At 35,000 feet about halfway from Europe to the United States on a trip “home” for the holidays, the mind starts to get a little fuzzy. Call it the sweet return to drinking American craft beer or California Cabernet (yep, no matter where I live I’m still a “homer” and as a result, I’ve had both prior to writing this) or perhaps it’s an early warning of the jet lag that’s still to come. Whatever it is, flying provides time to think – or daydream – and is a perfect setting to write a Vintage Watch Market Update. I feel like this edition is a real culmination to what’s happened in the marketplace and one where I have so much to say yet, in some ways, so little. In any case, here we go…
When I was growing up, I subscribed to basically all of the major automobile magazines in the United States. At about $10 a year – plus with a father in the medical profession who had loads of waiting room subscriptions – it wasn’t a huge stretch. I remember on the back page of at least a couple of them, there was a recurring feature showing a “for sale” ad from an issue 25 or 30 years back with something like a 1960’s Ferrari or Shelby Cobra for the paltry sum of $3500 or $6500. They were fun to look at and a bit of a reminder that these cars were once inexpensive, but now even the most casual reader could derive a chuckle because these vehicles had become mainstream, highly expensive collectors’ items. I’m pretty much ready to “call it” – as we say prior to the true ending of a rout in an American sport – because this Vintage Watch Market Update is all about reality.
The reality is that vintage watches – especially the chronographs and sports watches we hold so dear – are now big time. They’ve gone from geeky forum collectibles, where some turfy grouch holds court, to eBay darlings, to prime time auction house record setters and, finally, to getting notice in high brow financial investment periodicals. It’s just before Christmas and you can call me “the Grinch” because I am here to take away your Yule wishes of cheap finds; vintage watches are no longer easy pickings for the sharpie.
For sure, deals still exist and in this Vintage Market Update – like so many others – I’ll speak a little to where I think fun still resides, but the bargains are truly random and they’re usually a bit sordid. You see, names like “Heuer”, “Universal Geneve”, “Valjoux 72” and “Gallet” have now penetrated the lexicon of the naïve seller. You know the type – the “I found this watch nearby, it’s dirty and doesn’t work because the battery is dead (even though it’s mechanical)” type seller. Sure, they crop up every so often, but the watches are either gone within seconds of hitting the web or a wise younger nephew clues in Uncle Billy Bob that Grandpa’s old ticker might be worth more than a few shiny nickels.
Back to sordid… I say that because I do get exposed to the stories of those selling a $10K – or even worse, a $20K – watch for pennies on the dollar. That stuff was kind of fun when these watches were worth $1,000 – 3,000, but I am starting to find the “deals” disingenuous. It’s especially so when the watch comes from an elderly person or, even worse, from a person in a country where $5,000 or $10,000 might mean the difference between heat or not. Think all those Czech Longines WW2 watches are coming from fancy flats in Prague? Think again…and if you’re reading this article, you’re better than preying on the less fortunate – or at least you can afford to be. After all, heading back to my car magazine comments, you certainly wouldn’t expect to find a Ferrari 250GT for $5,000 would you? Thanks for listening…
Getting back to the Vintage Watch Market Update, we are truly at a point where stocks are so dry or so expensive that I barely check my favorite haunts any longer. I am so thankful that I’ve picked up most of what I wanted over the past 3-4 years because a) finding the collection would now be impossible and b) I’d never be able to afford it. On the one hand, I am happy that pieces have gained what I feel is rightful and long overdue appreciation, but I also regret the fact that it’s now extremely difficult for a new collector to obtain a cornerstone piece if he or she has a moderate budget.
Regarding the value discussion in this Vintage Watch Market Update, we’ve moved away from being able to quote eBay as a value index because so few decent pieces trade there nowadays. Big time pieces are usually sold privately, at auction, or are ended early on eBay. We saw a really nice – not perfectly correct due to its crown – Heuer 2446 “Rindt” sell on eBay for over $20,000 recently. Days later, a similar piece sold at Christie’s in New York for $43,000 (pictured above)!
The true value is probably somewhere in the middle as the Christie’s piece followed an early Autavia that set a record at a whopping $125,000 (pictured above) and I’d guess that a loser – or others watching – on the big piece felt like spending money when the Rindt hit the block. Still, it was an interesting scene when these couple Heuers crushed all but the Paul Newman versions of the Rolex Daytona within the auction. A changing of the guard? Who knows, but it shows that the Heuers are no longer eccentric collectibles.
We’ve mentioned quarter over quarter in these Vintage Watch Market Update sessions that supply for pieces has dwindled. I know I am like a broken record but this must truly be the nadir. Honestly, if I asked you to go out and source a nice, correct, mid to late 1960’s Breitling Navitimer, you’d struggle. Sure, you could find one on some high dollar site out of Paris, London, or LA, – and no guarantees that the watch is correct by the way – but you would struggle to land one at what most would feel to be a reasonable price. So has the market moved away from being able to land nice 1960’s and 1970’s pieces at decent values? Overall, it seems so and, to be honest, I don’t see a return to the old days in any way.
Bubble wishers, I am sorry to tell you, I don’t see it coming. I actually see a settling to some degree for the mediocre, more commonplace, pieces and I think that the good stuff will just keep pulling away. I think that “big boy” pieces – examples like the early Autavias, the Zenith A386’s, and pre-moon Speedmasters – will ultimately join Pateks and Rolexes at auction with more frequency and the best specimens will increase in value as the big dollar investors take notice and diversify their “portfolios”. Reasonable examples will rise more slowly and may find their way to the nicer shops along with the also-ran brands (nothing wrong with them). Some obscure brands may even do battle on eBay from time to time, but it will be rare. Furthermore, as so many of us collectors are in our 30’s to early 60’s, I don’t expect a real flood of pieces on the market for some time because so many of us enjoy wearing and keeping them. Also, unless these collectors move into collecting other items or suddenly need money, I’m not sure what else they’d buy. Different vintage watches or new watches? Perhaps the former and not the latter… Are all those prognostications too opinionated? Sure, and I do hang out with collectors versus sellers, but it’s my article at the end of the day and this is what I see. 😉
So, with all that doom and gloom, what’s a buyer to do? It’s a fair question and one that I’ll try to answer because I am living it along with you. I buy so little now – my wife is very happy – but I still find things every so often. I mentioned in our last Vintage Watch Market update that I’ve really turned my attention to dive watches. I’ve turned my attention to things like Aquastars and the litany of watches that share the same case style as the brand from Geneva. They’re cheap, fun and have some really nice history. Plus, since I cannot convince some of you to give Seiko a chance, the Aquastar-cased divers are a good alternative at a relatively similar price level.
I’ve also turned my attention to older Omega Seamasters. Yes, they’re fraught with dangers as so many of them leaked and have been revised, but good ones from the 1970’s can be affordable and are very stylish. These were made at a time when Omega was still using their own movements and the brand was really pushing boundaries design-wise compared to Rolex. Heck, the once proud Ploprof is a pretty interesting deal and, trust me; you’ve really not lived until you’ve strapped yourself to one (the watch wears you, not the other way around).
I’ve also given advice in prior issues of the Vintage Watch Market Update to look at King Midas’ metal and I’ll do it again. On chronographs, gold plated or even solid gold is the way to go if you’re looking for good brands and great movements. On the plated side, finding models with intact surfaces can be a challenge, but replating isn’t the worst option. Consider models like the Wakmann Triple Date, the Breitling Top Time or Navitimer, or even some Universal Geneve Compax models. Seriously, fitted with a “hipster” weathered brown strap with tack stitch, these watches look great and they are no less than their stainless counterparts. I hear people say “I don’t do gold or gold plated” and what they’re leaving off is the word “yet” at the end. Your Dad’s or Grandfather’s metal can cost half or a third of an iron-based counterpart so don’t be so quick to dismiss if you’re looking for something authentic to adorn your wrist. Another example?
In a recent meeting with @watchfred, he showed me some big solid gold 1940’s Breitling Premiers that would straight up buckle your knees. Just see the picture above for some examples…
That’s all I have for this edition of the Vintage Watch Market update. It’s tough out there, but keep looking for interesting, well-made pieces whether or not they’re featured on blogs or in auctions. Today’s hidden gem could easily be tomorrow’s star. Aside from that, have a great holiday season if you’re celebrating!
Michael was born in South Florida in the USA. As a full-time role, he works in the Automotive Industry. He's lived and worked in many locations and when he's not cruising at 30,000 feet, he calls Germany home. Michael became... read more