How to collect vintage Cartier watches

Warhol loved them. Steve McQueen wore one. Now vintage examples are hot property again

Catherine Deneuve in a Cartier Tank, 1985
Catherine Deneuve in a Cartier Tank, 1985 | Image: Jean-Jacques Lapeyronnie/Getty Images

The vintage watch market has long been dominated by the dial names of Rolex and Patek Philippe – a situation that has left one significant maker strangely overshadowed: Cartier. For while its back catalogue of timepieces has been admired for decades by a coterie of aficionados, collectable examples by the “jeweller of kings and king of jewellers” are only just gaining serious traction. It’s timely, then, that Cartier has just launched an in-house vintage offering at its New Bond Street store. 

1968 Maxi Oval, sold for £70,000 at Bonhams
1968 Maxi Oval, sold for £70,000 at Bonhams

“I bought my first Cartier watch in the 1990s,” recalls How To Spend It writer Nick Foulkes, a fan of vintage Cartier for 30 years. “It has a gold octagonal case and a handpainted dial; I wear it regularly.” Foulkes still mourns the loss of a gold Maxi Oval, which was stolen from him more than a decade ago – not least because Bonhams sold one last year for £70,000 – and also owns several of Cartier’s most iconic model, the Tank. 

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 The Tank was first created in 1917, its shape inspired by an aerial view of the British MK I armoured tank. Italian actor Rudolph Valentino wore his Tank (somewhat incongruously) while shooting his last film, The Son of the Sheikh, in 1926, and a firmament of stars followed – from Clark Gable to Catherine Deneuve and Steve McQueen. Another fan was Andy Warhol; when his estate was dispersed by Sotheby’s in 1988, four of the 169 watches were by Cartier. And the Tank owned by Jackie Kennedy Onassis was bought at Christie’s two years ago for more than £290,000 – by Kim Kardashian.

c1950 Chinoise  Tank, £29,000, from Somlo
c1950 Chinoise Tank, £29,000, from Somlo

“Part of the appeal for me,” says Foulkes, “is that vintage Cartier is as far removed from the more typically collected steel sports watch as you can get. Virtually every piece is an exception as they were generally made in very small batches.” 

c1976 London Tank, POA, from Harry Fane
c1976 London Tank, POA, from Harry Fane

Variations on the Tank range from the curved Cintrée to the Française bracelet model, the Chinoise (inspired by the architecture of Chinese temples) to the deliciously stretched Allongée. One man who knows them all is Harry Fane, who has dealt in Cartier exclusively since 1983, homing in on French-made designs from 1919 to 1965 (starting at around £12,000 for a Tank automatic or a buckle-shaped Ceinture). Fane also stocks the special watches made by Cartier London between 1966 and 1974. “Cartier picked up London’s creative buzz with watches that appealed to the bright young things,” says Fane. “The Crash, for example, is the horological equivalent of the Jaguar E-Type.” The distorted case of the Crash is said to be based on a Baignoire Allongée that had been in a car accident. “The quantity made was tiny – about 12 in the 1960s. An original is now worth over £100,000.” 

2004 Tank Cintrée, sold for €46,800 at Monaco Legend Auctions
2004 Tank Cintrée, sold for €46,800 at Monaco Legend Auctions

Among Fane’s most loyal clients is collector Auro Montanari, the president of an electronics company and a highly respected vintage watch aficionado who owns “about” 150 vintage Cartiers. “My first one was a simple Tank from a Los Angeles flea market 40 years ago,” recalls Montanari. “It cost me $100 and I still have it. Then in 1978 I fell in love with a Cintrée in New York, but I didn’t have $4,000. It took me four years to find another, a 1929 model, in Arezzo. I bought before prices really began to climb. Now more people are starting to appreciate the beauty of the designs and the often incredibly thin cases.” 

2009 Tortue XL Dual Time Zone, £26,700, from Cartier
2009 Tortue XL Dual Time Zone, £26,700, from Cartier

Montanari warns, however, that the market can be a minefield. “There are so many models, and fakes abound – it is essential to find a good dealer.” As well as Fane, Montanari recommends London’s George Somlo and Davide Parmegiani of Lugano. Somlo currently has in stock a 1970 Tank Louis Cartier (£11,600), a c1950 Chinoise (£29,000) and a 1970 Baignoire (£7,300), while Parmegiani highlights a 1950 Gouvernail based on the shape of a ship’s wheel; a 1960s dual-time model with two separate, mechanical movements; and a fine 1960 Asymmetrical Tank (all POA). 

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Cartier’s own selection will focus on pieces from the early 1970s to the early 2000s, says managing director Laurent Feniou. “Every watch will be serviced, guaranteed for authenticity and carry a two-year warranty.” Among initial offerings are a distinctive Cloche (£23,800); a trio of Tortues, including a rare minute repeater (£129,000); and a Tank Divan (£12,400).

When available, the boutique will also carry some of the exquisite models from the Cartier Paris Collection Privée line that ran from 1998 to 2008. The range, based on historic models and produced in limited numbers, included a tonneau-shaped monopusher chronograph – an example of which was sold in 2018 by Phillips for $20,625. But that was more than a year ago – before the value of vintage Cartier caught up with the times. 

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