True quality is only revealed years later
Aurel Bacs, Senior Consultant at Phillips and probably the most successful watch auctioneer of our era talks his various World Records, the rise of vintage and constantly evolving market.
2016 was rather a bad year for the watchmaking in general. Has it affected the auction world?
Not at all, in fact in its second year since re-launch in 2015 the Phillips watch department achieved a global turnover of over $100 million, more than any auction house. We achieved numerous ground-breaking World Records, including the historic $11 million result for the Patek Philippe ref. 1518 sold at our last Geneva watch auction in November.
Seems like knowledge and understanding of watches today is higher than ever. What consequences does it have on an auction business?
You are absolutely right, knowledge, “scholarship” and understanding the market are the key ingredients for anyone who wants to be active in vintage watches. As a consequence, the auction industry has radically changed: on one hand we spend 5-10 times more time and resources when researching watches and when preparing the auction catalogues, while at the same time the watch market has grown in sink and consequently the healthy and necessary “input/output” balance has remained intact.
You’ve set several absolute records. How does it feel when you realize you’ve just made history?
Of course presiding an auction when World Records fall is always adrenaline loaded and combined with great satisfaction. In my view, it’s not me who achieved the record but the watch itself, the global market, and the collectors respectively. I consider myself only a link in-between them and I am of course very honoured when the sellers and bidders extend their trust to me and give me the privilege to achieve stellar results on their behalf.
Do you have any rituals before walking in the room full of collectors? What’s your inspiration?
My rituals have been evolving during the last three years while my inspiration is based on my love for great watches and my conviction that the finest watches in the world are equally important as fine paintings, delicate works of art and historical motorcars.
Can you give any hints on how to help people conquer their doubts and raise the bids higher and higher?
It is of course every auctioneer’s job to achieve the best possible result on behalf of the seller. On the other hand, an auctioneer should apply good common sense when to push a room and when to slow it down.
When you take the hammer and all this pressure and intensity rises, you still find the place for a joke. Do you think your job demands some entertaining talents?
Please let me assure you that I never go up on the rostrum with a prepared list of jokes! Rather on the contrary, you cannot plan anything as an auctioneer. You are not reading a script like an actor on stage but you are on a constant dialogue with your bidders. However, I do believe that a good auctioneer needs to be in total harmony with the watch and the bidders. Once this is the case, everyone can have a good time, including the auctioneer.
The whole auction event doesn’t really seem to change with technology. Why?
Indeed, the auction process is very old, and as far as I know the auctions were held even in ancient Babylon and Roman Empire. At the same time, we need to remember that any market should follow the principles of supplying demand. And this can best be achieved when objects are sold to the highest bidder. It remains one of the most efficient and fairest methods to establish the value of an object.
What gives you more thrills and pleasure - to act as a bidder or as auctioneer?
It’s funny you should ask me this question because I am actually more nervous when bidding on a watch than acting as an auctioneer. I can only conclude that it is due to the fact that I have auctioned tens of thousands of watches myself but only bid a few hundreds myself in my career.
Do you ever have this kind of moments when you see a new timepiece and feel it’s an instant classic?
Yes, there are watches that give you that instant “wow” reaction. However, some watches are growing with time and the community only recognises them years later as true masterpieces. I guess it is similar in other areas like art, music and wine where the true quality is only revealed years later.
Do you consider yourself a watch collector?
Of course I love watches but I wouldn’t go as far as calling myself a serious watch collector. The watches I own are not connected by any theme and simply meet one requirement: I love them. Also I never actively look for a watch but wait to be surprised and happily seduced when a great watch comes my way.
Have you noticed any major trends on the rise recently?
Yes, in one simple word: Vintage.
Where are we now on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is a quartz crisis and 10 is the best possible time for fine watchmaking?
Some manufacturers are close to 1 while others strive and are close to 10. It is hard to give you an average for the whole industry but I think it is somewhere between 7 and 8. This is of course great but thankfully there is still room for improvement.
Let’s pretend there was no such thing as mechanical watches. What profession would you choose in that kind of world and why?
I believe that the next cool thing that would motivate me to get out of bed early in the morning and sometimes work for 100 hours a week would be vintage motorcars. The technical and aesthetical aspects are very similar to watches and they give me very similar emotions.