Spotlight on Geneva watch auctions

 In The expert’s eye

It’s no longer a surprise that 2023 will see the return of collectors to the watch auction market! While in 2022 the market for collector’s watches seemed to have been taken by storm by investors and speculators, the great amateurs and discerning connoisseurs are more active than ever in their quest for exceptional timepieces. At the beginning of November, the world’s leading auction houses gathered in Geneva for their traditional autumn sales.

On the program: legendary timepieces, historic watches and iconic references. Some pieces, which hadn’t reappeared on the market for decades, proved that bids always soar when rarity and quality are combined. 

Here are 10 watches that collectors were lucky enough to discover or rediscover this month…

Rolex "Marlon Brando"

A record worthy of Hollywood

Among rare watches, those that once belonged to a celebrity always enthrall collectors, and even appeal to a wider audience of fans and admirers. These watches always achieve incredible results at auction…. And the prices are even more spectacular when the piece is signed Rolex. On November 6, Christie’s presented a legendary watch, Marlon Brando’s GMT-Master ref. 1675. The most discerning collectors were already familiar with this Rolex, as it was first sold in 2019 by Phillips in New York. Recording a record price of $1.952 million, this collector’s item is one of the few watches with which the actor has appeared in film. In Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, Marlon Brando wore this timepiece, on the back of which he had his name, “Mr. Brando”, hand-engraved. Considered one of the most famous and influential American actors of the 20th century, this watch sparked a remarkable bidding war at the time.

First put up for sale by his adopted daughter, Petra Brando Fischer, this bezel-less watch was linked to a particularly amusing anecdote. During the filming of Apocalypse Now, the production team allegedly asked the actor to remove his watch on the pretext that it would be the only one seen on screen, to which Brando replied “If they’re looking at my watch, then I’m not doing my job as an actor”. Marlon Brando insisted so much on wearing his watch, that the production finally gave in to this “star whim”, taking care to remove the bezel so that the watch would be as discreet as possible.
4 years after its first public sale, this watch with such an exciting provenance set a new record: 4,582,500! A result that carries with it all the magic of Hollywood!

The Holy Grail for connoisseurs

Presented by Phillips under lot 186, the result obtained by this Patek Philippe ref. 2499 chronograph testifies to the strength of the brand and the unrivalled place occupied by the Geneva manufacture in the collector’s watch market. An iconic reference, the 2499 chronograph is the Holy Grail for connoisseurs. Estimated at CHF 800,000, this rare watch sold for CHF 2,104,900! An excellent performance that confirms that the market is unshakeable when museum-quality timepieces are offered at auction. Introduced in 1951, the reference 2499 remained in production until 1985. During its 34 years in production, this chronograph was produced in 4 series. Because the first series produced are always the most sought-after by collectors, this example literally “exploded” off the counters. Easily recognizable thanks to its rectangular pushers and applied Arabic numerals, this “fist serie” had been owned by two great collectors, giving it a particularly prestigious pedigree.


The first Quantième Perpetuel of the Royal Oak collection

In 1984, Audemars Piguet introduced the first Royal Oak Quantième Perpétuel to its collections. Presented for the very first time at the Basel Fair under reference 5554, this model was quickly renamed 25554. A single model was marketed in 1984. It was not until 1985 that this watch was actually launched and marketed. The example presented by Sotheby’s on November 5 (Important Watches: part I, lot 64), is among the very first watches to be put on the market, for as the accompanying extract from the registers confirms, this “QP” was manufactured in 1985. Produced only until 1992, reference 25554 is said to have been produced in only around 270 examples. In addition to being rare, the model sold by Sotheby’s had a particularly atypical black dial, which explains the very handsome result of CHF 330,200, almost CHF 200,000 above its estimate!


The watch that heralded MB&F

Hired in 1998 by the American jeweller, the talented Maximilien Büsser, then aged 31, conceived a novel collection to propel Harry Winston into the Haute Horlogerie market: Opus. The idea was simple yet revolutionary: to launch a new model every year, created in collaboration with an independent watchmaker. In 2001, Maximilian Büsser brought this project to fruition by inviting the first watchmaker: François-Paul Journe. Together, they co-created a watch that combines Harry Winston DNA with the genius of F.P. Journe. Called Opus One, this collaborative watch will actually be produced in a series of 3 models, including a resonance chronometer watch. Manufactured in only 6 examples, all unique with different variations (dial color, setting….), the Opus One is an unmissable collector’s item for any collector of contemporary watchmaking. Not only because it’s an original timepiece that embodies Harry Winston style and F.P. Journe expertise, but also and above all because this watch heralds the MB&F adventure that will take shape a few years later. Estimated at 350,000 and sold for CHF 441,000, this result demonstrates the continuing popularity of the very first series and their extraordinary potential on the collector’s watch market. By way of comparison, on May 13, 2023, an Opus One from this series of 6 chronometer watches, but with a silver dial, sold for CHF 252,000 in Geneva.


French Elegance

Cartier caused a sensation in Geneva with its iconic Tank Louis Cartier. A rare platinum model, manufactured in 1929 in Paris and sold by Cartier London to its first owner. Introduced in 1922 as the “Tank à bords arrondis”, this iconic watch was renamed “Tank Louis Cartier” a few years later. It is an exceptional collector’s item, since Cartier is said to have produced only 45 examples! Estimated at CHF 50,000, this collector’s item sold for CHF 177,800 – 3.5 times its asking price! Presented on a vintage platinum “grain de riz” bracelet with pink gold folding clasp, this watch provoked a fine bidding battle (Lot 89, Philipps sale November 3, 2023).

Rolex Stelline

The most beautiful complication produced by Rolex

Presented for the first time in 1950 at Baselworld, ref. 6062 was an ultra-innovative watch at the time of its launch, as for the first time Rolex integrated a complete calendar with moon phases inside its famous Oyster case. Along with the 8171 and Cellini 50535, the 6062 is one of only 3 Rolex references to feature a moon phase. Combined with a calendar, this timepiece combines 2 complications, which at the time was a real feat for Rolex, which above all developed reliable, water-resistant and robust watches.
Available in yellow gold, rose gold and steel, the 6062 was produced with a wide variety of dials. The example presented by Christie’s on November 6 is one of the most sought-after, thanks to its star-shaped hour-markers and its pink color, the rarest of all precious metals. Very few pieces were made, as the 6062 remained in production for just 3 years. Sold for CHF 2,223,000, this watch set a new record for the model. In 2015, Phillips sold a similar model with a gold bracelet, and the bidding went as high as CHF 1,265,000! With the result achieved on November 6, Christie’s pulverized the last record and demonstrated that rarity is one of the best criteria for investment.

Patek Philippe Butterfly

Extravagance in women’s watchmaking

Among the ladies’ models, the most incredible timepiece was – unsurprisingly – by Patek Philippe. However, it’s not a watch by the jeweller, but an extremely common model: the Ellipse. Introduced to the Patek Philippe collections in 1969, this design is one of the Manufacture’s best-sellers, and one of the brand’s very few unisex models. Designed by Gerald Genta, this watch with its timeless, minimalist lines was available in an Ellipse Lady version from 1970. The model presented was a reference 4117/1G in diamond-studded white gold, featuring an unusual iridescent turquoise dial with a butterfly-wing motif. Extremely rare, few pieces have reappeared on the auction market in recent years. This extravagant timepiece sold for CHF 76,200 (lot 53, sale November 5, 2023), the highest price ever recorded in a public auction! By way of comparison, the last Ellipse “Butterfly” to appear at auction sold for CHF 31,250 (lot 45, Sotheby’s sale May 10, 2009, Geneva). 10 years earlier, in 1998, Antiquorum had sold a set comprising a watch and a pair of matching earrings for over $33,000. The record result of CHF 76,200 achieved on November 5 testifies to the growing popularity of ladies’ watches in recent years. Combining the technicality of watchmaking with the creativity of jewelry, vintage women’s watches are attracting an ever-growing number of enthusiasts, who continue to drive up prices.


A collector’s favorite

While watchmaking is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful professions in the world, the watchmaking world can be cruel and unforgiving, and many talented watchmakers have paid the price.
Alain Silberstein knows all about it: in 2012, this French watchmaker based in Besançon saw his company placed into receivership. In 25 years, this disciple of the Bahaus school had made a big name for himself in the world of watches. With his unusual creations in bright colors and original graphics, Alain Silberstein helped contemporary independent watchmaking to break away from the beaten track.
At a time when the watchmaker is at the height of his powers, MB&F invited him in 2010 to reinterpret his Horological Machine n° 2. Named Horological Machine 2.2, this futuristic timepiece will be produced in only 8 examples. The version offered for sale by Philipps is even rarer, as it is a unique model in titanium with a chocolate-colored PVD coating. Estimated at CHF 25,000 and nicknamed the “Chocolate Box“, this watch exceeded its estimate tenfold, and its new owner paid a staggering CHF 304,800 for it.

Patek Philippe « World Time » ref. 5531R

A tribute to craftsmanship excellence

While vintage and antique models clearly recorded the most spectacular results over the 3 days of sales, contemporary timepieces also came out on top. Proof of this is a Patek Philippe “World Time” ref. 5531R made in 2022. The world time function is complemented by another complication: the minute repeater, which strikes the local time. In addition to its striking chimes, this watch is also particularly pleasing to the eye, with its superb cloisonné enamel dial. A true tribute to the great tradition of universal hour watches with cloisonné enamel dials that appeared in the brand’s collections in the early 1950s, this watch reaffirms Patek Philippe’s positioning in the arts and crafts sector. An authentic micro-masterpiece combining sophisticated mechanism and excellent craftsmanship, this example, whose dial reveals a lake scene in the Geneva region, affirms the Genevan manufacture’s total mastery of exceptional craftsmanship. Recently launched on the market, this timepiece is a highly exclusive grand complication, accessible only to the brand’s privileged customers. This auction represented a unique opportunity for a handful of connoisseurs to purchase a timepiece of rare elegance.


The revival of independent watchmaking

It was one of the watches most eagerly awaited by collectors: The Millenium watch.
Estimated at over one million Swiss francs, this watch was made by 4 hands, those of George Daniels and Roger Smith. Considered the most brilliant independent watchmakers, their two names are now the most highly-rated on the market. As proof, their creation realized the record price of CHF 2,177,500 (No. 97, Important Watches Part 1, Sotheby’s, November 5, 2023).

Since his death in 2011, George Daniels’ rare timepieces have been steadily increasing in value, achieving mind-boggling prices at every auction. Roger Smith, whose watches have been appearing in auction catalogs for less than 10 years, has established a fine reputation on the collector’s watch market, and no piece bearing his signature now sells for less than €500,000. Completely self-taught, George Daniels was the first watchmaker to emancipate himself from the major manufactures in the late 1960s. Setting up his workshop on the Isle of Man, he works exclusively on one-off pieces and special orders, which he creates alone, by hand and without any technological assistance! Completely at odds with market trends, he chose to work in the manner of 18th-century watchmakers, reviving an ancestral savoir-faire that had all but disappeared. George Daniels was a mentor to many watchmakers, including Roger Smith, who was his apprentice and sole collaborator.

The reason the watch they made together fetched such a high price is quite simply that it comes from a very special series of watches called “The millenium watch”. This collection is considered the first collaboration between the two watchmakers. In 1999, George Daniels, assisted by Roger Smith, embarked on the “Millenium Watch” project, creating a collection of 50 watches in pink and white gold. This watch is unique in that it is the only one to bear both “Roger Smith / Daniels London” signatures, the other watches in the series being signed “Daniels London” only. Sold with a document signed by Roger Smith authenticating the watch, this timepiece is a landmark given the influence Daniels and Smith had on contemporary watchmaking.

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