On May 4, at precisely 8 a.m. in Los Angeles, two prospective buyers began a spirited bidding war on the watch auction website Loupe This over a rare 1967 Cartier Crash wristwatch.
By the time the frenzy — 34 bids over 20 minutes — had ended, the bidder identified as “swoop” had beaten “sionofbo” with an offer of $1,503,888. Once the 10 percent buyer’s premium was added, the total was nearly double the highest result ever achieved at auction for the famously bent-out-of-shape timepiece, an icon of 1960s watch design.
“We smashed the record for a London Crash,” Eric Ku, a co-founder of Loupe This, said on a recent phone call, referring to the London designation on the dial, denoting an early and highly sought-after variation of the timepiece.
While the moment had none of the drama associated with a live auction — no bidders wielding paddles, no auctioneer rattling off prices and certainly no hammer — it epitomized where many industry experts think the future of luxury watch auctions is headed: the internet.
Online watch auctions have been around since 2002, when eBay pioneered the format, but it took the established auction houses — including Bonhams, Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s — another 11 years or so to begin holding dedicated digital watch sales. Until recently, however, they treated those events as a way to auction more commercial timepieces whose sales made up in volume what they lacked in prestige.
The pandemic changed all that. In addition to supercharging demand for all things digital, it gave rise to a handful of online-only watch auction upstarts — like Loupe This, founded in 2021 in Los Angeles — that have challenged conventional wisdom about how much collectors are willing to pay online. In the process, these newcomers have underscored the appeal of auctions at a time when the market for collectible timepieces — especially steel sport models such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and the Rolex Daytona — appears to be cooling.
“Auctions — the whole dynamic is made for these somewhat turbulent times,” said Silas Walton, founder of A Collected Man, a London-based pre-owned watch dealer that in April kicked off a series of online auctions featuring a curated selection of rare timepieces.
“What we’re seeing is a paused breath on fixed price sales,” Mr. Walton said during a phone interview in June. “A lot of collectors are waiting to see what something is worth before engaging in a sale.”
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