For those in the watch-collecting community, Aurel Bacs is somewhat of an icon. He is known for having sold the world’s most expensive wristwatch at auction last October: Paul Newman's own Rolex "Paul Newman" Daytona Reference 6239.
The watch, which sat on the actor-slash-race-car-driver’s wrist for 15 years, fetched a staggering US$17.8 million (S$23.4 million) at a Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo sale in New York.
It is Bacs that the world’s top collectors turn to when they want to offload a piece in their collection, or acquire their next one. It was Bacs who helped grow auction house Christie’s watch business from US$7 million in 2003 to US$130 million in 2013.
For watch enthusiasts, therefore, meeting him in person is somewhat of a treat. This much was clear at Malmaison by The Hour Glass last week.
From April 4 to 8, the luxury emporium played host to a travelling exhibition from two upcoming Phillips sales, the Daytona Ultimatum and Geneva Watch Auction: SEVEN.
There, Bacs – who runs consulting firm Bacs & Russo with his wife Livia Russo – gamely posed for photos with enthusiasts, and fielded queries about the pieces being showcased.
Whether or not these enthusiasts will actually be placing bids on the world’s most valuable pieces is irrelevant – it was his opinion that was invaluable.
THE UNICORN AND ELVIS PRESLEY’S WATCH
The Daytona Ultimatum sale will take place in Geneva on May 12. “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,” Bacs told CNA Lifestyle, referring to noted Italian watch collector John Goldberger.
Proceeds from the sale of the watch – which has an opening bid of CHF 3 million (S$4.1 million) – will go towards Children Action, a charity helping children in need.
In the Geneva Watch Auction: SEVEN sale happening the day after, an Omega dress watch belonging to the King of rock ’n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley, is up for grabs.
RCA Records presented Presley with the timepiece in 1961 to commemorate his achievement of having sold 75 million records. The white gold watch has a manual-winding movement, Tiffany & Co. signature on the dial (the company retails other brands’ watches in the United States, not just its own), and a bezel encrusted with 44 brilliant diamonds.
It is expected to sell for between CHF 50,000 and CHF 100,000.
Currently, the vintage watch market is worth around US$500 million, Bacs estimates. And he believes interest in vintage watches will only continue to grow.
“There are collectors who have reached the summit,” said Bacs, 47. “The best (contemporary watches) you can buy: Grand complications, tourbillons, minute repeaters.”
The one thing these new timepieces cannot give, he said? History.
“A watch from 2018 cannot tell you a 50-year-long romantic story. It’s like with human beings: A 20-year-old man or woman cannot (communicate) the same rich experience as an 80-year-old. In today’s society – where things are made, consumed and disposed of – we lack objects that are made to last.
“This is what is giving – especially the younger generation – so much motivation to secure a piece of history.”
A MASTER SHARES HIS ADVICE
Bacs’ personal watch collection comprises 90-per-cent vintage and 10-per-cent current production models. It is a passion passed down to him from his father, and he began his collecting journey in his teens.
Growing up in Zurich in the 1980s, he would scour the city’s flea markets in the hopes of finding treasure. On Saturdays, Bacs, his father and a group of collectors would gather at a cafe to share, discuss and trade their latest discoveries.
In these days before the Internet, there were no forums, chatrooms, blogs or sites dedicated to watch-collecting. Magazines were few and books were expensive.
Much of Bacs’ knowledge and subsequent expertise was gleaned through his interactions with more experienced collectors, as well as through trial and error.
“I remember my first mistakes: Buying a watch, opening (the case) and finding out that there was no movement inside. I learned in a very painful way that you have to do your due diligence.”
Due diligence is also something he advocates for those looking to acquire watches as an investment.
“Do your homework,” he said. “If you’re not a specialist, seek the advice of a specialist. If you go to a restaurant and don’t know anything about the wines, you ask the sommelier. When you have a pain in your back and you don’t know why, you ask a doctor.
“Secondly, collect what you like. Don’t collect what your friends tell you to collect. Find your own personal style. I buy only what I like. 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.
“And third, don’t be shy to pay a premium if you realise (that the watch is) the one thing you really want. You will quickly forget the premium, but the pleasure will last much longer.”
For seasoned collectors, Bacs suggests doing regular stock takes and making cuts where necessary. It’s okay to let go, he said.
“Once in a while, look at your collection and assess what doesn’t make sense anymore,” said Bacs. “Make space in your mind, your (watch box) and your bank account for new acquisitions. It’s healthy to reassess.”