What the world learned from 2019’s record-breaking watch auctions


2019 was a year of world records, Nautilus-mania and a boost for independent brands at auction this year. The three main auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips – will have sold upwards of $300 million dollars’ worth of watches in 2019 (a very rough estimate), including the $39 million Only auction for charity. Here’s what’s hot, what shattered the records and what might be the next big thing. Carol Besler reports.

First, the world records: $31 million for a one-of-a-kind Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime at the Only Watch charity auction held by Christie’s in Geneva (pictured top).

It breaks two world records. One, for the most expensive wristwatch sold at auction, beating out Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona sold by Phillips in 2017 for $17.7 million. And two, for the most expensive watch sold at auction, beating out the Graves Supercomplication, which sold in 2014 for $24 million.

The $31 million went to benefit a charity for Duchene Muscular Dystrophy, which makes this a hefty tax write-off for the buyer and an act of extreme generosity for a great cause.

A second world record was the $9 million paid for a 1953 pink gold Patek Philippe World Time Ref. 2523 at the Christie’s auction in Hong Kong, setting the record for any watch bought at auction in Asia. It has a double-signed blue enamel dial, retailed by Gobbi, Milan.


A 1947 Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 with a pink-gold case and salmon-pink dial sold for $2.3m.


Next up is the $4,586,895 paid for a Patek Philippe made for the legendary American collector Henry Graves Jr. The yellow gold tonneau minute repeater was made for Graves in 1927 and delivered in 1938. It was sold by Christie’s in Geneva.

Other world record prices were for watches with interesting providence or extreme rarity; often a minor detail on a dial making pieces incredibly desirable. They include:

  • $2.33 million for a possibly unique Patek Philippe Sky Moon Tourbillon Ref. 5002 in 18k white gold made in 2002. It achieved a world auction record price for any reference 5002. It sold at a Phillips Hong Kong auction in November (HK $18,150,000).
  • $2.3 million for a 1947 Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 featuring the rare combination of a pink-gold case and salmon-pink dial at the Phillips Game Changers auction, a record for that reference in pink gold.
  • $1.2 million for a Rolex Day-Date owned by Jack Nicklaus, a record for that reference, also at the Phillips Game Changers auction
  • $1,560,000 for the highest bid ever received by Phillips online. The bid was part of a stretched out bidding war for Marlon Brando’s Rolex GMT-Master at the Phillips Game Changers auction in New York. It eventually sold for $1,952,000, a benchmark for the model.
  • $262,500 for a rare Rolex special-edition Submariner made in 1974 for the British Military, representing a world record for a double reference military Submariner. It bears the iconic “T” below the arbor on the dial, signifying it was made for the British Ministry of Defense. (The watch was the only non-Patek Phillip in the top 10 sold at the December Sotheby’s auction in New York).
  • $250,650 for a Zenith + Phillips El Primero, representing five times its original high estimate and a new auction record for the Zenith El Primero. Sold at the Phillips Geneva auction in November, it was a unique platinum model with a lapis lazuli dial, co-designed by Phillips.

As usual, Patek Philippe and Rolex dominated sales this year, as they always do, and most certainly will for the foreseeable future.

“Patek and Rolex remain the front-runners because they continue to produce quality timepieces that balance sophisticated complications with classic style,” says Stephane Von Bueren, international business director of watches for Christie’s.

Prestige and status also enter into the equation, as collectors clamour for what will impress their fellow collectors.


This gold Rolex Day-Date owned by Jack Nicklaus sold at Phillips for $1.2 million, although pre-auction chatter suggested it would go for far more.


For Rolex, the top model this year has once again been the Daytona, particularly the Paul Newman style, and every auction has plenty of them on offer now.

On the vintage side, there are a few favorites, if you can get your hands on them: the Ref. 4113, a series of only 12 rare split-seconds chronographs made by Rolex (Phillips sold one this year for $1,945,044); Ref. 6062 triple calendar, known as the Stelline because of its star-shaped numerals (Phillips sold one for $1,945,044 this year); and the Ref. 8171 known as the Padellone one of only two Rolex models to feature a triple calendar complication with a moon phase complication (at least one was sold this year for a six-figure price).


Phillips sold a George Daniels pocket watch, his personal Grande Complication, for $2.4 million in Geneva in May.


If these prices strike you as low compared to the current Rolex world record price of $17.7 million (for the Newman Daytona), keep in mind that it was only three years ago that the highest price ever paid for a Rolex was $2.6 million.

The second highest price paid for a Rolex last year was $5.9 million for a one-of-a-kind Rolex Daytona nicknamed the “Unicorn.”

For Patek, the vintage watches of choice are the rare complications, particularly perpetual calendars.

If you’ve got one of the first two models, Ref. 1518 or Ref. 2499 sitting in a sock drawer somewhere, your lottery numbers have come in.

Go now to your nearest auction house and cash out.

These models rarely sell for under seven figures. As do rare and unique pieces, like anything made for Graves, certain World Time models and rare minute repeaters.

When it comes to modern watches, the Patek Philippe Nautilus has emerged as the hottest model on both the new and secondary market. There were 11 Nautiluses in the Phillips November Geneva sale, and 17 in the Sotheby’s fall sale in New York.

The trend confirms the dominance of modern steel sports watches right now in general – and people are snapping up any new models. In fact, nine out of the top ten lots at the fall Sotheby’s sale in New York were Patek Philippes, mostly steel, made within the last 10 years. The volume of these watches coming to auction could be a sign that serious collectors and investors think they have risen in price as far as they can and the next move could be down.

“In a historical context, the most interesting recent development on the auction market is the rise of the Patek Philippe Nautilus,” confirms Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s International watch division. “We’ve seen an explosion in demand at auction. The top lot of our December Important Watches auction in New York was a Ref 5711/1P Nautilus that achieved $275,000, and three of the top 10 watches sold were Nautilus models.” (A Nautilus in the Phillips Game Changers auction sold for $356,250). Schnipper adds that modern Rolexes are also buoyant, including the “Hulk” (a Submariner with green bezel), the “Kermit” (an earlier version of the Hulk) and the “Batman” (GMT-Master II with blue and black bezel).

It’s difficult to predict what might be emerging to replace the Daytona, which may be waning (some lots failed to meet their reserve at this year’s auctions,) and the Nautilus, which is peaking. But hot on the heels of both is the Patek Philippe Aquanaut, another model noted by Schnipper.

One of the top 10 lots in the Christie’s fall New York sale was an Advanced Research Aquanaut with chronograph and date, selling for $212,500. The reference, one of a limited series of 500 pieces, was manufactured under the umbrella of the Patek Philippe Advanced Research concept.

It was one of several Aquanaut models at auction this year. Another Advanced Research model, made a year earlier, sold at Sotheby’s the same week in December for $237,500.

And at an Antiquorum auction in May, a pre-1997 Aquanaut with the word “Prototype” on the dial sold for $401,000, more than eight times its pre-sale estimate. Is the Nautilus-like but easier-to-get (so far) Aquanaut emerging as the next big thing?

Another next-big-thing brand is Audemars Piguet.

Boutros likes the brand going forward, especially “early Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore models, which have performed extremely well this year.”

Daryn Schnipper concurs that “there will likely be increased interest in the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. The popularity is currently focused on the first series, but it will certainly start to trickle into the newer models, similar to the Nautilus,” she says.

And, von Bueren weighs in: “We have seen some amazing things coming from Audemars Piguet this year.”

He adds: We have also seen some great results for watches made by independent watchmakers including F.P. Journe, which we recently set a record for in our Hong Kong sale. Another independent to watch is Akrivia, which is recognized by peers and experts within the industry.”

Independent brands are indeed on the ascendance. Phillips sold a George Daniels pocket watch, his personal Grande Complication, for $2.4 million in Geneva in May, and earlier in the year, Sotheby’s London held an entire sale devoted to the watchmaker.

A one-of-a-kind Urwerk AMC sold for $2.9 million at the Phillips Game Changers sale in New York, representing the auctioneer’s highest result of the year, and certainly the highest price for an Urwerk.

Christie’s New York sold a Richard Mille tourbillon split seconds chronograph for $325,000, and a Greubel Forsey white gold Tourbillon 24 Secondes for $125,000. Also notable at auction this year were watches made by F.P.Journe, Philippe Dufour, MB&F, Urwerk, Kari Voutilainen and Roger Smith.

“Another area to watch closely is double-signed dials—especially with the Tiffany & Co. stamp—and we are eager to see what will happen with the new ownership,” says Von Bueren of Christie’s. (Last year, Christie’s sold a Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 co-signed Serpico Y Laino for $3,234,905; Sotheby’s sold another co-signed by Asprey for $3,915,000).

This year, Double Signed was the title of a dedicated sale at Phillips, with top lots including a pink gold Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 co-branded with Italian retailer Trucchi for $1,584,108, and a Patek Philippe Ref. 3652 minute repeater co-signed Golay Fils & Stahl for $573,487.20.


Double-signed watches are hot, with this Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 co-branded with Italian retailer Trucchi selling for $1,584,108.


Finally, provenance cannot be overlooked as an important factor.

In addition to the Jack Nicklaus Rolex Day-Date ($1.22 million, Phillips) and the Marlon Brando’s Rolex GMT-Master ($1,952,000, Phillips), a pair of pocket watches selling as a single lot, one owned by Ernest Hemingway and the other by his friend, French hotelier Charles C. Ritz sold for $43,750, double the estimate of $15,000-$25,000 at Christie’s (It is worth noting that pocket watches, even beautifully finished, top-condition ones, rarely fetch high prices).

And for First Watch buffs, a pair of Patek Philippes belonging to George H.W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, sold for $81,250 (a Ref. 3940 perpetual calendar) and $62,500 (a Ref. 3445 Calatrava), in the Christie’s sale.

Ultimately, though, it is condition that matters when it comes to buying and selling at auction. “When a collectors’ watch is extremely well-preserved, hardly worn, or in ‘new old stock’ condition, whether vintage or modern, the demand for such watches seems to be insatiable.” says Boutros. Phillips is expected to end the year with $110 million in sales.

About the author:
Carol Besler has written about watches and jewelry for nearly 30 years. She has contributed to Forbes, Watch Time, Journal Haute Horlogerie, Watch Journal, Robb Report and Revolution.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Exit mobile version