Within the hallowed halls of the mostly “corrupt” art world, there’s a special dais reserved for the live auction.
Mixing equal parts competitiveness, emotion, ego, opaqueness, deal-making, sex, and booze, many a world record has been set at live auction. For many highly rare and thinly traded artistic commodities, there’s arguably no other way to find a market-clearing price, and to unite buyer and seller, than the live auction, but that doesn’t mean that the performance art is anything less than fraught.i
To be sure, records are made to be broken,ii but we can only tell the distance between our asses and our bagsiii if we use the same measuring stick every time. Using the French pouce one day and the English inch the next day is how you lose hundred-million-dollar spacecraft, or how you land in the “New World” in 1492.
So it is that the ultra-high-end watch world is busy congratulating itself, and Patek Philippe, for using a pouce instead of an inch. As you may have heard, the pièce unique Patek 6300Aiv Grandmaster Chime, whose 20 separate complications practically burst forth from the 48mm diameter and 16mm height case, to the point that the watch has not one but two dials, spinning around on their mobile lugs to suit the owner’s preferred vantage point, has sold for a “record” CHF 31mn at the eighth biennial “Only Watch” fundraisingv auction on November 9, 2019.vi
The thing is, it’s a big tax write-off.vii As a charitable donation, the purchase of all fifty watches was obviously eligible for tax deductions, resulting in a conveniently elided but nonetheless inevitable price inflation over market value of, who knows, probably 50% ? According to at least one highly reputed collector I know en passant, the 6300A should’ve fetched CHF 20mn-ish in a normal auction, putting it just behind the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication, which hammered for $24mn in 2014 (or >$100mn in 2019 dollars, inflation adjusted). The thing is, it was the same with the PNPN in 2017 when Aurel Bacs’ hammer dropped for a “record” $17.8mn : the auction proceeds went to charity, thus sweetening the deal and undeniably the pot. Such results are therefore akin to starting a 100m dash at the 50m mark. Of course you’re going to “beat” Usain Bolt.
While auction prices for high-end watches and fine art are doing considerably better than the soggy high-end car market at the moment, little “tricks” like this pouces/inches charade deprive the results of their rigour, and therefore a good measure of their amusement and benchmark value.
Regardless of my bellyaching, the marketing impact is undeniable and has been manufactured by the best.viii With this latest nudge, watches continue to invade mainstream consciousness (and my own), representing as they do a fresh class of body-borne art and a tangible reminder that we’re all just here for a good time, not a long time.
That’s worth something. Maybe even CHF 31mn.
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- To quote the seriously professional, beautifully insightful, and disarmingly honest vintage watch dealer Alessandro Ciano, from his recent article for OM Magazine :
As a general rule – auction houses don’t do anything other than looking for inventory cheap enough to allow them to make a 25% commission in a market where even the highest qualified professionals average 15%. Obviously, this happens either at the expense of the unaware consignor, of the quality of the watches offered for sale, or of the unprepared buyer.
Furthermore, no market analysis is generally run, and inventory is thrown out there without the slightest clue of how the particular moment or other extemporaneous circumstances may affect the results: they cross their fingers hoping for the best, since buyer’s commission will be more as the hammer prices get higher, whether the client wins or loses. Selling the highest possible percentage of the offered lots is the only true concern of the department, as this is the only thing that the board will use evaluate the performance – and employment future – of every member of the team.
- I should know. ↩
- ie. our chodas. ↩
- A stands for “Acier,” a metal that holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Patek collectors for its rarity and “everymanness.” ↩
- Only Watch features 50 different one-off watches, each from a different manufacture, and all funds go to support Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research via the coffers of La Association Monégasque contre les Myopathies. It’s not a bad cause! It’s just another “loophole” that you’re not supposed to look too closely at. ↩
- Image credit of the little monster: Hodinkee ↩
- “Do you even know what a write-off is ?” ↩
- Even if it now puts one of the most unsightly beasts in the limelight… ↩