Bacs, 47, has sharp features, including a pointed nose; he carries permanent stubble and slicks back his silvered hair, in the style of a debonair, world-conquering James Bond villain. The Zurich-bred Bacs, who is the founder of Phillips’ international watch department alongside his wife, Livia Russo, is examining a list of timepieces on behalf of a client. He and I are seated at a table in the back of an enormous white room on the second floor of Phillips’ New York City outpost. If the walls here were granted parrot-like abilities, they might squawk some of the ludicrously high numbers that have lately rattled around this room: nine million five hundred forty thousand (for an Andy Warhol painting), one hundred sixty-two thousand five hundred (for a necklace composed of gumball-sized pearls and 65 carats of diamonds), and, even, seventeen million seven hundred fifty-two thousand five hundred (for a Rolex watch, which looked a lot like the one Bacs is now holding, right down to its ample evidence of wear and tear). And in this, he is unique: While his colleagues in the jewellery or art department wouldn’t exactly be delighted by a sun-damaged Andy Warhol or a banged-up diamond necklace, Bacs finds something wonderful – and lucrative – in the defects.
To Bacs’s eye, the marks and scratches imbue a great watch with a special “graciousness, even some sort of knighthood to [the watch] that it’s survived the test of time without damage,” he says. Then, suddenly given to understatement: “It’s partly philosophical.”
During a panel discussion last December, Bacs wandered into a fantasy. “Whenever I turn a watch around and it says, ‘With Love from Dad and Mom,’ within a second I’m sort of zooming away and I start thinking, ‘Where are Dad and Mom today, and where is Johnny or Jimmy, the recipient of the watch?’” Bacs wants clients to feel a watch’s life, to imagine themselves as the next link in the chain – and then to pay handsomely for the privilege of
More than any other individual, Bacs is responsible for the current hysteria in the vintage-watch market. He’s an auctioneer, yes, but like the timepiece-obsessed Flavor Flav before him, he is also a once-in-a-generation hype man – a watch enthusiast who has helped change how timepieces are talked about and sold all over the world. By focusing on stories, patina, provenance, Bacs has helped elevate the value of all watches. He is simultaneously a broad tastemaker and a matchmaker, enthusiastically linking discerning buyers with specialised sellers. In short, he’s the perfect guide to making sense of a suddenly frenzied and altogether fascinating market – one in which consumer goods are transformed into unique works of art.
The auctions that Bacs oversees can often be spectacles. “[They’re] sort of like the Friday-night fight in this community,” James Lamdin, the founder of Manhattan-based watch boutique Analog/Shift, tells me in his office between drags on a vape. (Lamdin’s metaphors have mellowed a bit since last year, when he described one such event to me as “a f****** circus.”)
Bacs hosts his circuses all over the world – New York, Hong Kong, Geneva – but the show is almost always the same. Waving his auctioneer’s hammer like a conductor’s baton, Bacs introduces every watch as though it is an unparalleled beauty – and those assembled are beyond blessed to have the chance to win them. A watch is never a Rolex, it is the Rolex.
Gliding easily in and out of the four languages he speaks – English, French, Italian, German – he talks personally, casually to the bidders in hopes of coaxing out higher figures. The words emerge honey-coated, attached to sentimental imagery: Grandma’s teacups, a scar on Bacs’s hand he got when a dog bit him when he was 8, classic Hollywood beauties. He pulls, strums, and plucks on the heartstrings until he finds the right tune.
Sometimes he playfully bullies. Such was the case during an auction in December, when an IWC with a black face and beige markers, its design seemingly ripped straight from the control panel of a fighter jet, came under the hammer. “There’s only one, and this is it,” Bacs announced. What ensued was peculiar:
Most auctions are dominated by high-priced Rolexes and Patek Philippes, but there was a dogfight over this IWC. The piece had been owned years ago by the late legendary watch executive Günter Blümlein, who’s hailed with saving Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC in the ’80s. An interested bidder stood behind a column and waved his paddle into Bacs’s sight line. Bacs lured his prey out into the open. “Please come forward – we’d like to see you in action,” he said. “Come on, don’t be shy.” The man, Wei Koh, the collector and editorial director of the watch magazine Revolution, eventually appeared and placed a bid of $32,000. Earlier that morning, over breakfast at the Soho House, Koh had told me he was going to make a run at the watch. He loved the story behind it. “[Blümlein] bought it as a gift for his wife, which is maybe even better,” Koh gushed. “And it’s a stunning watch, the [model is the] first ceramic watch made by IWC.” There were ample strings for Bacs to play: After nearly ten minutes of bidding, the watch sold for $53,750 – $45,750 more than its high estimate.
In late 2017, I watched as Bacs presided over a particularly sensational sale that involved a much-hyped Rolex Paul Newman Daytona previously owned by Paul Newman himself. The room that night was packed to the rafters – a record attendance – and a large majority of those in the audience held their phones aloft to capture the frenzy. Before Bacs even finished introducing the watch, a woman screamed at him: “10 million dollars, sir!”
As the auction grew wilder, Bacs leavened the atmosphere. At one point, he chided a bidder’s intermediary to hurry it along: “What would he like to do now – go for dinner, go for drinks, or maybe leave a bid?” The joke raised the price to $14.6 million.
Some excruciating minutes later, Bacs shouted as he finalised the sale, “It is history now: $15,500,000!” A buyer’s premium tipped the price closer to $18 million – a figure that made global headlines. A few weeks later, Bacs, spending New Year’s in Cambodia, was biking along the shore of the Mekong River when a man stopped him. “‘I know your face,’” the man said, according to Bacs. “‘You’re the guy who sold the Paul Newman, aren’t you?’ In Cambodia,” Bacs continues, emphasising the utter improbability.
The sale even created a frenzy around Paul Newman Daytonas not owned by Paul Newman. (The Rolex Daytonas worn by the actor, with “exotic” dials – ones where the main colour doesn’t extend to the face’s outer edges – were so synonymous with him that the model was nicknamed the Paul Newman Daytona.) All the exposure the model received makes it feel like a safe investment for new collectors. “The Paul Newman Daytona is basically the blue-chip-investment vintage watch,” Eric Ku, the owner of Vintage Rolex Forum, tells me over the phone from Macau. “If you’re a rich guy, the one safe play is always ‘I want to buy a Paul Newman Daytona.’” The watch’s value has skyrocketed over the past couple of years, from $50,000 to today, when “$200,000 barely buys you an acceptable Paul Newman,” Ku says. That there are 13 Rolex Daytonas in the auction a year after the Paul Newman does not feel like coincidence. Bacs made the Daytona the most recognisable watch in the world; now he wants to sell ones made with stainless steel or yellow gold or covered in a rainbow of sapphires.
But that record-shattering sale for a wristwatch didn’t just raise the profile of Bacs, Daytonas, and the vintage-watch market – it also evinced the importance of provenance. In other words, it proved that Bacs’ long-running sales pitch is working.
To Bacs’ mind, a watch is not a commodity; it’s kind of a living object, able to tell a story if the owner is careful to listen. Which is why, in his vernacular, a watch is never “expensive.” No, it is instead valuable, or precious, or sometimes costly. “Expensive is something that is not worth the price tag,” he says, gesturing toward a rare Patek Philippe. “This is not an expensive watch; this is a valuable watch.” (Reasonable readers might agree that it’s both: The auction house estimated it could fetch upwards of $700,000.)
Bacs picks up another Patek Philippe – a white-gold Monodate – and examines it through the loupe. “The dial is absolutely wonderful,” he says. “I can’t see anything that I would consider a flaw or disturbing or, worse, even a sign of restoration.” Whereas nicks and bumps are all marketable qualities, restoration is a cardinal sin in Bacs’s universe. It’s maybe a little counter-intuitive, but getting a vintage watch restored – having the scratches polished away, the dial switched out – can be a huge mistake. It diminishes the watch’s history and leaves artificiality in its place.
The watch Bacs is holding makes a barrel of caviar seem modest in comparison. Strapped to the 18-karat-white-gold case is a black crocodile leather band. On the dial, where the hour markers would typically be etched, there are 11 diamonds, each large enough for a small engagement ring, nestled in every spot but the three o’clock position. According to Phillips, this is one of only four known watches Patek Philippe ever made with this particular combination of white gold and diamond markers. “It’s beautiful,” Bacs coos. The next week, someone will pay $40,000 for it.
Bacs outlines his philosophy while inspecting another piece. “If we look at the watch, you can see so many marks and scratches, but is that important?” he says. “No, because, first of all, what’s important is that it’s in unmolested original condition. It’s like if you have a car: your grandpa’s vintage Jaguar or Porsche or Mercedes; he put it in a barn in 1970, and since then no one’s driven it.” Bacs’s point is that the car retains the qualities that made it special 50 years ago – even if Grandpa went over a few potholes or scraped the side door back then. There’s nothing artificial; there’s nothing reproduced. Whether he was thoughtful about it or absentminded, Grandpa has bestowed a great gift upon today’s collector.
To Bacs, the strangest details can make a difference. This phenomenon applies to a brown Rolex GMT-Master. Bacs turns it over, revealing on the case back the tacky remnants of an old sticker – perhaps applied by the manufacturer or the retailer decades ago. Most owners would have scrubbed it off. The fact that it remains, well, that’s useful. “That sticker is worth a couple of thousand dollars,” Bacs says. “It shows how little mileage is on [the watch].”
At one time, Bacs’s preferences for completely original – or honest – watches were strictly personal. Now they are market-wide. “He changed, completely changed, the way people appreciate and perceive vintage watches,” Koh tells me. “Now what people want are things that are as original as conceivable, that have all that science of time and the journey that watches had, and Aurel is the guy who educated people to appreciate things in that way.”
The out-of-this-world figures that collectors are willing to pay for watches today belie this market’s relative infancy. Vintage watches are gaining value so quickly that records that feel like the pinnacle at one moment are nearly doubled the very next year. But the vintage-watch-collecting market didn’t begin to materialise until the ’70s, as an ironic outgrowth of the spread of easier-to-make quartz watches. At a time when consumers were suddenly awash in much cheaper and more precise timepieces, mechanical watchmakers began positioning their wares as heirlooms.
Brands pushed craftsmanship, created innovative or eye-catching pieces – like Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak or Patek Philippe’s Nautilus – and promoted the idea that mechanical watches, unlike their quartz competitors, had souls. “Crisis created wonderful things,” says Paul Boutros, Phillips’ head of watches for the Americas. Probably not coincidentally, a group of collectors willing to pay high prices arrived a short time after. The emergent spirit echoed an adage that Bacs still likes to employ: any watch can tell time, but only the special ones tell stories. In the ’90s, Patek Philippe introduced its famous advertising campaign selling customers on the idea of the watch as historical link: you never actually own a Patek Philippe; you merely look after it for the next generation.
Before, collectors preferred pristine watches. “In the ’80s, the first thing you would do if you had a dial with a yellowish-ivory-coloured patina is you’d run to your watchmaker and say, ‘Please clean it,’” Bacs explains. Perfection was the goal.
In the same way it did for pubescent basement-dwelling teens with dial-up access, the internet changed everything for the watch market. Ku says that the forums were like safecrackers. Before the dawn of the internet, collectors held on to their secrets. They could sieve the treasures from the junk or take advantage of unwitting buyers. With the forums, though, suddenly everyone could access information about which models were valuable and which cases, dials, and hands were most proper and prized. The hieroglyphics had been translated.
As interest grew, connoisseurship became more sophisticated. Websites like Hodinkee sprung up, parsing various watch-world intricacies and rhapsodising about timepieces in sprawling reviews. Suddenly everything about a watch was up for inspection and discussion: its history, abilities, movement, case, dial, bracelet, feel on the wrist. Collectors grew obsessed with this sort of nerdery. Dealers did, too. “We got really overly romantic sometimes,” Lamdin says of the retailers. “I’ve written 2,000-word descriptions on something that I’m passionate about. I have diarrhoea of the keyboard because I am passionate about it.”
This environment was tailor-made for someone like Bacs. Growing up in Switzerland, Bacs – after regrettably fawning over a Casio calculator watch when he was younger – fell in love with vintage timepieces at age 12. He would scour flea markets and buy old pieces, which he quickly realised he could sell back to his father’s collector friends for more than he paid for them. Even then he was creating value out of previously unloved watches.
A decade later, when he was 24, Bacs left law school for a job in the watch department at Sotheby’s auction house. And in 2003, he joined the watch department at Christie’s, which brought in a modest $14.8 million in global sales the previous year. When he left, in 2013, global sales were $134.7 million. The run solidified him as a folk hero in a market that seems to reach a new peak every couple of years.
Vintage watches have been so hot over the past decade that the demand for them has been siphoning cash from the new-watch market. Sales of Swiss luxury watches slumped in the middle of this decade and bounced back slightly only last year, according to the market-research company NPD Group. That these markets are at odds makes perfect sense: If suddenly the most prized watches in the world are dusted up with stories and nicked with love, customers won’t find them in watchmakers’ boutiques. “A brand-new watch I buy on Madison Avenue is perfect,” Bacs says, “but in the eyes of many, cold has no charm, doesn’t seduce you with its smile.”
Still, Bacs believes that there is plenty of room for growth in a watch market that’s become what some experts believe is worth $2-3 billion. Because there’s no regulating body warding over pre-owned watches, there are no spot-on estimates. But one way to consider the growth might be to look at the market’s biggest auctions. The most expensive timepiece ever sold, the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication pocket watch, went for $11 million in 1999. Then, by 2014, it fetched $24 million.
“The baby years are over,” Bacs says. “I think the watch market is just about to grow out of its difficult adolescent years and is now starting to become a very serious adult.”
A gold Rolex GMT-Master with ample signs of wear. Still, the watch sold for $137,500 last December.
But on a frigid night last December, during Bacs’ most recent watch auction, prices were deflated. So much so that it got some collectors in the easily rattled room talking. And fretting. “Magic may be waning,” another auction-goer there that night texted me. A chatty dealer behind me painted a Boschian nightmare. What if the vintage-watch market tanks? What if the bubble bursts? He’s seen worrisome signs, he tells me. He’s sitting on 30 or so watches, but no clients are interested in buying. What could this portend? He piles onto the calamity. Rich people are the best weather vane we have for a recession, he notes. If they’re not willing to spend on luxury goods, it’s not just the watch market that’s tanking but the whole damn economy. He’s prone to rambling, he admits, but he’s got a point. He wears a neat haircut and an azure blue Vineyard Vines quarter-zip. When he stops to take a breath, I ask his age. “Nineteen,” he says.
Luke Rottman started buying watches when he was 14, flipping $500 Seikos until he’d made enough profit to buy into more expensively priced brands. He’s far less romantic about it all than Bacs and the crew at Phillips, who, Rottman argues, have unsustainably inflated the prices of watches. “That’s their marketing: Make everything sound special when it’s not special,” he says. “There is too much story. Watches were made in the millions. These are commodities. When an oil trader is going to trade oil, he doesn’t give a story about where in the ground it was taken from and which state and who did it. It is what it is. It’s a common good.” Rottman admits that this isn’t true of all watches – the Rolex owned by Paul Newman is an exception – but for the most part, he believes watches are a simple business. “This is a watch, you wear it on your wrist, it tells time,” he says. By treating them otherwise, Bacs is creating artificially high prices, Rottman says.
The Paul Newman Daytona might be the perfect example of this. The yarn spun around the watch has calcified, even if it’s become slightly exaggerated. The apocryphal story that Rolex made only a limited number of Paul Newman Daytonas because customers in the ’60s found their design garish is more marketing than totally factual statement. “If you ask a novice collector,” Ku explains, “‘Why is the Paul Newman Daytona so valuable?’ The two things that they will say is: ‘Paul Newman wore it.’ And ‘It’s really rare’ - totally not true. There’s a few hundred of them, which I don’t really think makes it that rare. They’re regurgitating whatever spiel they’ve been fed.” Still, prices at auction for Paul Newman Daytonas remain stellar.
Stories are effective in other, more mature markets, though. The collectors market most analogous to watches is cars: Both are luxury items put together in factories, assembled by a line of people. Both watches and cars derive value from what happens to them after they’re created – the people who drove them, the races they’ve been in, who accidentally dinged them up. Whereas art derives value because of the artist. Stories, on the other hand, are easy for collectors to understand and a simple pitch for people like Bacs to make. With a car or a watch, says Lynn Raynault, a former marketing executive for Sotheby’s who now works for a consulting firm focusing on the ultra-rich called Segments of One, “there are very obvious brands and models for you, and there’s so much more information on the internet for them. So you have low risk in terms of your own taste.”
The famous Italian watch collector Auro Montanari, who writes books about timepieces under the pseudonym John Goldberger, says: “[A watch] is the best portable collectible in the world that you can enjoy every hour of your day.”
Others believe watches are the best way to preserve history. During the December auction, a Bulova, with a black dial and eggshell-coloured numbers so faded by the passage of time they were nearly illegible, sold for $25,000. What makes the watch special appears on the case back – an engraving that reads: “To Genl. Dwight D. Eisenhower as a Token of My Admiration and Respect.” The legendary Lebanese watch collector Claude Sfeir tells me he purchased it. He’s adding it to his collection – which also includes a watch owned by Winston Churchill – in hopes of one day opening an entire museum filled with historically significant timepieces.
Bacs tries to poke holes in any argument that watches can’t be worth the same amount of money claimed in other auction markets. “Is it because a car is 12 feet long and a Patek Philippe is not? Oh, because it’s bigger? Fair enough, let’s apply that parameter, but then the diamond should be worth nothing, but it is worth a lot of money, so it cannot be size. Oh, material value – a Ferrari is a ton of metal and stuff. Well, oil on canvas, you buy it at the supermarket for $5, $10, so the oil that Picasso, with his brush, applied on the canvas cannot be worth more than $5 or $10, so it cannot be the material value. Oh, it took a month to put the Ferrari together. Oh, but wait a second, it took six months to put the Patek Philippe together.”
Bacs is happy to extend his argument, but a point that he might concede is these markets are not bound by logic. The truth with all these intergalactic prices is that these watches are worth exactly what two people are willing to pay for the piece. Bacs hopes to seduce buyers from the higher-priced markets, to help them understand what makes a watch so wonderful – and valuable, precious, costly. He wants to make an item worn on the wrist equal to those parked in garages and hung on walls.
After the event in December, Bacs and I are talking in a skybox above the auction room when he points to an LCD TV mounted to the wall. It’s powered off, the screen a dull black. “What story does it tell you?” he asks, starting to pity this defenceless TV. “None. Look how sterile, look how boring, look how senseless this flat screen here on the wall stares at us. What a sad object.”
He pauses for a measured beat.
“And then you go downstairs,” he says, his eyes widening, “and you pick up a Bulova chronograph that was given to General Eisenhower.” There’s awe in his voice and a vision in his mind of old Ike himself. Bacs is giddy now, like he can’t believe it. “You hold the watch in your hands, you close your eyes for a moment, and you say, ‘Gosh, please, tell me: Where have you been and what have you lived with General Eisenhower? Where? When? Battlefield or at home? Secret meetings? Amazing.’”