When I was in New York City a few weeks ago, I caught the Patek Philippe Art of Watches Grand Exhibition on its third-to-last day at Cipriani 42nd Street and followed up on that tour with a visit to Christie’s to check out a private sale of around 400 Patek Philippe timepieces nearing the end of a concurrent (but unaffiliated) 11-day run. If the Patek showcase was a pop-up museum, then think of the Christie’s sale as its gift shop.
At Christie’s Patek Philippe Private Selling Exhibition in New York City, this Patek Philippe Ref. 1518, which once belonged to King Farouk of Egypt, was one of about 400 timepieces on display. The vast majority were available for purchase then and there.
“Collectors love the idea of a private sale,” John Reardon, international head of watches at Christie’s, told me as we admired a case of chronographs and minute repeaters in pristine condition. “What we’re learning is this is a new business model and it’s going to be part of our growth in the future because this is what our clients want, what they’re asking for. The world of retail has finally met the world of auction. Our collectors have demanded it and we’re going to listen.”
An 18k gold pocket watch by Patek Philippe with Tiffany & Co. on the dial, priced at $7,500 at Christie’s Patek Philippe Private Selling Exhibition (also pictured at top)
Private sales at auction houses are nothing new. Christie’s has a whole department that brokers deals between buyers and sellers who are more comfortable dealing with a fixed price than with the unpredictability of an auction. But the Patek exhibition at Christie’s, Reardon said, is the biggest private selling event the house has ever had—in any category—and the appetite to do more of these events is only growing.
To wit: Christie’s Los Angeles location just concluded a 10-day private sale of watches that included a seductive lot of vintage and contemporary timepieces—including a Rolex Milgauss for $6,000, a Royal Oak Offshore by Audemars Piguet for $66,000, and a Patek Philippe Ref. 5074 for $500,000. Last Wednesday evening, I popped by Christie’s Beverly Hills gallery to attend a cocktail reception for the private sale (which ran from Aug. 2-12) and found the space buzzing with (mostly) guys, ogling the pieces in the cases.
Potential buyers peruse the cases at the Christie’s private watch sale event in Beverly Hills.
For watch buyers accustomed to buying at auction, buying direct from the auctioneer for a fixed price—that doesn’t include a 25 percent buyer’s premium—“is fundamentally shocking,” Reardon said. “It’s eye-opening for us as an auctioneer and eye-opening for our clients. Word is getting out that prices are really exceptional.”
And therein lies the rub. The watch market is grappling with a host of issues—from the unstoppable tide of e-commerce sweeping across the industry to the boom in preowned timepieces fueling it—and Christie’s unapologetic embrace of retail is yet another sign of how dramatically traditional modes of buying and selling watches are changing.
Brick-and-mortar retailers with a stake in the watch business have surely felt the old model giving way in recent months and years, and if they haven’t paid attention to those tectonic shifts and positioned themselves as trusted, independent authorities in their communities (with a strong digital presence and savvy social marketing), they are not likely to last.
But that’s not to suggest there is no future for traditional watch retailers. I was reminded of this at the Christie’s event in Beverly Hills last week when I ran into Billy Ruvelson, a Los Angeles–based Patek Philippe collector I recognized from an event the brand held in Tucson a few years ago. I got to chatting with Billy and asked him if he had considered buying his watches online or from the showcases there in the Christie’s gallery. His answer surprised me.
“I’ve never bought a watch from a website,” Ruvelson said. He told me his relationship with Geary’s, the Beverly Hills–based retailer from whom he buys most of his watches, superseded any cost savings he could find online and that “you don’t get the full experience buying from an online retailer”—by which he meant perks like trips to Geneva to visit the Patek Philippe manufacture.
While it’s clear that Ruvelson is a sophisticated buyer playing in the watch industry’s big leagues, he makes a valuable point: Brick-and-mortar retailers who staff their stores with knowledgeable salespeople willing to nurture serious collectors over the long haul will be rewarded with loyalty—provided they understand the importance of giving them access. Access to limited models, access to factory visits, access to events for like-minded collectors. Facing a new breed of competition—whether websites or auction houses—traditional retailers must create a compelling experience for their clients. And offering them coffee or a glass of champagne while they’re browsing in your store is not it.