Pocket Classics

Pocket watches are society’s oldest portable timekeepers, and until the advent of the wristwatch in the early 20th century, they were a symbol of style, prestige, and punctuality for both men and women. More recently, pocket watches have become a top draw at major auction houses, attracting high bids and sometimes selling for millions of dollars. The most recent example is the April sale of the white gold version of the Patek Philippe Calibre 89, which sold for $5,002,652 at Antiquorum’s 30th anniversary watch and clock auction in Geneva, Switzerland. It was the second-highest price ever paid for a watch at auction—the GravesSupercomplication, also by Patek Philippe (see sidebar), sold for $11 million in 1999.

What’s the attraction of pocket watches for collectors? JCK recently chatted with two leading watch experts—Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman and founder of Antiquorum Auctioneers, and Daryn Schnipper, director of Sotheby’s worldwide watches and clocks department—about that question.

WGS: How has watch collectors’ interest in pocket watches changed in recent years?

Patrizzi: I think there was a change at the beginning of 1985 when wristwatches started to become more interesting to collectors. But the prices of wristwatches climbed fairly quickly, so much so that by the mid-1990s, collectors—both those instinctively drawn to pocket watches, as well as some wristwatch collectors—began to reconsider collecting pocket watches.

Between 1985 and the mid-1990s, the prices paid for pocket watches weren’t been proportional to the importance of the pieces. Today, though, pocket watches are again much sought after, and prices for very rare pieces and those in perfect condition are higher than they have ever been.

Schnipper: It’s still very much a Patek Philippe-driven market, especially for pocket watches. Those are the ones commanding the highest prices, but there is also some renewed interest in 19th-century English watches, like Frodsham. Interest in the whole story of longitude in the past 10 years has helped English chronometers, especially, and German watches such as Lange & Söhne are doing fairly well. There’s also a lot of renewed interest in pocket watches with enamel or automatons, actually anything unusual.

WGS: What effect—if any—did the sales of the Calibre 89 and the Graves Supercomplicationa few years ago have on the pocket watch market and prices?

Patrizzi: Antiquorum’s 1989 sale of the Calibre 89, and also the Henry Graves complication, sold in 1999 for $11 million by Sotheby’s, gave the watchmaking industry—especially collectors’ pocket watches—a new dimension. Before the Calibre 89, the price for a pocket watch never exceeded $1 million. Until 1989, when it was sold, even the most complicated, the most important, or the most extravagant pocket watches received more or less the same prices [at auction]. But the “need to own” created a new dimension and caused the price, for the first time, to exceed that all-important barrier of $1 million. So, I would say that the Calibre 89 was the catalyst for the reevaluation of the value of pocket watches.

Schnipper : People are realizing that in the last 20 years, pocket watches have been undervalued. They had a strong market at the end of the 1970s, but in the 1980s, it sort of evaporated. Certain pocket watches never really went back up.

Prices of wristwatches are now so disproportionate to those of pocket watches that some are reevaluating pocket watches [as collectibles], especially when there are fabulous enamelled ones or those with the same type of complications as a wristwatch made at the same time. A Patek Philippe perpetual calendar minute repeater split second pocket watch, for example, might sell for a maximum of about $200,000. A Patek Philippe wristwatch with those same features and from the same period may well sell above $1 million.

Of course, sales of the Graves and the Calibre 89 did have an effect. Just the fact that a watch could bring $11 million, or the Calibre 89 could bring $5 million has to have some effect.

But while prices for pocket watches are going up—for Patek Philippes, mostly, but also for enameled ones and automatons, the “trophy” sort of watches—there aren’t many million-dollar-plus ones. There are very few like the Graves, and that’s spoken for, and those of James Packard (see sidebar) are spoken for, too. There’s nothing else like them now—though something extraordinary could always show up tomorrow. Certainly any watch with Henry Graves provenance would attract interest and could go for a high price due to its 1999 precedent.

But otherwise, the market for most pocket watches now is between $5,000 and $500,000.

WGS: Have the buyers changed, too?

Patrizzi: I don’t believe there’s been any real change in the type of people who buy pocket watches. Wristwatches are generally more interesting to those between 18 and 40 years of age, even up to 50 years of age. Pocket watches are of more interest to the over-30s. Pocket watch collectors generally are those who greatly appreciate objets d’art. After all, at a certain age there comes a maturity which allows us to appreciate an object in greater depth.

WGS: Is the pocket watch market becoming more international, with more foreign buyers and collectors? Are more women or younger people getting into it?

Schnipper: The pocket-watch market always has been international, but more Americans now are interested in collecting them, especially enameled and complicated ones. A small portion of wristwatch people also are getting more interested—again, because of those huge price differences between pocket watches and wristwatches.

Certainly more people are interested in pocket watches, and there definitely are more younger people, in their 30s, though that’s not a big market. Traditionally, pocket watches were collected by people north of 40 years of age, but now a small but growing number of younger people are looking at them, because there is greater variety offered with far more complications.

It’s still mainly a man’s preserve, though. There are so many other forms of self-expression for women in wristwatches and jewelry.

WGS: Are pocket watches, as a category of watch auctions, changing?

Patrizzi: Ten years ago, we sold pocket watches for their complications. Today, we sell them for their history, explaining how a watch was created, the history of the person who created it, and its provenance. We sell it with all its added value, all its cultural baggage. A watch, whether an enameled piece or a complication, has a story to tell, a personal history. This is why interest in these timepieces has changed and also why prices have changed.

We’re delving much more deeply now into the history of a piece to discover things of which we were previously unaware. I think in the next few years we’re going to evolve our knowledge of the history of watchmaking in such a way that we can offer collectors various fascinating items which will be even more interesting and exciting.

WGS: Are there untapped categories or types of pocket watches that might grow in value or demand in the next few years?

Schnipper: Complicated watches by less popular makers never really rebounded, so you can still find ones with all the bells and whistles and a perpetual calendar for only $10,000. Another category is that of minute repeaters, which in general are down now.

The final sale of items of the Time Museum sale this fall will have some interesting pieces. For example, there’s a pocket watch with six movements from the 1830s; some fabulous astronomical watches and even a “barking dog” watch. It will be a monumental sale and will be highlighted by the “mudge green” marine timekeeper, John Harrison’s long case clock, and the museum’s entire collection of marine chronometers. It will be interesting to see how the horological market in general responds.