Last weekend the autumn watch auction season got underway: a glittering horological travelling circus that begins in Geneva and, travelling via Hong Kong, ends in New York in December.
These are not the easiest of times for the watch industry – upheaval in Hong Kong, traditionally the Klondike for makers of prestige timepieces, has been more than a bit of a buzzkill.
The business was looking for a boost and, on Saturday at 3.32pm Geneva time, it got one. After almost a quarter of hour of spirited bidding, the gavel was brought down on a stainless-steel watch for SFr31m (about £24m).
Stainless-steel watches are hot right now, but even so, 31m Swiss takes some explaining. First, the watch is a Patek Philippe. Second, it is the blue-chip Geneva marque’s top model, the Grandmaster Chime – a grand complication so… well… complicated that it needs to use the back and front of the case to display its functions and features a special reversible mechanism to enable the wearer to choose which side he wants uppermost on the wrist.
It was launched in a limited series to celebrate Patek’s 175th anniversary in 2014 and was priced at around SFr2.5m (about £2m). It features 20 complications and there are five chiming modes, including two patented world firsts: an acoustic alarm that strikes the preselected time and a date repeater that sounds the date on demand. The example sold on Saturday is the only one made in steel, created for the biannual charity auction Only Watch, inaugurated in 2005 to raise funds for research into Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, by Luc Pettavino, whose son died from the condition in 2016.
Over time Only Watch has become an industry fixture, with brands agreeing to donate unique watches and collectors paying handsomely to own them.
It is also a huge spectator event – the cavernous ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel packed to Northern Line rush-hour levels with fist-bumping, man-hugging watch lovers. Arriving late and improperly dressed for the literal and figurative hothouse in tweed, I crouched by one of the banks of telephones, manned by such august telephonists as Christie’s honorary chairman Lord Snowdon. I was considering sloping off for a coffee when celebrated collector Claude Sfeir spotted me. Deus ex machina, he came over and dragged me, in the manner of a new Speaker being taken to his chair in the House of Commons, to a front-row seat, next to Christie’s head of luxury Aline Sylla-Walbaum (a former adviser to French prime minister Fillon, she is as sharp as she is chic – and she’s very, very chic) and just a couple of places from the charity’s patron HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.
The Patek is always the big lot of Only Watch (2015’s stainless-steel Ref 5016A fetched SFr7.3m), and as it was announced everyone in the room sat up straight and got out their phones, even Thierry Stern, the president of Patek Philippe, sitting to my left, who had his father, and previous president, Philippe Stern on FaceTime to catch the action.
Imagine watching a Wimbledon final crossed with a high-stakes poker game. Telephones either side of the ballroom batted the price back and forth in half millions over the heads of those packing the room.
Ten million came and went.
The price teetered for a while at 19 million. “You can’t let that go,” implored the auctioneer.
And indeed 20 million was reached. Then, before the clapping had subsided, it was passed. As the bidding moved upwards on a seemingly endless escalator, the screens showing prices struggled to keep up. “They’re changing slowly,” quipped the auctioneer. “The numbers are too big now.”
Cheers, low whistles, oohs, ahs and other expressions of amazement greeted the arrival of 30 million. As the hammer came down on 31 million, the audience leapt as one to its feet, erupting in wild cheering and thunderous applause.
Next to me, Aline gazed in shock at her phone, on which a Christie’s app showed the sale was trading at around 1,000 per cent of the estimate. The world (of watches at least) had changed. It was only after I had sat down again, and returned my attention to the auction, that it occurred to me that my latest book, Time Tamed, published a week ago, already requires a new edition. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime for Only Watch 2019 had just become the most expensive watch ever sold at auction, breaking a record of a whisker over SFr23m that had stood since 2014, when the Graves Supercomplication pocket watch was sold. The maker of the Graves? Yes… you guessed it: Patek Philippe. The buyer of the Grandmaster Chime: that’s the question everybody is asking.