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Simon De Burton is witnessing the global auction business burst back into life with world records likely to tumble at the autumn sales in New York, London, Dubai and Hong Kong. But all eyes will be inexorably drawn to Geneva for the blockbuster deals this season as unique lots go under the hammer from the likes of Patek Philippe, F. P. Journe and Philippe Dufour.

Auctions of the best of the best collector’s watches have long taken place around the world, with records being set and history being made in London, New York and Hong Kong – but most of us still see Geneva as the capital of live horological sales, not only because it’s in Switzerland, but because it’s where Antiquorum founder Osvaldo Patrizzi first shone a spotlight on wrist watch collecting.

It appeared to go unrecorded that 2020 marked 40 years since Milanese watch and clock restorer  Patrizzi stole a march on Christie’s and Sotheby’s by expanding the remit of Galerie d’Horlogerie Ancienne – the business he  founded in 1974 and later re-named ‘Antiquorum’  – to sell not only pocket watches by private treaty and auction, but wrist watches, too.

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Cynics said the venture would fail because there was no ‘art’ in a wristwatch. But that first sale, held in Geneva on a Sunday afternoon in 1980, resulted in some contemporary models fetching more than they cost new. A Patek Philippe Reference 2499, for example, realised CHF 18,000 although it could have been purchased at the brand’s nearby boutique for CHF 16,000 (yes, try not to weep….)

In the 15 years since Patrizzi parted company with Antiquorum (a long story for another time) the world of watch auctions has changed beyond recognition, with online bidding now being the norm and Phillips making a dramatic return to the business in 2015, quickly soaring to the number one spot despite having disbanded its previous watch department a decade earlier.It was the start of a business which heightened interest in collectible wristwatches around the world and Antiquroum remained number one in the field for two decades, during which time it introduced the concept of the one-make or ‘thematic’ watch auction, established a long-unbroken record price for a wrist watch (CHF 6.6 million for a 1939 Patek Philippe World Time sold in 2002) and, in 2000, pioneered real-time on-line bidding.

All eyes will therefore be on Phillips on November 5, when it kicks-off this year’s flagship winter auctions which, as they always were pre-Covid, will be staged ‘live’ in Geneva on account of the fact that the Swiss appear to have a handle on the virus.

With Antiquorum, Christie’s and Sotheby’s keeping with tradition and holding their Geneva sales during the same week, the glorious, in-room frenzy of bidding for which the location has long been famed among horophiles looks set to make a full-scale return.

Battles will be fought, the brave will triumph, the timid will be left wanting and records will be set – and these are a few of the watches from each house that the big guns will be fighting over.

Phillips, Hotel La Reserve, 301 Route de Lausanne
Session one, November 5 from 2pm; Session two, November 7 from 2pm. Viewing starts November 3.

This sale has prompted high excitement among collectors of ‘modern makers’ F.P Journe and Philippe Dufour thanks to the availability of some of the duo’s rarest creations. In the case, of Journe, the most covetable offerings take the form of the only known ‘full set’ of five of his ‘Sousciption’ watches (pictured top) dating from the early days of the eponymous brand.

All Souscription models measured 38mm in diameter and were made with ruthenium brass movements rather than the gold later adopted by the maker – and all have become some of the most collectible timepieces on the market. Each of the Phillips watches is ‘number one’ in its series and each watch is in pristine condition.

Being offered as five, individual lots, the watches comprises a Tourbillon Remontoir (CHF 300,000 – 600,000); a Chronometer a Resonance (CHF 200,000 – 400,000); and Octa models Reserve de Marche (CHF 50,000 – 100,000); Chronograph (CHF 100,000 – 200,000) and Calendrier (CHF 80,000 – 160,000).

Equal interest is expected in the four  Dufour watches on offer,  which comprise  a grande and petite sonnerie wrist watch estimated at CHF 1 – 2m; a Duality (one of only three made in pink gold) which is on offer at CHF 800,000 – 1.6m with Simplicity number 57 being listed at CHF 250,000 – 500,000. The fourth watch is a ‘version’ of a grande and petite sonnerie pocket watch Dufour made for Audemars Piguet and the only watch of its type to carry his name on the dial. It is tipped to realise CHF 400,000 – 800,000.

Elsewhere in the sale, expect sky-high bids for everything from a Richard Mille RM27-04 Rafael Nadal tourbillon (CHF 800,000 – 1.8m) and what would once undoubtedly have been the star of the show, a first series Patek 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph with dial countersigned by Caracas Retailer Serpico y Laino (CHF 2 -4m).

Look out, too, for one of the ultra-rare Rolex Deep Sea Specials made to commemorate a version of the watch being strapped to Jacques Piccard’s bathyscape ‘Trieste’ in 1960 and taken 10,000 meters down to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth. The watch, number 35 in the small series made, is expected to fetch up to CHF 2.4m.

Antiquorum, Hotel Beau-Rivage, 13, Quai du Mont-Blanc.
November 6th from 3pm; November 7th from 10 am. On view from November 3.

The highlights of Antiquorum’s two-day sale may not have estimates at the heady levels of those offered by Phillips – but they are impressive, nonetheless.

Vintage Pateks include three perpetual calendar chronographs in the form of a fresh-to-the-market Reference 1518, the maker’s original perpetual calendar chronograph watch that was produced in just 281 examples between 1941 and 1954.

This one, originally owned by a Mexican general,  is modestly estimated at CHF 200,000 – 400,000, while  a yellow gold Reference 2499 fourth series from 1982 is on offer at  CHF 250,000 – 450,000 and a rarely seen Ref 3971 first sold in 1990 and with an unusual, screw-down, transparent case back, could be yours for CHF 70,000 – 100,000.

Antiquorum’s top Rolex offering, meanwhile, is a rare Sea-Dweller Reference 1665 with so-called ‘double red’ tropical dial.

Unusually, it still has its box and papers thanks to the fact that its has been consigned by the original owner.

Expect it to realise up to CHF 200,000, while an example of Omega’s own extreme dive watch, the PloProf, is tipped at a more affordable CHF 15,000 – 30,000 – despite having an unusual titanium case.

It’s thought that as few as a dozen, 48-gram titanium PloProfs were made in an experimental series intended to provide a lightweight alternative to the regular, 85-gram steel model.

Christie’s, Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, Quai des Bergues. November 8 from 2.30pm. Viewing starts November 4.

If we were betting types, there’s a good chance we’d have a wager on Christie’s star lot becoming the most expensive watch to sell during November’s round of Geneva auctions.

The two-crown Patek Philippe Reference 2523 World Time is always a highly sought-after model, but the fact that this is the first in yellow gold to turn-up in a saleroom with a dial centre made from matching guilloche-engraved gold makes it ultra-special.

Add to that the fact that the 1953-manufactured watch is the earliest known example of the model seen to date, and the pre-sale estimate of CHF 1 -3m starts to seem quite conservative.

Remarkably, the house is also offering a Rolex Deep-Sea Special (see Phillips sale), and this  it’s not a ‘commemorative’ model but watch number one – and believed to have been the actual one fixed to Jacques Piccarde’s bathyscaphe for its experimental 1953 dive to a record 3,150 metres off the Italian coast.

Christie’s last sold the watch to Rolex collector Reza Rashidian of ‘Pro Hunter’ fame in 2005 for CHF 322,000. Now it’s tipped to draw as much as CHF 4 MILLION.

Elsewhere in the tightly-curated, 118-lot sale you’ll find dozens of other Rolex models, including a  2021 example of the currently super-hot Cosmograph Daytona in platinum (sfr 70,000 – 170,000) and a prototype of the on-the-up Oysterquartz at CHF 100,000 – 200,000.

Expect mad prices, too, for a steel-cased, blue dial Patek Philippe Nautilus Reference 5711 from 2019 (tipped to make up to CHF 100,000)  and for a rare Audemars Piguet Royal Oak perpetual calendar watch with platinum case and bracelet (CHF 200,000 – 400,000).

Sotheby’s, Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Quai Turrettini. November 10 from 1.30pm. Viewing starts November 2.

Sotheby’s is running its live sale alongside a ‘Part Two’ event comprising  online-only lots that are available for bidding until November 11.

The prime pieces, however, will be offered in a ‘real’ auction on November 10 featuring just 104 lots and topped by a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ‘John Player Special’ (ie black Paul Newman dial, gold case) which is estimated to fetch up to CHF 1m and is the only seven-figure watch in the Sotheby’s line-up.

The rise of ‘vintage’ Cartier might, however, see a ‘Crash’ model make an impressive sum above the expected CHF 200,000 – 300,000 since it is an ultra-rare, first series’ example made in 1970. How rare? A mere 12 are believed to have been produced.

We wouldn’t be surprised, either, to see an F.P. Journe Chronometre Bleu blow its CHF 50,000 – 70,000 estimate out of the water – once available from retailers at a generous discount, they have become one of the most sought-after of all ‘simple’ Journe models.

The smart money is also likely to be on a well-loved (ie less than perfect) example of A. Lange and Sohne’s Lange 1 from 2001 (CHF 12,000 – 18,000) and a believed prototype Franck Muller perpetual calendar chronograph QP DF made from white gold and carrying serial number ’00’.

Estimated at CHF 30,000 – 50,000, we reckon it deserves to fetch a whole lot more in respect of it being a representative piece from the early days of one of modern watch makings most innovative characters.

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