A Look at the Three Most Expensive Watches Ever Sold At Auction
The collecting compulsion is an interesting one. It seems to exist independently of wealth or poverty, and it may be focused on almost anything. The first thing I can remember collecting were leaves from various trees in the forests around my childhood home in Pennsylvania; I collected rather unsystematically, and pressed the leaves between the pages of a very large illustrated Bible that was one of many hundreds of volumes in my father’s equally unsystematic book collection. I didn’t realize it at the time, but pressing leaves and other botanical samples has a long and illustrious history; the 18th century naturalist Linnaeus, who invented the system of plant and animal classification we still use today, made a collection of specimens which still exist and which are still useful in biological research.
Needless to say, not all collecting takes place on Linnaeus’ intellectually and historically elevated level. Nabokov collected butterflies and was especially, and famously, fascinated by variations in butterfly genitalia. People collect coins; they collect beer cans; they collect bottle caps, toy trains, stamps, and on and on. Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz tells of a collector of Meissen porcelain who lives in East Germany and who, although he dreams of fleeing to the West, cannot do so because it would mean leaving his collection. One of my personal favorite oddities of collecting, is a book written by a now generally forgotten gentleman named William James Sidis, who was born in 1898 and passed away at the age of 46, of a cerebral hemorrhage, in 1944. A child prodigy, he graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 16, and his teachers compared his genius for numbers to that of the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, but Sidis as an adult developed a number of debilitating eccentricities, and his early promise was unfulfilled.
His magnum opus was not a work on astronomy, or geometry, or anything to do with math or science at all. Instead, he devoted much of his adult life to collecting streetcar transfers – small slips of variously colored paper tickets, which he accumulated with astonishing voracity. In 1926, he published a lengthy book on the activity, under the pseudonym Frank Folupa: Notes On The Collection Of Transfers; the book among its many oddities, was intended by its author to be read backwards. The introduction says in part, “This book is a description of what is, so far as the Author is aware, a new kind of hobby, but one which seems on the face of it to be as reasonable, as interesting, and as instructive, as any other sort of collection fad.”
I mention all this, because any sort of collecting can seem unreasonable, uninteresting, and certainly uninstructive, to someone who doesn’t share the collector’s perspective. It may also seem a ludicrous waste of a very great deal of money – most recently, to take an example from the watch world, we have seen the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime, in steel, for Only Watch, hammer for $31 million. Watch collecting exists in something of a crossover world at this point, although this was not always the case – when I first got interested in watches, it was a very distinctly niche hobby, although there have been throughout the history of horology, innumerable collections of clocks and watches and innumerable collectors. However, watch and clock auction records getting covered by mainstream international media on at least a semi-regular basis, seems to be a relatively new phenomenon.
This visibility has been driven, in part, by the extremely high prices realized by some very exceptional pieces. The sky-high records, unsurprisingly, strike a lot of folks as excessive and perhaps symptomatic of larger ills in society, but they don’t exist in a vacuum. Collecting itself may be bred in the bone (there are theories that there are genetic predispositions to collect and that the impulse to do so may be rooted in the need to accumulate stores of food; many animals “collect” in this sense of the word) but the records have taken place in very specific contexts, and the itch to accumulate that Sidis chronicled, is only the beginning. Each of these three watches reached the price it did because of a combination of factors unique not only to each watch, but to the circumstances and timing of each auction as well.
The Watch That Would Be King: The Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication
The Graves Supercomplication is probably the single most talked about and written about watch in the world, even taking into account the amount of ink (and electrons) spilled over Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona. The history of the watch is well known. It was commissioned by Henry Graves Jr. from Patek, supposedly to outdo another very complicated watch which was owned by James Ward Packard. The Graves watch took a total of eight years to design and manufacture, and it was, when delivered in 1933, and for decades thereafter, the most complicated watch in the world. When Graves passed away in 1953, the watch was inherited by his daughter, who then gave it to her son, Reginald Fullerton, in 1960. Nine years later, Fullerton sold the watch to Seth Atwood, a Chicago businessman who was the founder of the now defunct Time Museum; the price then was $200,000.
The Graves Supercomplication first came up for auction in 1999, right after the closing of the Time Museum. The auction took place at Sotheby’s, and the price realized on December 2nd was a new world’s record for a watch: $11,002,500, to a then anonymous bidder, who later was revealed as a Qatari royal, Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani. The Sheikh decided to offer the watch at auction again, in 2014 but in a very unexpected turn of events, passed away just one day before the auction, at the age of 48. The Sheikh had been a figure that loomed very large in the collecting world – a New York Times obit noted that as Qatar’s minister of culture, with a wide ranging brief to collect artworks for five museums in Doha, he spent around $1.5 billion; he was also well known as a private collector. In a 2004 interview, he said, “I don’t feel I have to compete for every object. But when a great work of art comes up for sale, it is never too expensive.”
Clearly price was no object for the Sheikh in 1999, but things were different in 2014 – a London court froze $15 million of the Sheikh’s assets that year, “as part of a dispute over unpaid bills to auction houses,” said the Times . The Sheikh’s death was reported on November 9th, and the auction at Sotheby’s New York, on November 10th generated another record: CHF 20,600,000, which, after commission, brought the total sale to CHF 23,237,000. This is almost exactly the same amount in U.S. dollars at today’s exchange rate, but over $24 million on the date of the auction, as Hodinkee reported in 2014. The winning bid was placed by none other than Aurel Bacs, who made the bid on behalf of a today still unknown, but obviously very determined, client.
The record price paid for the watch was related, more or less entirely, to its properties as a watch. Certainly the celebrity of the original owner was not a factor. Henry Graves was I am sure in his own right, an interesting and worthy individual – I don’t suppose that you become an ultra-wealthy financier in the age of robber barons by being a pushover – but I have been unable to find any indication that he ever engaged in any more ruthless exploitation of the laboring classes than was strictly necessary to maintain his place in society. In fact he seems to have been a person of relatively retiring disposition and, more or less, a pillar of New York society (his other great love was collecting art, and he was an avid yachtsman; none of this contributed to the frenzy of bidding which surrounded the watch). As Sotheby’s Daryn Schnipper, Senior Vice President at the firm, and Chairman of the International Watch Division, noted in HODINKEE’s video coverage, the watch world was much bigger in 2014 than in 1999, and interest in the watch was “exponentially greater,” which propelled the record-breaking result.
The Coolest Of The Cool: Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona
The sale of the “Paul Newman” Daytona chronograph wristwatch, which was actually owned by the actor (“Paul Newman’s Paul Newman,” as the watch world quickly came to call it), drew even more attention than the sale of the Patek Henry Graves Supercomplication. It took place only three years later, but if Daryn Schnipper could talk about the interest in watches in 2014 being exponentially greater than in 1999, the increase in interest in Paul Newman Daytona watches has in the last decade defied mere exponentiality.
The Paul Newman Daytona did not have an especially promising start in life; when they were first manufactured, in the 1960s and ’70s, they were unpopular with customers and often sold, when they sold at all, at significant discounts. It was not until the late 1980s that a small group of Italian and American collectors began to take an interest in these exotic dial versions of the Daytona.
Ben Clymer’s Reference Points article on the Paul Newman Daytona is more relevant now than ever, albeit it was published in 2014, the same year that the Henry Graves Supercomp set its final and apparently unassailable record. The story chronicles, among other things, the meteoric rise in value of Paul Newman Daytonas at auction. In 1992, at Antiquorum, a white-dial reference 6329 Paul Newman Daytona hammered for $9,257. By 2013 things had changed dramatically; in that year, the same model auctioned at Christie’s New York, for $75,000.
Since then, prices have only continued to go up, and very sharply. In 2017, a yellow gold Paul Newman Daytona hammered for $3.7 million. This did not exceed the price paid the day before for the 6062 “Bao Dai,” once owned by the last emperor of Vietnam. (That watch ultimately went for $5,060,427, over a $235,000 result it achieved in 2002, setting a record which still stands as the highest price ever paid for a non-Paul Newman Daytona Rolex at auction.) But the $3.7 million figure was at the time a record for Paul Newman Daytonas. The watch collecting world naturally wondered if the new record would stand for any length of time, or if it would in turn be toppled by an even more extreme result.
And, in the event, that record lasted for barely four-and-a-half months. The gold Paul Newman Daytona set its record on May 14th; on October 27th, Paul Newman’s personal Paul Newman Daytona rocketed past both the previous Daytona record, and the previous Rolex record, hammering for $17.75 million, in one of the most electrifying, widely viewed watch auctions of all time.
The difference between the Paul Newman Daytona result and the Graves Supercomp result is intriguing in that the latter sold very much on its character as a watch. That is to say, it set the records it set, because it is a piece of horological craft and a representative of old school Genevan watchmaking at the highest possible level.
That is not of course the whole story. The Graves result naturally raises the question of whether or not a similarly complex watch from a manufacturer other than Patek Philippe would have achieved a comparable result. There is certainly no question, I think, that the fact that the Graves Supercomp is a Patek Philippe watch had something to do with its high auction prices, and the sheer complexity of the watch does not alone explain the high auction results. The Patek Philippe Caliber 89, for instance, is both a Patek, and actually more complex than the Graves. And yet, when one came up for auction in 2016, it failed to sell at all. In fact, that particular watch failed to sell twice – once in 2016 at Christie’s and again in 2017 at Sotheby’s where it went up for auction with a very broad estimate – 6.5 to 10 million CHF. The horological credentials of the Graves are impeccable, but provenance and history certainly had something to do with the record-setting price. Were it not what it is as a watch, however, it would undoubtedly not have commanded so high a price.
By contrast, one of the most notable aspects of the popularity of the Paul Newman Daytonas, and the avidity with which they are collected, is that from a purely horological standpoint they are fairly uninteresting. They were not produced in particularly small numbers; they use a very common, mass-produced commodity movement; they are surpassed in intrinsic horological interest by probably hundreds of thousands of other watches from other makers. And yet, at $17.75 million, the Paul Newman Daytona significantly outstripped the price paid for any other wristwatch at auction up to that point. (The previous record holder was a steel Patek 1518, at $11 million, about which more in a bit.)
However, the Paul Newman Daytona appeared for sale at a moment when interest in the model was at a higher level than ever before, in the entire history of this family of watches. It was, and is, also unique. After all, there are many Paul Newman Daytonas, but only one Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. And its impeccable provenance, combined with the unprecedented desire for the model as well as its unique nature, meant that the sky was the limit when it came to auction. This combination of a watch owned by a celebrity, with a watch model which is arguably the celebrity of modern watch collecting in its own right, led to a price which, in retrospect, should have been no surprise to anyone watching.
The Mystery Of Steel: The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime Ref. 6300A In Steel
Let us say right at the outset, that $31 million dollars is a lot of money. The idea of any watch selling at that kind of price at auction, takes some getting used to. This is, after all, the sort of money that we more generally associate with, say, fine art auctions than wristwatch auctions.
However, while prices in the tens of millions of dollars no longer particularly raise eyebrows in art collecting, they are still an anomaly in watch collecting, where five and six figure estimates and results are much more the rule. (Although sky-high prices in the art world have certainly raised concerns in the past; in 2013, Roberta Smith wrote for the New York Times that “Art is hard to see through the clutter of dollar signs” it was that when the Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300A hammered for CHF 31 million on November 9th, the price led to jubilation on the one hand – high records are fun to read about and it is hard to cavil at the money that changed hands, as it went for a very good cause – but consternation on the other, with some wondering whether we hadn’t reached a real Bonfire Of The Vanities moment in watch collecting.
The Grandmaster Chime for Only Watch is the latest in a fairly long lineage of Patek Philippe watches that have performed particularly well at that particular auction. The high prices reflect both the high value collectors give to Patek Philippe watches in general and the value such collectors ascribe especially, to anything from Patek that is very rare, and ideally, defensibly unique. Unusual metals are especially catnip to Patek Philippe collectors, and at Only Watch have always commanded enormous sums. As Cole Pennington noted in his auction coverage, at Only Watch 2017, a titanium 5208T hammered for CHF 6.2 million. In 2015 we had a stainless steel ref. 5016A go for CHF 7.3 million, a record for any wristwatch at auction at the time. And the 2013 and 2011 editions of Only Watch had multimillion dollar results for Pateks, as well: a titanium 5004T, and a stainless steel 3939A, respectively.
With the exception of the Nautilus and the Aquanaut, stainless steel watches have been, in general, a rarity at Patek Philippe, whose stock in trade has typically been classic round watches in precious metals, with meticulously finished movements and a full offering of fine watchmaking’s most distinguished complications. The company is justly famed for its perpetual calendar chronographs, perpetual calendars, and chiming watches.
In fact, prior to the auction of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona, the record for highest price paid at auction for any wristwatch was for a stainless-steel Patek Philippe 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph, sold at Phillips Geneva in 2016 for CHF 11,00200 ($11,136,642 at the time of the sale, inclusive of buyer’s fee). The 1518 in steel is, in its own way, the sort of perfect storm of desirable elements, which made Paul Newman’s Paul Newman such a runaway success. First, it was the first – that is, it was the very first perpetual calendar chronograph ever produced for Patek Philippe. Second, it was produced in very small numbers over a 13 year period, ending in 1954; just 281 were made. Third, 1518s in steel are incredibly rare – there are only four known to exist, and for one to appear at auction is an extremely rare occurrence. The pump, therefore, was long ago primed for complicated Patek Philippe watches in steel to outperform their precious metal counterparts – in some cases dramatically – and it is in that context and in the context of the performance of unique, stainless steel and titanium pieces at Only Watch, that the CHF 31 million result for the Grandmaster Chime 6300A unique piece starts to make a bit more sense.
Then there are the horological properties of the Grandmaster Chime itself. To describe it as a chiming watch is to drastically understate its complexity and mechanical sophistication. It is one of the most complex watches Patek Philippe has ever made. The original Grandmaster Chime was introduced in October of 2014, as the yellow gold, floridly ornate reference 5175, for the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the brand in Geneva, and nothing like it has been seen in watchmaking before or since. A white-gold version of the original model was released in March of 2016; this is the reference 6300G. The watch has a total of 20 complications, and it includes a minute repeater, grande et petite sonnerie, and two unique chiming complications. One of these is an alarm which, when it goes off, will actually sound the time for which the alarm was set. The Grandmaster Chime is also the first watch to have a date repeater complication, which sounds the date of the month on two gongs; this complication “reads” the current date off the perpetual calendar.
As with Paul Newman’s Paul Newman, and the Graves Supercomplication, the very high result for the steel Grandmaster Chime is the result of a confluence of unusual circumstances.
First, there is the effect of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. The watch has almost as little in common with the Grandmaster Chime as it does with the Graves Supercomplication. But they do share one feature: both are steel-cased watches that, in combination with other factors, the market – in the case of Pateks – may value at a significant premium. Second, the Paul Newman, in setting a new record, further reinforced to the market the idea of paying what were, until recently, almost unthinkably enormous prices for rare, highly collectible watches. And third, the Grandmaster Chime appeared at a moment when demand for highly collectible Patek watches in steel, which were already extremely highly valued by the market, was at an unprecedented level. Add to that, the prestige to the owner of having set a record at Only Watch, and for watches in general, which is unlikely to be beaten at least in the near term, and you have something irresistible to ultra-high net worth Patek Philippe collectors.
Though the astonishingly high prices paid for these three watches might make us all wonder whether or not the market for vintage and collectible watches in general will continue to explode, it’s worth remembering that setting a new record doth not a general market trend make. These are noteworthy watches precisely because they are so exceptional, and different kinds of collectibles can have drastically different general price ranges. What is high for watches, is not necessarily high in other kinds of collecting.
At the very high end, is probably fine art collecting, where tens or hundreds of millions of dollars change hands routinely. The highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist is $91.1 million, for a stainless steel rabbit (called, pithily enough, “Rabbit”) made in 1986 by Jeff Koons. That sculpture was in the collection of the late S.I. Newhouse, and was one of a total of four (three, plus artist’s proof) and set its record in May of this year. That price is nearly 20 million dollars more than the cost of all three of these horological record setters taken together, which is $72,750,000 smackeroos – it provides a little perspective to note that three of the costliest watches of all time, taken together, is not even steel bunny money. The highest price ever paid at auction for any artwork was for an alleged Leonardo; the Salvator Mundi hammered for $450 million in 2017. If $31 million is the high water mark for watches, it is at the low water mark for the most collectible artworks, where 50 and 60 million dollar results are routine.
The question of whether or not any collectible is really worth the price paid is, of course, a relative matter: if someone paid that price, it was worth it to someone. I personally find Koons’ work completely unappealing and uninteresting, except maybe anthropologically, but the market clearly does not agree with that assessment. The most expensive postage stamp ever sold was the British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, which was worth one cent in 1856, and which sold at auction for $9.5 million in 2014; it looks like nothing so much as a fairly fresh octagonal scab. You could hardly imagine a less prepossessing collectible, but it has features of enormous value to philatelists, which is all that matters. Pricing of collectibles, like all value, is driven by social consensus, and it is tempting to see in those things we personally prize, some intrinsic value which exists apart from the value we assign those objects. But that is a very slippery position for which to argue (possibly it is easier if you are a neo-Platonist).
Whether, and for how long, the new record will stand is a matter of conjecture. It does not seem to me, however, that the new record is apt to much affect broader trends in watch collecting, which largely takes place at a much less stratospheric level. However, it does make it more likely that truly exceptional lots will command increasingly exceptional prices, as the high end adjusts upward its expectations of the figures which such lots can reach. What, for example, would the Graves Supercomplication go for if it came up for auction again today? It is five very eventful years since it last came on the market; it is a Patek; it is inarguably unique. Imagine a scenario where, for instance, an affluent owner has a custom steel case made for it, with which it is auctioned – the sky, seemingly illimitable, might be the limit.