Inside the Frenzied World of Rare Watches and the Rich People Who Love Them – Vanity Fair


On the morning of December 11, a young, nattily dressed, largely unmasked crowd streamed into the lower level of Phillips in midtown Manhattan for the 2021 New York Watch Auction, abuzz with the kind of anticipation you might expect in line for a concert. Phillips’s brand-new glass-box headquarters sits at the foot of 432 Park Avenue, the matchstick-thin luxury residential tower that teeters over a short stretch of Midtown commonly known as billionaire’s row but that might as well be called the watch district: On the same block are multilevel flagship stores for a number of coveted luxury watch brands, including Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Richard Mille, some of whose timepieces retail for seven figures.

The auctiongoers took their seats in the brightly lit white-walled room, iPhones at the ready to document what promised to be a momentous event. Just a few days before the sale, well after catalogs had been printed and shipped to collectors around the world, Phillips had announced a surprise first lot: a new Patek Philippe reference 5711 Nautilus sports watch, made in partnership with Tiffany’s, complete with a robin’s egg dial. The watch’s retail price was $52,635—spare change for the kind of big-game collector auction houses typically target. Earlier in the year, Patek Philippe (perhaps the ne plus ultra of luxury watchmakers) had sent the watch world into hysterics when it announced that it would discontinue the 5711, perhaps its most iconic model. The Tiffany’s iteration would be among the last ever produced. Patek made just 170 of them, so unless you were one of Tiffany’s 169 best customers, your only chance to buy one new was to bid on it this morning at Phillips.

The star of the event, aside from the watch, was the elegantly grizzled man behind the rostrum, Aurel Bacs, whose company, Bacs & Russo, has partnered with Phillips since 2014. Bacs is as close to a celebrity as an auctioneer can get, having presided over numerous record-shattering watch sales during the last 20 years at three major houses. Born in Zurich in 1971, Bacs has a flair for finding unique pieces and a genius for the coup de théâtre. In 2017, Christie’s sold an ultrarare watch previously owned by the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and within two days Bacs stole their thunder with a Rolex that belonged to Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai—it sold for almost twice the price.

His fondness for spectacle was on full display last December. Exuding a wolfish, Mitteleuropean charm, Bacs wielded his gavel like a baton, the room both his audience and his orchestra. Lot #1 started off pianissimo: Bacs opened the bidding at $20,000, less than half the retail price. Starting with such an unrealistically low bid is often designed to generate momentum before the real bidding begins.



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