Cover Photo: Graeme Montgomery/Trunk Archive/Snapper Images

High-end watches are more desirable than ever, but their popularity can sometimes attract the wrong kind of attention, especially that of beady-eyed thieves

I’d like to express my deepest sympathies to the three unlucky travellers who recently made the news while flying into Hong Kong from Doha. They reportedly were the victims of one of the biggest inflight thefts in history, having discovered two watches worth US$105,000 had been pinched from their luggage. It’s every collector’s worst nightmare and an unpopular topic to discuss when swapping tales over cigar smoke and whisky at ritzy watch get-togethers. However, the reality is most of us know someone who has had a treasured piece stolen.

In December, Hong Kong police arrested five men over an armed robbery during which 47 watches worth US$360,000 were taken. A few months before, a young man walked into a shop in Singapore’s Far East Plaza and ran out with two Rolexes worth over US$100,000. And the Philippine Watch Club has an entire online thread called “Stolen Rolex”, which gives advice to those who have had their wrist candy lifted.

The sheer size of the problem is reflected by the popularity of organisations such as the Watch Register, which is the world’s largest database of lost and stolen timepieces. “Our database was first set up in 1990, but the majority of the watches we have registered were reported in the last five to ten years,” says Katya Hills, the Watch Register’s managing director. “During this time, luxury watches have become a top target for thieves.” Today the Watch Register contains information on more than 70,000 tickers. “About 500 stolen watches are currently reported per month from all around the world.”

Last year, a Japanese businessman had a Richard Mille worth more than US$380,000 snatched outside a five-star hotel in Paris. The man had stepped out of the Hôtel Napoléon, near the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Elysées, when a thief seized the RM 51-02 Tourbillon Diamond Twister from his wrist. More recently, Manchester City footballer Riyad Mahrez had three luxury watches stolen from his penthouse apartment in May, according to British media reports. A US$290,000 Richard Mille, a US$50,000 Rolex Daytona and a US$44,000 Rolex Day Date have been listed as the casualties.

See also: 3 Statement-Making Timepieces We're Coveting Now

Retracing Steps

You can see the appeal to a thief: high-end timepieces are pocket-sized, often untraceable and easy to turn into quick cash. “Stolen watches can be sold on the market within hours of a theft, so reporting your watch as soon as possible significantly increases your chances of a successful recovery,” says Hills. Auction houses, dealers and pawnbrokers are encouraged to check whether a watch is stolen or lost by sending its serial number by email or text to Hills’ team. “Always record your watch’s unique serial number and keep a digital copy of the accompanying paperwork, as well as photos of the watch and your purchase receipt.”

In June 2016, a missing Patek Philippe was identified at a New York auction, just two years after it was stolen from a Swiss collector in Naples. “Watches are recovered years or even generations after a theft,” explains Hills. “In January we returned a Rolex Cellini to an owner in Hong Kong which had been stolen in a burglary in 1994. We identified it 25 years later at an auction. The watch had been bought by the victim’s late father as a graduation gift and had enormous sentimental value.”

One third of stolen or lost timepieces are Rolexes, says Hills. “They are by far the most desirable brand for thieves because of their popularity and steady value, to the extent that they have become a form of currency in the criminal world.” The brand’s Datejust, Daytona and Submariner models are the most commonly stolen, she adds, before revealing that criminals are becoming increasingly knowledgeable about trends in the wider watch industry. “Over the last year, we’ve seen thieves set their sights on models such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Rolex Pepsi, which have long waiting lists.”

See also: 10 Instagram Accounts Every Watch Lover Needs To Follow

Play It Safe

Most of us take precautions that range from vaults to insurance, but our timepieces continue to be stolen from hotel rooms, gym lockers and other seemingly safe surroundings. “Don’t make yourself a target—watch thieves are professionals and will spot bling on your wrist from a mile away, so keep your watch entirely out of sight when out in public spaces,” says Hills.

Home security systems provided by companies such as Buben & Zörweg are also worth considering. “Besides the very real financial risk related to losing an entire watch collection that you’ve spent a large part of your life amassing, there’s also a psychological benefit to knowing that you have a high-security safe. It puts your mind at ease,” says CEO Christian Zörweg. His company makes six-figure strongboxes that are entirely customisable. With its target customers having roughly US$4 million in disposable income, nothing is off-limits, from built-in humidors to bulletproof glass.

“Many watch collectors have more than one residence. Maybe you own a family home in addition to properties where you holiday. Or perhaps you have apartments in numerous cities where you frequently travel for business. If you’re one of these people, having high-security safes is important if you don’t want to carry your high-end watches around with you all the time.”

Keeping An Eye Out 

There aren’t any official statistics on the number of watches stolen each year but, in the US alone, the Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the jewellery and watch industry loses more than US$100 million annually in thefts. As for the watch brands themselves, there aren’t any hard and fast rules when it comes to helping collectors recover their pieces. When watches come in for servicing, most brands will check serial numbers against databases, but there’s a long way to go before the entire industry pulls together. All is not lost, however.

“The number of stolen watches reported to us by Hong Kong police in April this year was just 20 per cent of the figure reported in January,” says Hills, who credits the dramatic drop in crime levels to the coronavirus pandemic. “In central London, just one high-value watch robbery was reported during the first five weeks of lockdown, compared to an average of one per day prior to quarantine.” And with the rise of online services specialising in recovering stolen or lost watches, there is hope for those who fall victim to watch theft.

Just remember: if you’re being offered a genuine Rolex at a price that seems too good to be true, the chances are that it probably is. But before turning it down, make a note of its serial number. You might be doing a fellow collector a favour.

See also: July 2020: What's New In Watches

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