Hubert Burda Media

Watch Talk: In Conversation with Aurel Bacs


Aurel Bacs is perhaps the world’s best known auctioneer right now. In just the past three years, Bacs was the man who acquired and sold on behalf of the Phillips auction house, the stainless steel Patek Philippe 1518 (sold at US$10.7m) in 2016, the triple calendar moonphase Rolex ref. 6062 “Bao Dai” (sold for roughly US$5m) last year as well as Paul Newman’s very own Rolex Daytona 6239 that raked in a crazy US$17 million. Bacs was in town recently to present a collection of vintage timepieces in partnership with The Hour Glass, that would soon be auctioned at the Geneva Watch Auction: Seven. We sat down and talked to him about the world of auctions.

The group managing director of The Hour Glass, Michael Tay, alongside Bacs

We’ll start with a “must ask”. What are your three favorite highlights from this collection?

I probably can’t answer that.

Imagine you have six children and someone asks which is your favorite child. To make it into one of our auctions, I really must be able to stand behind every single watch. If I don’t like a watch, I’d rather not have it in the catalogue. Certainly, there are watches that are so special that they come to mind quicker, before others. What comes to my mind? Well, we have two auctions, the Daytona Ultimatum and the Geneva Watch Auction: Seven. In the Geneva Watch Auction: Seven, what comes to my mind, for example, is the 2499 Champagne Dial Patek Philippe, coincidentally it is the most valuable watch in the auction.

The watch in question, Patek Philippe’s mythical reference 2499

But it is actually, in my view, one of the most unique stories that I have ever heard about a watch. There is a gentleman in the UK who orders a unique 1979 Patek Philippe with a champagne dialer. Nearly a year later he receives it, and when he goes to the shop to collect it he realizes that the strap is mounted front to back. Anyone could change the strap in a minute, instead, he sat down, took his typewriter and wrote a long letter of complaint saying his trust had been undermined in the professionalism and quality of Patek Philippe.

Patek very courteously replies, and he is not happy with the reply. And a two year long dialogue takes place between him, the retailer, the distributor and PP headquarters. He says he is so disappointed he will never wear the watch. He actually kept his word, and thankfully he kept it because now the watch is in a brand new pristine condition, with the original strap still mounted front to back, original cert, hand tag, never worn, never polished, unique 2499. What a great story. So, I love these unique, special histories that go with the watches. And that is one watch. We have a very interesting group of Breguet Type XXs. The Type XX is a very well known watch, there are many variants, and after 35 years of being active in watches, I see for the first time a yellow gold one.

The aviation-inspired Breguet Type XX

In the past, custom timepieces and one-off pieces seemed much more common. At least, compared to these days. 

Back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s and even the ’60s, there were no computers. These days, you push a button in the morning and by the evening, you have a thousand t-shirts, or mobile phones, or watches. Things were done manually back then. If you tailor a suit by a good tailor in Italy or London, your suit is unique. Why? Because you asked them to make it for you. The unique watches that we have from the past were mostly special orders. And the companies could say yes because they didn’t have to reprogram the computers to do, not just a white t-shirt with a smiley but now, not a yellow smiley but a blue smiley.

You need to stop the entire production to make one blue t shirt. So there was no such thing as a limited edition in the 1940s – everything was limited. It was limited by the demand, by the number of watchmakers, and that’s why you have 50 of those, 20 of those, 100 of those.

In light of that, where do you see the watch auction market going in the future? At the end of the day, every small millimeter of patina that appears on a watch changes it for what it is. Whoever likes that sort of look, it changes it for them.

But when it comes to this day and age where a Rolex you buy now is going to look the same the next 30 years because you have ceramic bezels where the colors don’t run, it’s going to look the same. Are we going to be constantly stuck in the pre-2000 era? 

That is really an excellent question because today’s production is so perfect that as you rightly say, ceramic bezels, sapphire crystals, the coatings on the dials, discoloration…

…even the bronze these days.

Yes. But a watch doesn’t necessarily require patina to be vintage. It can have no petina. It still is vintage if it’s 50 years old. So it’s not that anything we do today will never be vintage because it will never have a tropical dial, or beige, or faded. I think that’s okay, and accepted, I wouldn’t be surprised if 30 years from now the ceramic bezel Subs are not going to be very popular Rolex watches. Maybe without fading, patina, that may change.

Second, as long as we have arms and maybe one day, like aliens, we won’t. But as long as we do have wrists and there’s space for a nice watch sized 35-40mm, there is absolutely no reason why we cannot continue collecting watches from the mid-20th century. It’s not like they have an expiry date and we have to gradually move forward in time. The technological differences between a mid-20th century and early-21st century watch is…

…vast.

Yes and no, actually. Yes, the ceramic bezel is likely to last better in the same colours than an aluminium insert. But a mechanical watch of the 20th century will not stop running one day. It will not be obsolete. A lever escapement, an automatic winding system, a couple of hands – that means it’s not prone to stand still one day. Whereas an electronic watch, and there are electronic watches from the ’70s and ’80s, the batteries are no longer available, the LCD/LED screens are dead, and worse, nobody can repair them. So, what I wanted to say is, a mobile phone today is a million times different from a mobile phone in the 80s. Whereas a mechanical wristwatch of today compared to a wristwatch from the ’80s is closer. Or a little bit anyway.

I know independents (indie watchmakers) are a passion for you and these watches will definitely be classics in the next 5o years. These brands, your Urwerks and MB&Fs have been around for an odd 10 or 15 years, but compared to traditional brands, they are in the infant stages of brand building. How then do you discern what to look out for in an independent brand?

I look at the same criteria as when I look at a big established name. First of all, I have to like it.

There are watches from independents as much as from big groups that I look at them and I don’t like them. I don’t want a watch on my wrist that I don’t like. I can respect it, but that is very different from wanting to have it on your wrist. Like I have to like the taste of a wine. I don’t care how important the label is – if I don’t like it, I won’t drink it. I look at the quality. I want to be impressed by the finish, construction, creativity, ingeniousness of the watchmakers, so just something that just looks and feels like yesterday’s menu that has been heated up in the microwave does not excite me.

These are the same criteria for any watch, modern or vintage, mainstream name or small niche name. I’d like to feel that whoever made the watch put love and passion into it. And wasn’t just thinking how quickly can I make as much profit. So it’s actually very easy. And often it takes just a couple of moments for me to feel and decide. Feel happens here in the heart, decision is up here (Bacs points to his head). It’s often more difficult if I can afford it or not, and if I’d like to make the sacrifice to have it. But there are great watches that I cannot afford, and I continue appreciating them when I see them on someone else’s wrist.

What’s the rarest thing you have seen in the wild? I can imagine your eye for watches must be amazing, so walking around places have you seen watches and immediately ask, “Oh my God. Where did you get this?”

Thankfully, it happens quite a lot. It’s always a pleasure to see what other collectors dig out. Yes of course, after having enjoyed looking at it, my mind is already thinking how many collectors do I know that would love to have that watch. And if the list is longer than five, I try to obtain it for auction naturally. Sometimes, it happens but it can easily take me five or 10 years to convince them. That is the beauty of our job, we still don’t know everything. There are so many treasures out there that give you a moment of wow, excitement, surprise.

The one thing I do not have in my job is routine.

What is your go-to line to open up on a collector if you’d like to auction off his watch? How do you convince them?

I am actually really bad in convincing collectors to part with their watches.

And, of course, you should ask the collector community if they think I’m invasive or pushy! (laughs) It is my opinion, that in any business, but also in your private life, there is only as much convincing you can do. There are principle decisions in life that people make themselves, no matter how much you call them or send them emails. Which is why I am actually not doing it that much anymore.

It has happened to me, you go to a show room and look at a car, then up comes a salesman, “Can I help you with anything?”

“No thanks, I’m just looking.”

“Are you sure I can’t help you? Would you like a test drive?”

“No thank you, I will let you know.”

“Can I have your business card please? It’s part of our procedure.”

“Fine.”

The next day, emails, phone calls, texts. I’m never going to buy a car from that guy for sure. And I think, to part from a watch is not something I can push or provoke, it is a decision the client has to make by himself. Once he does decide to sell, I prefer that he does it with us than someone else, naturally. But I can’t make that happen at the 11th hour, and suddenly say “Oh, we were always best friends, weren’t we?” Well, we either have looked after him for the last 10 years or we haven’t. If we haven’t, it’s too late to then steer the boat around. If we have, and he appreciates our work, catalogue, research, presentation, service, chances are he will pick up the phone and say, “Hey Aurel, I would like to sell my collection. Would you please come visit me the next time you are in Vienna, Rome, Madrid, Hong Kong?” Very simple. And the same with the buyers. It’s so wrong to start calling up clients like the car salesman two days before the auction, “Hey! This would be great on your wrist!” If he hasn’t expressed any interest about buying that watch, why would he two days before the auction, when you start ringing him up? It’s wrong. I need to feel there is a true interest from the other party to engage with us. Once I feel that interest, of course I welcome the buyer or the seller with open arms.

Vintage auctions have been around for years but the marketing of them has changed a lot. I think over the past few years the dissemination of information of what pieces have been sold has generated a lot of interest in the past of vintage type pieces. Do you feel this is a strategic decision on the community or just an evolution of how things change with technology?

I see two things happening.

One is for sure the way we communicate is very different from 10/15 years ago. Social media, the internet, I mean you could not follow an auction 20 years ago if you were not in the room. And then by telefax after the auction you could ask for the pricelist and they would fax it to your home. Now the younger generation present here today won’t remember what a telefax is. So, technology has certainly been a key platform for sharing information and making sure it reaches every household in the planet. And I understand that 75% of households on the planet have heard of the Paul Newman. We have done analysis with a media agency, whether it’s online, on print, on TV, on radio, it’s over 5 billion that have been exposed to the news. Indian TV headlines, maybe not in the jungle where there is no electricity in Africa, but it has been amazing.

Second, the way we at Philips communicate, is not a strategic choice. We have never asked a consulting marketing firm to teach us how to speak about watches. The way I speak about watches is exactly the way I feel. If you hear me say such and such comment about a watch in the press, that’s exactly how you would hear it from me over a glass of wine.

If people find it believable, authentic then great. If people find it unattractive, disturbing…

… it’s their loss.

What excites me about a watch is what you read in catalogues. And that is how I would best transmit the information. I don’t need a translator to translate my feelings into press releases. I think it’s the same when you’re in a restaurant with a sommelier and you ask for a wine. When I get these huge wine lists, I’m completely lost. So I close it and ask the sommelier for advice depending on what we’re eating. And once he starts talking about words that I don’t even know what they mean, on the palette and here and there and hairy and chocolatey and chemicals, I’m like, “Forget about it; I’ll have a juice.” But when he tells me to trust him that this burgundy is the bomb, done! Love it! He is authentic.

Should the wine not be a bomb as he promised, I will let him know and next time, either we speak differently or I’ll make my own choice, but I have actually never been disappointed. It’s interesting. I think passionate people are less likely to misrepresent things, because they often speak faster than they think and therefore the truth comes out quicker than the constructed truth. So I think that that’s the way the entire community has come, we are no longer ashamed to say the way we feel because 20 years ago you would be considered a nerd. There were the guys with the electric trains, they were put in one corner, then you have the guys who collected baseball cards, those were another bunch of “lunatics”, and then there were the watch collectors who were another difficult case. And today, its okay to be a watch collector, and you speak up openly about your passion.

It’s true. Obviously with the price tag attached to watches these days, it has also become a bit more aspirational. 

Well, I’m glad I was involved with watches in the 1980s when the price tags were different. I can thankfully say I would not have not entered the market because it was aspirational.  It’s true that today some connoisseurs are finding it difficult to buy their favorite pieces, but you know what, I can never afford an oil on canvas Picasso but I’m not bitter about it. It’s ok. I cannot afford a Ferrari GTO, it’s okay. I cannot afford a huge house in Beverly Hills or South Kensington, London. It’s okay. It’s the market that decides the price tag so I can admire it, I can drive by and admire the house, and it’s okay. I will not be able to afford a stainless steel 1518 myself, I don’t have those 11 million dollars. I have always thought it was one of the most beautiful watches of all time. And I already said that in the ’90s when the watch was 1 million dollars and I still wasn’t able to afford it but my esteem for the watch hasn’t changed just because it has become a trophy. The beauty of a watch is not connected to the price.

And it should be timeless in that sense. So many brands are now doing the whole restoration of their old pieces and selling them to clients. What are your thoughts on this and does it affect your business?

I don’t think at this stage any brands are doing it in the size that has an impact in terms of turnover,or eating into someone else’s turnover. I think it’s a great initiative. It shows that the brands are committed to their past, they are committed to their future. Because if a brand has an attitude that says, “Now that we’ve sold you a watch, can you go away and not bother us anymore?” – it doesn’t sound very good to me. Of course, with a Mercedes Benz, you go back to their store the next day and they give you a spick and span service. They are proud of their past and they are thinking for the future.

Now what about those shops that sell you t-shirts for $2.99? They say, “Sorry, throw it and buy a new one.” And therefore you will never give them any credit for beyond what they are, and what they are is very easy – they are a cheap fashion line selling you a fashionable t-shirt for $2.99 but you definitely do not associate heritage, quality, craftsmanship with their name. And Patek, Vacheron, Lange, Breguet – all these brands have archives going hundreds of years back. It’s a whole different approach. I think it’s great that they do it. And I think that it shows that the past, the present and the future have to go hand in hand. It’s not like auction houses should take care of the past, then watch manufacturers of the future, and retail somewhere in the middle. No, we all have to go and connect the three.

But it does feel a little like a reactionary short term approach? Perhaps, from an outsider point of view because I’m not with a brand.

Well, you’re right. They should have done it 10 or 20 years ago.

I cannot tell you why they haven’t done it before. It’s difficult, of course. But with any car manufacturers, you can go back, whether it’s Japanese or German, you can go back and say, “Nice model, the new one. I’d like to buy it, I have the previous model with 20,000 miles. Will you take it back?” They would ask you to head into their office and they’ll try to figure out what it’s worth and make you an offer. Have you ever tried to go back to a retailer and say, “I have a three year old chronograph with moonphase from your brand. I’d like to replace it for a new one.” They’ll tell you to go to a pre-owned seller or a website or an auction house.

I think it will help many more people feel much more comfortable that they are not actually buying something like the t-shirts. I’m not saying you have to throw it away, but how good is it a statement that a watch manufacturer is looking after you and willing to take back its three-year-old chronograph for a fair pre-owned price, and will then help you buy a new one? I think it’d be great.

Now, the implementation is very difficult. Believe me  I have been thinking about it for 20 years because imagine a company making 20, 40, 50 thousand watches a year. That means they have done that this year, last year, the previous year, etc. So there are hundreds of thousands of its watches out there. They have dozens and dozens of retailers around the world. Well, how do you make sure your retailer in Johannesburg knows how to value a watch? And then, how to be connected with the rest of the world? Johannesburg could be Buenos Aires, Dubai, Stockholm – it’s not that easy.

I know how much time and effort we put into accessing a pre-owned watch. Technical, historical, it’s very cumbersome, and complex. And to do that on a bigger scale… we sell 1,000 watches a year at Phillips, plus minus a thousand. What do you do when you multiply that? Because it’s not just the people that spoiled the watch from last year, but from last, last, last year as well.

So it’s a very interesting initiative and I would be delighted to help and make it happen, if asked, because I think it’s good for everyone.

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