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Buying Watches at Auction; The Pros and Cons

Posted on September 06 2021

Buying Watches at Auction; The Pros and Cons

The popularity of watch auctions has risen massively over recent years. 

This recently prompted a conversation with an established client about the merits and disadvantages of buying watches at auction compared with buying from a dealer.

I have found myself constantly questioning why some people would end up paying, sometimes, way over the odds for watches which could be bought from a retailer such as ourselves for similar if not less money and include better assurances and returns policies to say the least.

I asked our client if he would mind jotting down a few unbiased words to share with you, about his experiences. Below is what he had to say;

“You may well have bought a watch at auction. I don’t mean those high end auctions that require a calculator conversion of the value of a million Swiss Francs, but rather the specialist watch auctions that are now so common or the general goods auctions that invariably feature a rag bag mixture of watches.

I pretty much have an addiction to browsing auctions online. It’s a fine way to lose hours whilst checking values and comparing pieces and maybe learning a few watch facts from the auctioneers descriptions. I am looking for military stuff in the main, rather than modern pieces. The price range is generally  £500 to £3000.

I subscribe to lists that keep me informed of favourite auction houses. There are key words that can trigger search engines to work tirelessly on my behalf all hours of the day. There are online bidding platforms which, for a cost, make the process of engaging live with the auctioneer very easy and often very enjoyable. There is the opportunity to have a telephone link.

I could happily watch Paul Laidlaw sell stuff which I have no interest in whatsoever, all day long! In short, auctions can be real good fun. But here are some of the drawbacks:

  • My successful bid is subject to commission and that often adds a third or more to the cost these days. I have to keep a clear picture in mind of the total cost and thus the real value of the watch to me.
  • The description of a watch can vary tremendously from auctioneer to auctioneer and often falls short of the detail that you would wish for. You can ascertain only so much from photographs, always assuming that there are any, and often there are none, of the movement. Do not take it as a given that the auction house knows anymore about the watch than you do or that a description is gospel.
  • There is no substitute for handling the watch. Of course you can visit an auction if that is convenient to you but ask yourself how often you actually do that compared to clicking that button?
  • I have to guard against my competitive gene. It is so easy to get sucked into a bidding war and as a result pay over my limit. Remember, that helpful search engine is not a faithful mistress. She is helping the chap sitting in his kitchen in Tokyo just as she helps you. Also, that other chap may have mighty deep pockets and a reckless streak.
  • Inevitably the military stuff often requires fettling. Decades may have passed without attention to the movement. The winder may be stiff. The time keeping may be all over the shop. There may be serious internal issues a heart beat away. Maybe you recognised that lume has been lost, or a hand set isn’t correct or a crown is an incorrect replacement or the glass isn’t actually original. The question is how does an ordinary Joe sort these things out? Who do you go to? Not everyone has a relationship with a watch repairer and not every repairer holds stock of parts, and you certainly, in most cases, will not be able to ask the auction house for assistance.
  • When I buy a vintage watch I actually want to wear it. I can live with marginal loss of time and nicks and scrapes out of respect for its former life but I want it to be serviceable.
  • And lets not overlook the obvious points that there is no sending the watch back because you don’t like the way it looks or fits or whatever. All those things that may be wrong are things you now have to live with.

 Buying from a dealer is a very different experience. Over the last five years I have formed trusting relationships with several watch dealers. It is often said that you should “buy the seller” and I would endorse that approach.

 So here are the plusses of dealer purchasing that I have found, and as this is Javid’s site I will tailor some comments to my dealings with him:

  • I like that VWS has a user friendly site that I can mooch around time and time again, and through social media posts my interest is kept keen. Not all dealers have such wide stock on view. Dealer sites are also useful reference points.
  • The watches are well described and well photographed and the price is front and centre and as a returning buyer I can test out Javid’s resolve on that price. I have to respect that a dealer has a living to make but I still like to try for a sharper price. I understand when no means no! Of course I may have a piece that I would like to factor into the deal, something that’s not open to you at auction! Some have much better haggling skills than I possess so I guess that part of the process may also be a bit of fun.
  • I like to have the reassurance of a warranty period which also allows for return of the watch (within a cooling off period). I will have read the description of the piece and I will have had the opportunity to ask additional questions, but the warranty is still welcome. I expect a dealer to understand his product and to honestly present it to me. I do not expect a dealer to be a font of all knowledge and I accept that genuine mistakes can be made. If that happens I expect a dealer to be willing to work with me to remedy the situation.
  • Watch dealers are a relatively small, close knit community. They have their own special relationships with other dealers and they trade amongst themselves according to known specialisms. They get wonderfully tantalising calls out of the blue from members of the public wanting to sell grandfather’s military watch. They should be in a position to stock, and to sell to you, the best examples of the pieces that interest you. I always expect to buy better quality pieces from a dealer than some of the rubbish I have bought at auction!
  • Small businesses well understand that reputations take years to establish and moments to lose. On numerous occasions when discussing the pros and cons of a piece with Javid, he has stopped me mid flow and said “I’m going to send it to you and you can wear it and see if it’s what you want.” I have had him say to me that he doesn’t feel a piece is right for me. I have had him call me and say that he has been offered a piece that has my name all over it! Sometimes I call him to pick his brain about a piece and this might well be a piece I have seen at auction or with a different dealer. There is no end to my cheek! This is the service that I want.
  • Then there is the subject of delivery and payment. My experience is that an established relationship with a dealer makes this crucial part of the deal so much more relaxed.
  • Finally, if you tire of a piece or need to recover money then a dealer will generally buy back from you.

The perceived downside of buying from a dealer is that the price will be higher than from any other source because the dealer is running a business etc. This is no longer accurate all things considered ie. Auction commissions have been charged to both the buyer and the seller for some time now,  whilst once upon a time only the seller would be charged. This can invariably inflate prices, sometimes quite substantially. You won’t know until the hammer goes down, what the final price will be, whereas buying from a dealer, the price is clear from the outset and potentially open to negotiation.

However, when you buy sensibly and take a longer term view, all can come right. This is a true story. In September 2016 I bought a Longines W10 from a dealer who was new to me. It cost £2700. I was very new to the game. He would not budge on price as he said it was as good an example as he had ever offered and that the value would only go one way. I hummed and harred before buying it because it was top dollar at that time and I lacked confidence in myself. He was right about the watch and I was right about him. He had an IWC W10 at the same time, which was also expensive. I was an arse not buying that too! Hey ho.”

In conclusion, I thought this was an interesting read when it landed in my inbox from my client, Bob, and wanted to share it with you all, with my own added thoughts.

I agree the popularity of watch auctions has been on the rise for some time, and in recent years the glamour and excitement of high profile auctions in particular, organised by some of the larger auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have had an impact on the attention that lesser known auctions receive. I would be all for someone wanting to purchase a watch that came up for sale at auction if it was so unique or had provenance that you were unlikely to be able to find the same item or something similar anywhere else.

I would love to continue this discussion with you guys, but feel for the moment enough has been said. I would love the opportunity to hear your thoughts on this – the floor is open.

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