Who better than Aurel Bacs, the man who tracked down and secured the Rolex Daytona owned by Paul Newman which went on to become the most expensive wristwatch ever sold, to give an insight into the art and business of collecting vintage watches?

In 2014, auction house Phillips partnered with Bacs & Russo to form the Watch Department to focus on the fine watches collectors’ market. Aurel Bacs, a co-founder of Bacs & Russo, leads the charge, armed with more than 20 years of experience in the area of fine collectors’ watches including an incredibly successful stint at Christie’s.

Under his stewardship, Phillips has been chalking up record sales (the US$17.7 or RM73mil that Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona achieved still boggles the mind) and reinvigorated the thirst for vintage watches especially in Asia where last year’s Hong Kong Watch Auction: SEVEN took in a whopping US$14mil (RM58mil) with a record number of online bidders.

As Bacs prepares for Geneva Watch Auction: NINE that will happen in May, he takes some time out to offer his thoughts on the auction market for vintage watches and amassing a treasure trove of them.

Throwback: A close-up of Elvis Presley's Omega watch that went on the block at Phillips watch auction last year

How far do we have to go back for a watch to qualify as vintage?

I’m quite sure that you will get different replies from different specialists. For me personally, the cut-off point is somewhere in the early/ mid-1980s as it was a time when the Swiss watch industry began to rise up again after a period of the quartz trend. Computers were also introduced to assist in the designing and manufacturing process, which was quite a dramatic shift from the more traditional and artisanal approach previously.

In the last few years, there’s been an increase in interest for vintage pieces in Asia, which has expanded beyond the niche group of hardcore watch collectors. How would you explain this?

Indeed, Asia is today the fastest growing continent in the field of vintage watches. Asian collectors are known for their respect of the past, their passion for craftsmanship, their eagerness to own the finest and most exclusive pieces, and their competitiveness in international auction rooms. Take this mix and add a continuously growing economy, and you’ll understand why (there’s so much interest in vintage watches).

What is the difference between the profile of the collectors today and the collectors, say, 15 years ago?

It’s like night and day. Collectors are now younger and, thanks to the many platforms be it online or off-line, learn much faster. In addition, as many collectors of vintage watches are also active in other fields, notably contemporary art and vintage motorcars, they understand quite well why an important vintage wristwatch has a value in the six and seven-digit region.

Also see: Dr Bernard Cheong on how and where to start on your own watch collection

Are today’s collectors savvier?

Thanks to the Internet, information is readily available these days. Consequently, I’m comfortable in saying that the average collector today knows more about vintage watches than his father possibly did 25 years ago. The one thing you cannot gain online is experience – and I cannot stress enough how important experience is in today’s market.

What do old watches offer in terms of value that contemporary pieces don’t?

They tell a story, and with a unique patina, they become unique pieces. Also, given the limitations of production in the past, they may be more rare and exclusive.

What elevates a watch to “iconic” status?

Complications, highly exclusive cases or dials, provenance and design. A couple of past examples of such watches from Phillips' auctions included the stainless steel Patek Philippe Ref: 1518 and the "Bao Dai" Rolex Ref: 6062.

Phillips has been consistently setting record sales. How do you explain the insane prices some of the pieces fetched?

As long as the highest price paid for a historic motorcar is three times, and the highest price paid for a painting is 10 times more, than the price of a record-setting wristwatch, I cannot agree with the statement that the prices are insane. In fact, there’s still plenty of room for this market to grow in terms of volume and value.

Do you subscribe to different criteria when it comes to assessing a watch for auction compared to one for your own personal collection?

Certainly but not when it comes to quality and originality. When it comes to the aesthetics, I must look at the watch from the perspective of our clients. If I acquire a watch for my own wrist, it only has to please me.

On a personal note, how do you feel about being called “a star auctioneer”?

I consider myself extremely lucky as I’m madly in love with my job – and I think this is a unique advantage. I personally don’t care about what I’m called as the only thing that matters at the end of the day is making our clients, consignors, bidders and buyers happy and satisfied.

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