What You Need to Know Before Buying an Antique or Vintage Watch

Hayley Kadrou   |   05-05-2019

If you’re in the market for a new timepiece of the old variety, then there are few things you need to know before striking a deal for the vintage or antique watch you’ve got your eye on.


Watches have long been collectable items. Across the centuries, as the timepieces evolved from pocket watches with only one hand to razor-thin and ultra-precise wrist accessories, watches have documented developments in technologies and the aesthetics of an era concurrently.


So it’s no wonder watch aficionados are keen to capture and keep hold of such moments in time. But if you’re keen to get your hands on a vintage (up until the 1990s) or antique timepieces (dating from 18th and 19th pocket watches) then see what expert Frederic Watrelot, Senior Watches Specialist at Sotheby’s advises.


Three Things To Know Before Buying a Vintage Watch


The Asprey, Patek Philippe, Sotheby's Geneva 13 November 2018

The Asprey, Patek Philippe, Sotheby’s Geneva 13 November 2018


Where to shop


If you are looking to purchase a pocket watch or a vintage wristwatch, you could go down the auction route and there are many reputable retailers which offer these kinds of pieces. Of course, in today’s internet age, a wealth of information can be found online, as well as opportunities to buy.


There are a few factors which make buying at auction an attractive option. Firstly, auction houses offer a guarantee of expertise and due diligence. Second, the pre-sale public exhibitions offer a great opportunity to see a watch close-up and try it on before buying. I would really encourage people to take advantage of the expertise of our specialists; they are on hand to explain what makes a certain piece stand out, any features you might not be familiar with and to advise you on starting or building a collection.


Lastly, auction houses offer a very wide range of timepieces, ranging in style and period from antique pocket watches and early wristwatches to vintage watches and modern pieces, all in one place.


Brands to buy


When looking at pocket watches, we have seen strong prices in recent years for Patek Philippe – the most valuable watch in the world, at $24 million, is the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, after all.


In this particular field, watches that illustrate key developments in the history of horology can also drive fierce bidding. For example, we have recently sold some beautiful pocket watches made by the world-renowned horologist, George Daniels, in our salerooms.


Among the wristwatches which perform well at auction, I would mention Patek Philippe such as The Asprey, a unique wristwatch from this prestigious manufacture which sold for $3.9 million in November last year, Audemars Piguet, and vintage (made before 1985) Rolex.


These watchmaking giants, as well as certain independent brands such as Richard Mille, FP Journe, Philippe Dufour, MB&F or Kari Voutilainen, are great to keep an eye out for, too.


What to look out for 


Henry Graves Supercomplication ii

Henry Graves Supercomplication II


Whether you’re looking at a pocket watch or a vintage wristwatch, I would say the most important factors to think about can be put into five different categories. The first and most important is the DNA of the brand or the maker: who manufactured the watch, what is their story, and why is this watchmaker or watch company important in the history of watchmaking.


Second, it is the rarity, how many examples like it were made, how often do watches such as this one come up for sale? Ideally, you should look for something hard-to-find.


Third, think about the complications, what is the watch doing other than telling the time. Mechanical complications such as a minute repeater or a chronograph can add value, especially early examples of such innovations.


Fourth is the condition: is the dial completely original? Has the case of the watch been polished? Is the movement running? These questions matter, because the most sought-after watches on today’s secondary market are those which are in their original, unaltered condition with their original certificate and papers.


The final aspect to think about is the provenance of the watch – who are the previous owners? An important or illustrious previous owner can also make a watch more valuable. Overall, my advice would be to focus on an area of watchmaking that you like (whether that’s antique pocket watches or vintage wristwatches, etc) and do your research!


Sotheby’s is located at Level B2, Gate Village Building 3 DIFC. 


Everything you need to know about buying and antique or vintage watch

Everything you need to know about buying an antique or vintage watch


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