Owning a vintage Rolex is a joy and potentially a smart investment, but how should you go about buying collectible watches?

Owning a vintage Rolex is a joy and potentially a smart investment, but how should you go about buying collectible watches?

In recent years the collectible watch market has been buoyant. Some timepieces with historic value have gone for breathtaking prices. The actor Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona went under the hammer for USD$15.5 million. His wife had reportedly bought it in the 1960s for about $250.

A solid gold Rolex Reference 6062 belonging to Bao Dai, to the last emperor of Vietnam, sold at auction in 2017 in Geneva for over USD$5 million. And in 2018, a stainless steel Reference 6538 "Big Crown" Submariner was sold for over USD$1 million.

Luxury watches are also popular among celebrities and entrepreneurs. Digg founder Kevin Rose owns museum-worthy timepieces. Top athletes such as Rafael Nadal and LeBron James have served as celebrity ambassadors for leading watch brands. David Beckham, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Roger Federer and Bono have all been photographed wearing Rolexes.

But you don’t need to be a super-rich celebrity or tech billionaire to get your own collectible watch. Prices can be very accessible, even for investment grade timepieces.

Where to find collectible watches

So where should you start looking?

Finding the watch of your dreams may not be as easy as it sounds. There are many fake watches in the vintage watch market, and ensuring a reputable source is vital. 

Buying off unknown internet sellers could also land you a "frankenwatch" - this is when a watch contains non-authentic components. The pop star John Mayer sued after buying such a watch. Mayer is an experienced collector who owns millions of dollars’ worth of vintage watches, including sapphire-encrusted gold Rolexes and Luftwaffe watches from World War II. So if he can get ripped off, then anyone can.

Auction houses are a much more reliable way to buy rare watches. They have specialists on hand who certify watches and have extensive knowledge about them. You can also get some amazing deals and rare items.

What to look for in a collectible watch

Before you buy, do your research thoroughly. Important factors to consider include:

  • Quality - the quality of a vintage watch can range from the materials it’s made from, such as precious metals and gemstones, to intricate features such as a perpetual calendar. The patina of age is considered desirable
  • Reliability - collectible watches should be beautifully made with precise movements, and expected to run for years. They’re functional pieces of art: you can wear them as a working watch.
  • Price - when it comes to investment and watches that are more likely to rise in value, top brands include Rolex and Patek Philippe. Be careful to check for small differences between different versions of the same watch, as this can greatly affect value. For example, a 1960s Rolex Submariner from the 1960s with an original bezel insert featuring a so-called "long 5" is worth thousands more than one with a replacement insert with a shorter, more contemporary 5.

Trends and fashions in watches also change, so if you’re buying to resell, it’s worth keeping an eye on what’s hot. This may be gold watches, or watches with a specific mechanism such as high-quality column-wheel movements.

First State Auctions are specialists in fine jewellery and collectible Swiss watches, including brands such as Rolex, Patek Philippe and Omega. Our lots come from private collections, as well jewellers and watchmakers selling off excess stock, deceased estates and police seizures. So there’s a very wide range available, from newer models to vintage timepieces. All items for auction are examined by a master Swiss Watchmaker and certified.

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