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Lights, camera, auction!

Timothy Chiang
Timothy Chiang • 10 min read
Lights, camera, auction!
Leading watch auctioneer Aurel Bacs is known for having sold the world’s most expensive wristwatch — the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona. In May, he will preside over the auction of an Omega that belonged to Elvis Presley. He shares his insights and
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Leading watch auctioneer Aurel Bacs is known for having sold the world’s most expensive wristwatch — the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona. In May, he will preside over the auction of an Omega that belonged to Elvis Presley. He shares his insights and watch collecting journey with Options.

SINGAPORE (Apr 30): When the Geneva Watch Auction: SEVEN sale rolls around on May 13, an Omega dress watch belonging to Elvis Presley — the King of Rock ’n’ Roll — will be up for grabs. It is expected to go under the hammer for CHF50,000 ($67,600) to CHF100,000.

This piece of watchmaking/pop culture history was on display for five days at Malmaison by The Hour Glass in April. Phillips, the auction house running the sale, typically previews sale highlights at its own offices or showrooms.

The exhibition at the luxury emporium was therefore a special occasion, thanks to the close relationship between auctioneer Aurel Bacs and The Hour Glass group managing director Michael Tay.

“I’ve known Mike Tay for many years,” Bacs tells Options. “It goes without saying that we have a number of things in common. We love all things watches. We believe the watch collectors and clients of The Hour Glass and Phillips would be a natural match.”

Bacs, a Swiss auctioneer/watch specialist who runs consulting firm Bacs & Russo with his wife, Livia Russo, is something of a rock star in the watch collecting community. He is known for having sold the world’s most expensive wristwatch at auction, Paul Newman’s own Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona Reference 6239, last October.

The watch fetched a staggering US$17.8 million ($23.4 million) at a Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo sale in New York.

Prior to setting up his own firm in 2015, Bacs, 47, spent a decade with auction house Christie’s. There, he grew the watch business from $7 million in 2003 to $130 million in 2013.

The Elvis Presley Omega is not the most expensive piece in the 185-lot sale, however. That honour goes to a yellow-gold Patek Philippe perpetual calendar with chronograph, thought to be one-of-a-kind. It is estimated to fetch between CHF800,000 and CHF1.6 million.

The Omega belongs to the most famous person in the sale.

Presley received it from RCA Records in 1961 when his record sales hit the 75-million mark. The white-gold watch has a manual-winding movement and Tiffany & Co signature on its dial. (In the US, the luxury jeweller retails other brands’ watches

in addition to its own.) There is also an engraving on the case back commemorating the achievement.

Bacs says, “This watch comes from the nephew of the gentleman with whom Elvis Presley agreed to exchange watches quite spontaneously. They saw each other’s watch on the wrist and spontaneously agreed to trade.

“It’s a significant watch for those who love the Elvis Presley provenance, because it’s engraved. It has history, it has pictures, multiple documents and proof. It’s not just another watch. It’s a watch from a significant moment in Elvis’ career.”

Elvis Presley versus Paul Newman

The Paul Newman Rolex had an estimate value of US$1 million and up, but closed 17 times higher. Bacs says it is unlikely that the Elvis Presley Omega will achieve a similar feat.

“It’s a matter of how relevant a watch is in the historical context. Elvis Presley was one of the greatest stars of the 20th century. He was in the Top Five for sure — along with the Beatles, Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones — but he did not change the history of watch collecting the way Paul Newman did with his Rolex Daytona.”

That watch sat on the actor/race car driver’s wrist for 15 years (from 1968, when his wife gave it to him). Bacs says Newman inspired people to look at sports watches differently.

In the 1960s and 1970s, pilots wore pilots’ watches, divers wore diving watches, adventurers wore tool watches, and astronauts wore Omega Speedmasters. Everyone else wore classic gents’ watches.

The Rolex Daytona was originally designed for race car drivers. Thanks to Newman, however, everyone wanted to own and wear a Daytona in the 1980s and 1990s. “There has been a whole shift in appreciation,” says Bacs.

Riding on the current high for Daytonas, Bacs will preside over a Daytona-only auction, Daytona Ultimatum, in Geneva on May 12. It is a tightly curated affair, with just 32 watches on offer.

“The highlight of that auction is ‘The Unicorn’, the only known white-gold manual-winding Daytona in the world, coming from what I consider the single most important private collection of vintage wristwatches,” says Bacs, referring to Italian collector John Goldberger.

Proceeds from the sale of the watch, which has an opening bid of CHF3 million, will go towards Children Action, a charity helping children in need.

Not surprisingly, there are quite a few Daytonas with so-called Paul Newman dials — those with a white main colour and black sub-dials, as well as vice versa— in the sale.

Best in class

Bacs admits that many of the Daytonas in the sale do not have unique or super-rare dials, but they are the best examples of their kind on the market right now.

He offers an analogy, saying: “If you were to have a thematic auction on Porsche 911 Carreras, anyone can put together an auction of 32 cars. But try to find those from the 1960s and 1970s, with less than a few thousand miles on the meter, in showroom condition. That was the challenge.”

The pursuit of perfection — that is, a piece that is in near-mint condition — is so highly sought after because it allows the owner to be transported back in time, a time familiar to our forefathers, says Bacs. And it allows the owner to secure a tangible piece from that era.

To locate these rare birds, Bacs sought the help of Pucci Papaleo, the world’s leading authority on Rolex Daytonas. Papaleo is author of the 600-page tome, The Ultimate Rolex Daytona, and has a network of contacts in the Daytona collecting community. “So, we knew where the watches were,” says Bacs.

Many collectors came forward with their pieces, but were turned away. The filtering process was so rigid that many watches did not qualify.

The challenge was in convincing some collectors to part with their prized possessions. “I told these collectors that they would see a very good result for their watch, but they said they didn’t care about the money. They cared about owning the best Daytona.

“Money is not as tempting an argument anymore. It has lost so much of its meaning, relevance and value in the last 10 or so years. How important is money compared with the pride, pleasure and privilege of owning a great painting, diamond, motorcar or bottle of wine?

“It’s extremely meaningless to know that you can make a couple of hundred thousand on a watch. [The collectors] often say, ‘What am I going to do with the money afterwards?’ and I reply, ‘Oh, you buy yourself a brand-new Ferrari.’ ‘I already have one.’ ‘How about a private jet?’ ‘I already have one.’”

The romance of vintage

The vintage watch market is currently worth US$500 million, Bacs estimates. And there is plenty of upside potential, considering that the entire Swiss watch industry exported CHF20 billion worth of watches in 2017.

Bacs says the top collectors — for whom money is no object — can splurge as much as they want on contemporary grand complications, tourbillons or minute repeaters. But the one thing those watches lack is history.

“A watch from 2018 cannot tell you a 50-year-long romantic story. It does not display patina. It’s like with human beings: A 20-year-old man or woman cannot share the same rich experience as an 80-year-old.”

Bacs believes this is the prime motivation driving the purchasing decision of many collectors — especially younger ones. Our hyper-consumerist society champions products that are cheap, quick and disposable; consequently, this heightens the desire for goods that are nostalgic, emotional or romantic.

“Your phone and my phone can’t tell a story,” maintains Bacs. “But the watch your father left you, that he may have worn for his graduation, has a beautiful story.

“And you can wear it. It’s not a vase that’s fragile and has to stay at home. It goes with you to meetings, to dinner. It shares your life with you in a way that no other collectible can. Not even a motorcar — and I’m a petrolhead — which can only go so far as the front door. It will not come to dinner, and it will not go into the bedroom with you.”

Collector for life

Bacs caught the watch collecting bug from his father. In Zurich, where he grew up, there used to be (and still is) a flea market at Bürkliplatz every Saturday morning. Instead of hanging out at the movies with his friends, he would save up to buy watches at the market, spending between CHF20 and CHF50.

Once the market closed for the day, all the watch collectors would gather at a nearby café and show off their day’s haul or discuss their latest discoveries. “I was the only teenager there. It was a privilege for a 15-year-old boy to be welcomed by the older, more experienced collectors.”

He remembers those early forays fondly.

“Back in the early 1980s, there were hardly any books [about watch brands]. There was no internet. It was all a puzzle. A bit like Indiana Jones going into the jungle and not knowing what’s around the corner. It was a wonderful time, which I sometimes miss.

“It was all about trial and error. You couldn’t Google ‘What’s the right movement type for that reference’. There were good chances you were lucky when you bought a watch, because people didn’t doctor watches as they do today. The value just didn’t justify the effort.

“I remember my first mistake: buying a watch, opening it and finding out there was no movement inside. I learnt in a very painful way that you have to do your due diligence. It was like the first steps of a child: you fall, stand up, fall again, stand up again.”

Although the learning curve was steep, Bacs cherished the journey of discovery. He also has vivid memories of making friends, visiting other collectors and talking to watchmakers.

In terms of stylistic preferences, his tastes lean towards the classic: steel over gold, round rather than rectangular. He is not a fan of bulky, oversized watches. “I’ve never bought anything that’s popular. In fact, I often enjoy the fact that I buy things that are unpopular. I have to like it; not the rest of the world.”

Bacs does not keep tabs on the extent of his collection, but he says the most valuable watches are the ones with sentimental value: those he received from his wife and family, the ones that he fought hard to get or find, or waited the longest to find.

“I received an A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 from my wife’s family when we got married. I received a Rolex Daytona from my wife when we decided to open a new chapter in our careers, not knowing where we would end up.

“The inscription on the back is meaningful: ‘For every door one closes, a new gate will open.’ It was a trip into the unknown. This was the watch I was wearing at the Paul Newman auction. It’s very meaningful.”

And he, too, like many other collectors, is unwilling to part with his treasures. “If people offered me a premium over market price for my favourite watches, I would still not sell them. The money will not compensate me for losing the emotion.”

Timothy Chiang is a design junkie through and through, believing that everything from a doorknob to the entire building needs to display thoughtful design. He lives for meetings of minds with design luminaries.

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