Somehow, The Vintage Watch Market Is Thriving Despite Coronavirus

12 April 2020
ROLEX, Paul Newman, Daytona, Classic Watch, Auction, SOTHEBY'S, Coronavirus, Covid 19
Image: Photo Illustration by Collin Robinson / Courtesy of Sothebys
Some clients even believe high-quality vintage pieces will help shield them from a recession

Just as the world became obsessed with curves and graphs—flattening them, squashing them, watching them spike grotesquely nevertheless—so too did those in the vintage watch community. Only they were tracking a very different type of line. “Originally online [auctions were] for lower price points for our business,” says Josh Pullan, the global managing director of Sotheby’s Watches. “But in the last month”—as the pandemic spread globally—“we've really exponentially moved up the curve.”

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In the face of coronavirus, many industries have sputtered, and the stock market hasn’t so much experienced a curve as it has a sheer cliff. It’s hit the watch world, too: Patek Philippe, Tudor, and Rolex have called off plans to announce and release new models this year. But Sotheby’s has somehow managed to sell more watches. On April 1st, the auction house launched a weekly format that will allow Sotheby’s to quickly sell and cycle through inventory—charging ahead while everyone else is retreating. The new model has paid off: Two weeks in a row, the auction house broke its record for most-expensive watch sold online. In late March, a Rolex Paul Newman Daytona sold for roughly $167,188. Days later, that number was nearly doubled by another Rolex Daytona someone bid up to $306,378.

The Rolex Paul Newman "Panda" Daytona that sold for roughly $167,188

The Rolex Paul Newman that went for $306,378 just a week later

Sotheby’s isn’t alone in its optimism either. In conversations with watch dealers, the word that kept reappearing was…“best.” As in: “I sold two six-figures pieces last week,” Eric Wind, owner of Wind Vintage told me. “So that was probably my best week of the year.” Or: “Yesterday was one of our best Mondays. Ever,” says Paul Altieri, the CEO of Bob’s Watches. All of which begs the question: so why are watches, which are a luxury even during good times, thriving in the face of a global pandemic?

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First, it’s important to note that not everyone in the watch game is experiencing the highest highs. “Anybody who tells you their business is better right now,” says Adam Golden, the owner of Menta Watches, “they're full of shit.” Golden is used to selling about 75 watches a month, but is now happy to do half that. The type of watches he’s no longer selling is what’s revealing about the current market. People who have been slowly squirreling away cash for their one trophy watch—the Submariner or Speedmaster they planned on treasuring forever—are the ones who have been decimated by the pandemic’s toll on the economy. “Obviously, there are a lot of people, especially in that $30,000-or-under price point who were saving up to buy that $10 or $15,000 watch, which is a big purchase for them,” says Golden. “Right now, it's not a priority.” But the pandemic has swung new opportunities his way, too. Namely, a client in Germany who wants help putting together a $300,000 portfolio of watches where he can “park some money” while the stock market is volatile, says Golden. (The portfolio: Royal Oak, Rolex Submariner, GMT, and Daytona. “Stable watches,” Golden calls them.)

People with untouchable-for-now money who are rich enough to be insulated from the effects of COVID are the ones who can pitch their money into watches right now. “Oil-rich people who don't care about a global crisis or that markets are down,” Golden characterizes them. Sotheby’s isn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel, either. The house’s latest sale consists of Patek Philippe Nautiluses that already have bids listed for upwards of $50,000. “It's definitely not an entry-level price point on any of those pieces,” says Pullan. “The market appetite at the top end seems to be robust.”

This might come down to optimists in the community who see watches and their market value as indestructible. During a watch collector get-together called Rolliefest last year, one auction house executive glowingly shared a story about growing concerned about sales after 9/11—and then finding a packed and hungry crowd awaiting him on auction night. The watch market can take a punch. “When the stock market crashed in ‘08, yeah, prices dropped, but then they went right back up,” says Golden.

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Vintage watches, not modern ones, seem to be untouchable for collectors. What old watches have over their newer counterparts is that they’re already out of production—they’re inherently limited and therefore typically scarcer. The biggest watch enthusiasts believe that even in a time of economic turmoil, it will be these watches that save them. “Some clients are definitely thinking great-condition vintage watches are a good place to put assets right now,” says Wind.

The other factor that might explain the boom is the swing to online sales. The pandemic has given some people the luxury of time: write that screenplay, bake some sourdough, pick up a new hobby, advice columnists exhort. Others are using this time to dive deeper into an already existing hobby, like watches. “People are home, they can't watch sports, so now what are they going to do?” says Altieri. The answer, apparently, is buy watches. “You wouldn't know that there's a virus going around if you looked at our sales,” he says.

Altieri was already running 90% of his sales online before this—and without open stores to compete with, business is swinging even further that way. Years of dealers and businesses migrating what they do to websites and Instagram is paying off mightily in this moment. “People are confident to buy vintage, highly unique, specialized pieces online,” says Pullan. Golden relays a story about a watch he sold over the weekend. Days later, he’s still a little surprised: he posted a single photo of a gold Rolex Submariner to Instagram, and a follower from France messaged with an offer—the buyer didn’t need to see any additional pictures. $16,500 sale made.

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While things are rosy right now for some dealers, Golden is still worried about how long this could last, and about the pandemic’s long-term effects on the watch market. He advises customers hoping for what he calls “Rona Deals” to be cautious about the stock they’re buying. “If I were over-leveraged right now, which thankfully I'm not, the first pieces I'm going to let go at cheap prices are my shitty inventory,” he says. The deals might come, but trying to play watches like the stock market is probably just as risky as—well, playing the stock market. “The watch market, like every other business, is going to be down,” he adds. “It's just unavoidable—nothing in this world is bulletproof, especially right now.”


Via GQ