[dropcap size=big]L[/dropcap]ast November, turn-of-the-19th century Italian painter and sculptor Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche sold for just over US$170 million (S$240 million) at Christie’s in New York. That sale made the painting of a reclining female nude the second most expensive sold at auction. And it was a record, set despite mixed results at the season’s headline art sales, which drove a 16 per cent drop in Sotheby’s share price the week of its auctions.

The painting that fetched hundreds of millions, making it the second most expensive in the world as of 2015. (PHOTO: Reuters)

The world of international watch auctions has had a similar bumper season. Just a few days before the art auctions began in New York, charity auction Only Watch took place in Geneva under the aegis of Phillips auctioneers.

One of the most high-profile watch auctions of the year, the event lived up to the hype when the Patek Philippe reference 5016A, a one-of-a-kind, grand complication wristwatch in stainless steel, went under the hammer for 7.3 million Swiss francs (S$10 million).


That result made the one-off piece created for the charity the most expensive wristwatch sold at auction, by a margin of several million dollars. At the same Only Watch sale, another one-of-a-kind wristwatch, the Tudor Black Bay One, sold for 375,000 Swiss francs – another extraordinary result that got the attention of everyone in the watch industry.

Not only did it become the most expensive Tudor watch sold, it was estimated to fetch only 3,500 to 4,500 Swiss francs. The closest equivalent of the watch on sale in watch boutiques can be had for less than $4,000. While many of the watches in the 44-lot sale did well, a significant number barely crossed their low estimates. Taking the watch auctions by Christie’s and Sotheby’s into account as well, it was a mixed result for the season, not unlike the art market.

But like the art market, the world of watch auctions has had a good run. The high watermark was arguably in November 2014, in a saleroom so packed, it was standing room only. That’s when Sotheby’s brought the hammer down on the Patek Philippe Graves “supercomplication” – a pocket watch made for American banker Henry Graves Jr – at 23.2 million Swiss francs.


The most complicated timepiece when it was delivered in 1933 with 24 complications, the Graves is now the most expensive timepiece sold at auction.

The factors that drive such incredible results are similar to those behind the eye-popping prices at art auctions. The object of desire has to be special – preferably unique – and coveted by many. But in the end, it boils down to two bidders, the size of their wallets and their self-esteem.

Above a certain price, it is difficult to rationally argue whether a watch, or a painting, is really worth that much – the premium can probably be ascribed to competing egos. The gift of a master auctioneer – Phillips’ Aurel Bacs is the undisputed master in watch auctions – is to deftly play the bidders against each other.

As questions are being asked about the state of art auctions, similar talk is being asked of that of watches. Optimists point to several factors in their favour, one being that timepieces are still more affordable than art, or even classic cars. A US$24 million watch is astronomical, except when compared to a painting that costs seven times as much or a US$50 million car.

Another factor is the relatively undeveloped state of the international watch auction market. While the major international watch auctioneers sell some US$300 million of watches among them each year, Switzerland exports well over US$20 billion of timepieces annually at wholesale cost- meaning that figure is about double at retail.

But pessimists point out, with good reason, that watches are neither paintings, nor are they automobiles. While there’s a compelling case to be made that watches should be considered as mechanical art, they have a long way to go.

Traditional art possesses unrivalled cultural, historic and religious significance, while cars have a vast appeal and many are icons of popular culture. Just look at the millions of posters of exotic cars on the bedroom walls of teenage boys the world over.

And then there’s a slowdown in the sales of new luxury watches, especially in Asia. This is evident in the results of publicly listed watchmaking groups like Richemont and the Swatch Group.

Though Eastern and Western markets are distinct and separate, there is an overlap among the buyers in both, specifically at the high-end, so a spillover effect is inevitable.

But the truth is, exceptionally rare and desirable timepieces will always find buyers willing to fork out top dollar. Just like the Modigliani and Patek Philippe Only Watch grand complication, truly special objects will be competed over by egos backed by fat bank accounts. You know that old adage to buy quality? It’s still sound advice.


Read more of Su Jia Xian’s incisive commentary at his website, WatchesbySJX.com.