The first potential route (and arguably the most hit-and-miss) is to hunt around some of the city’s various antique and flea markets. Although challenging, these can sometimes be rewarding for the more determined hunters, offering the chance to snag a bargain or unearth that hidden treasure.
Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill has become the world’s largest antiques market since its establishment in the early 18th century, and is also one of London’s biggest tourist attractions. With that in mind, it doesn’t always present the best opportunity for a bargain, but is certainly worth a regular visit nevertheless. Head down on a Saturday for the biggest spread of dealers, most of which are general antiques traders but also a few specialising in watches.
On a decent day you could find anything from a £50 Seiko to a British Military W.W.W Cyma for £300-£500, or a vintage 1970s Rolex Datejust 1601 or 1603 for anywhere between £1,500-£1,800 – it really just depends on the day. Asking prices are often high so it pays to know your stuff. If something catches your eye, don’t be afraid to haggle, as most dealers are willing to engage with you, within reason. If you don’t feel comfortable just walk away – there are plenty more watches out there to be had.
For a less busy option check out Old Spitalfields Market on Thursdays, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk from the tube. A considerably smaller market than Portobello, the original Victorian steel and iron roof has been nicely preserved, so try to look up as well as at the stalls. It’s definitely not a wasted trip even if you don’t find what it is you are looking for, as there’s a great selection of bars and cafés around the edges of the market to satisfy whatever craving you suddenly fancy.
It is important to bear in mind that the quality, originality and condition of watches on offer will vary dramatically. Be prepared for disappointment, but on the other hand you really never know what you’re going to find – you might just stumble upon that gem you’ll be bragging to all your friends about. It pays to get there early to maximise your chances, so set that alarm for a hideous hour to boost your chances of finding that one-off treasure…
Having explored a few markets you can also venture elsewhere for a more consistent offering of good quality watches. General sales of antiques and collectables at auction houses in and around London can also turn up some vintage watches worth considering. Places such as London Auctions and Chiswick Auctions in West London and Greenwich Auctions south of the Thames often have some watches in and amongst their bi-weekly or monthly general sales, so it’s worth checking out the catalogue online or going to a viewing (and don’t forget to have a rummage in those job lots, too).
For a specialist, watch-only auction, keep an eye on the Watches of Knightsbridge website to see when their next sale is. Holding four or five sales a year, and each generally with around 500 lots, pieces are carefully consigned from reputable collectors, private individuals and trade sellers, so they are of a high standard in terms of quality, originality and condition. Have a good browse through the catalogue to see if something in particular catches your eye, or if you can spot that ‘sleeper’ watch. For more of a boutique experience check out Watch Club in The Royal Arcade, Mayfair, spearheaded by Danny Pizzigoni, a specialist in vintage Rolex. Since their establishment as Royal Arcade Watches in the mid-1990s, the rebranded Watch Club has served a fair few high-profile customers, including Paul McCartney and Eric Clapton. For most of us watch collectors, I would suggest that Watch Club is perhaps more suitable for browsing than buying, but it is definitely an interesting visit.