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Lessons from the Artcurial "Important Watches" Auction

There are many contradictions in the month of January.  There are reasons for optimism.  In the northern hemisphere we've passed the winter equinox and our hours of daylight are lengthening.  The world is literally getting brighter.  Many major holidays have passed and the warm glow of that time has a halo effect.  And yet, there is also the knowledge that tax season is ahead and a bill with uncertain properties may come due.  The additional holiday spending can possibly weigh on the budget, out of precaution perhaps spending is slightly subdued.

The month's positive zeitgeist might suggest that it is a good time to hold an auction, particularly in the more mild climate of Monaco. 
Monaco
Indeed, the Artcurial auction house did just that on January 14, 2020 with their "Important Watches" auction.  But the results suggest that the more negative aspects of the month perhaps dominated.  I'll explain.

Online I was able to watch approximately 105 lots go under the hammer.  You can watch those lots on a livestream I recorded on YouTube (my live reactions are included).  I skipped the pocket watches because I have less interest in those.  First, the positive: the pocket watches did seem to do very well.  I don't know why, perhaps there were institutional bidders such as museums.  And Patek put on a strong showing, as is usual.  So did Audemars Piguet, particularly the reasonably sized Royal Oak references (especially skeletonized).  There also were not many surprises, good or bad, when it came to models such as the Reverso and the Submariner.

The surprises were mostly not positive.  The "main event" of the auction was a Rolex Triple Calendar Moonphase ref. 8171 in steel. 
A Rolex Triple Calendar "Padellone" sold in 2017. Credit: Author's photo of Phillips Auction catalogue.
Kept in the family of its original owner this timepiece had an estimate of € 200,000 - 300,000.  It did not sell.  In November Philips Auctions sold the same reference in steel for more than € 900,000.  Things that make you go "hmmm."  One possibility is that the more recent example was in rough condition.  This reference has a snap caseback which, with regular use, tends to lose its seal, allowing for damage to the face over seven decades.  But this was not an isolated outcome.  Out of 105 lots 18 did not sell, roughly 17%.

It remains to be seen whether this was simply a January slump, the condition of the lots, or an emerging softening in vintage watch value.  I've written elsewhere about signs that this may be a new normal.  In the case of Artcurial, though,  there are options to address this.  The Head of Digital for Phillips Auctions, Arthur Touchot, recently made a strong case on Instagram that 2019 marked the point where vintage watch bidding online is almost equally as important as floor bidding.  Artcurial conducted its auction in French, which almost certainly was more hospitable to the floor crowd.  And they could also consider alternative months for their auction.  If LVMH continues to hold their "Watch Week" in Dubai during January the likelihood of drawing a crowd becomes still more remote.

One last note: a Rolex "pre Daytona" 6834 chronograph sold for just under $37,000, a bright spot in the Artcurial auction.  Tony Traina of Rescapement observed that Mickey Mantel's personal 6834 is going up for auction with Heritage Auction next month with an estimate of $40,000.  It will be interesting to see how that particular lot plays out.

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