Red wine, classic cars, Keanu Reeves, some things just get better with age. The same can, in broad strokes, be said of watches. Vintage collecting is getting bigger than ever with auction houses buzzing with big-ticket sales and specialists across London more than happy to sell you an old Daytona with a six-figure price tag. Whether your pining after an original 1955 Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache like the one in our retro issue, or have your eye on something a little more accessible, there are ways traversing the vintage watch labyrinth successfully. So, to get a little insight into the wonderful world of vintage watches, we turned to Burlington Arcade stalwart David Duggan. If there’s anyone in London that can offer a few useful tidbits, it is most certainly he.
First of all, it’s worth thinking about why vintage is so big, and David has some strong feelings on the matter. “There’s a story to a vintage watch,” he says. “It has a history that getting something brand new just doesn’t. What’s better? A shiny new out-of-the-box watch or something with a story behind it?”
There are also some practical benefits to buying vintage too: “Aside from some notable exceptions, vintage watches can be cheaper than the newer pieces and, perhaps more importantly for some collectors, there’s no waiting time. The piece is there, ready for when you want to buy it.”
Know Your Stuff
The first step of course is to educate yourself. The world of vintage watches is about as esoteric as theoretical astrophysics and before you start drawing up plans for a Dyson sphere you’ll probably want to study up.
As for where you get that education there are a few places you can go – the deep, dark world of forums; consulting ‘specialists’ – but David has a firm idea: “An auction house! It’s where you really get a feel for what watch collectors are after, the watches that are going for high prices. If a handful of collectors get into a bidding war over a watch, it’s one you should probably remember.”
It’s something that auctioneers – especially the likes of Fellows, whose latest lots you can browse at fellows.co.uk – have been getting on board with. Their catalogues tend to be fantastic at pinning down exactly what makes a watch desirable. They do want to sell them, after all.
There are a handful of watches out there that are never going to be cheap – the references that collectors will fight over in an auction house or otherwise. Don’t expect to get these for a steal, but if you do happen to see a well-priced one on the sly you’ll know to jump on it.
Patek Philippe Nautilus: The grail sports watch is as in demand as ever and, while there’s no premium for waiting times in vintage, it’s still a pricey piece of steel.
Rolex Daytona: Arguably the most sought-after vintage piece, even the non-Paul Newman versions can go for serious money.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak: There’s just something about punchy sports watches it seems. The Royal Oak is more common than the other two, but is as collectible as they come.
The Ones to Watch
Once you know what’s in demand you can start thinking about what to invest your hard-earned cash in. Not all vintage pieces require remortgaging and there are some out there that could genuinely be called under-priced. Here are David’s picks for the ones to watch out for.
Pre-70s Audemars Piguet: “The Royal Oak is a classic, but thanks to how successful it’s been the older, dressier APs are relatively under-priced. You can pick them up for a fraction of a Royal Oak and they’re easily as well made.”
Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendars: “The plain steel Nautilus will cost in the region of 60k; we’ve sold gold perpetual calendars for 30k.”
Omega: “There are a ton of cool vintage Omegas out there and not just Speedmasters; they have some funky 60s designs too which are in vogue right now.”
Longines: “The market’s starting to catch up now as collectors clock onto the fact that Longines’ early chronographs were some of the best ever made.”
Chronographs: “Anything with knobs on will do well. Chronographs have done fantastically over the years from a number of brands.” That all said, David has one golden rule for investing in a watch: “You’ve got to like it!”
“Fake watches are getting worryingly good,” warns David. “It’s always been a bit of a problem of course, but recently, I’ve seen Rolexes that I don’t mind admitting would have fooled me, if I didn’t have my own technicians to open it up and give me a look at what’s going on inside. And that was purely a fake; things get harder with Frankenstein watches.”
Imagine someone has a case from one watch but with a ruined dial; a perfect dial on another watch that’s not running and then a spare, model-appropriate movement. A Frankenstein is combining them all into one watch. It’s not genuine but to the untrained eye it can appear like it is.
As a collector, new or old, really there’s only one way to ensure you don’t fall victim to either kind of dishonesty, and that is going to a retailer you can trust.
“The market’s starting to catch up now as collectors clock onto the fact that Longines’ early chronographs were some of the best ever made”
Finding a Retailer
Not all retailers are created equal – and not all are playing an honest game. They might have your dream watch, but don’t go in guns blazing as it might turn into a bit of an ambush. Sure, seeing their adverts here and there helps give them an air of respectability, but nothing is more valuable than word-of-mouth.
“Ask around fellow collectors and even some of the auction houses,” suggests David. “Both will have relationships with certain retailers and can point you in the right direction. Once you have two or three recommendations, you can go in and start talking to them yourself. I really think you need to build up a rapport with a dealer – or dealers – that you think are trustworthy, preferably ones that are prepared to do swaps with you.”
“First and foremost, you need to be able to trust that, if something goes wrong with the watch, the retailer you bought it from will sort it out. The last thing you want is to find out there’s a problem – either it stops working or you find out it’s not entirely original – and the guy that sold it to you pulls a vanishing act.”
As David mentioned at the beginning of this piece, it’s not the cool designs, the (sometimes) great prices or the immediate availability that make vintage watches so special, it’s the stories. So, it’s only fitting that we leave you with one of David’s own. “I was once asked to repair an old Rolex for a guy up in Scotland. It wasn’t in great condition; it had belonged to his father who died in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and it was all he had left of him. Even if it didn’t tell the time he just wanted something of his father, but we got it all working. He was over the moon and sent me a thank you letter.
“Ten years later, a diver came into my shop to sell me a Comex. We got talking and I mentioned the Rolex and the chap it belonged to, and I showed him the letter. As soon as he heard the name, the diver started tearing up; it turned out that a few years previously, he had been trapped underwater during a dive. The man that talked him though untwisting his line and saving his life? My Rolex owner. That’s why I love what I do.”