,000 and $100,000 at auction but this watch sold for more than $300,000. It had everything going for it: it was a one-owner watch that had been given to the consignor when he was 21, it had stayed in a safe-deposit box for the majority of his life so it was pristine condition, the watch was made of rose gold, which is preferred; it was a waterproof chronograph; it had luminous hands, a pristine dial, the original rose-gold buckle on the strap; it still had its original box, the original guarantee certificate and original promotional literature. In short, it had all the points that lift a watch from an average price to a highly sought-after collector’s item.
What brand or brands are most coveted by watch collectors currently? Do you see this changing?
Things go in and out of fashion, but Patek Philippe and Rolex have remained consistently collectible. For example, the classic steel sports watches, such as the Rolex Cosmograph or Submariner have always been sought-after by collectors with rare models commanding top prices. More recently, rare examples of similar steel sports watches such as the Heuer Autavia or Omega Speedmaster are increasingly fetching high prices.
When evaluating vintage watches, are condition and workability usually the most important factors?
All things being equal, yes. Wristwatches are looked at from the outside in, with more emphasis placed on appearance than mechanics…they are ultimately meant to be worn so workability is key.
Has the high-end wristwatch market expanded recently? What is driving this?
There are simply far more people collecting and selling wristwatches than were ever interested in pocket watches. A generation ago, before the 1980s – watch auctions were relatively small, confined to a few salerooms in the United States and Europe. A new collecting field emerged shortly after the quartz watch appeared as a group of collectors sought to halt the demise of the mechanical watch. Today’s wristwatch market developed thanks to these early collectors. Now there is a much wider audience who can participate through numerous online auctions. In addition, a robust secondary market for luxury wristwatches has developed with many websites offering pre-owned watches. The market is truly worldwide with buyers from Asia, Europe and the Americas competing thanks to the internet.
New vs vintage – what are the pros and cons of each?
Early wristwatches need a bit of care. Often, they are not water resistant, dust proof or shock resistant. Many are not self-winding. As a result, they may not be everyday watches. A watch bought at auction will need a cleaning and overhaul. If you want something to wear every day, a new watch may be your better bet.
If you could own any vintage watch, which would you personally own?
I’d own a Patek Phillippe.
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