As we enter one of the busiest periods in the horological calendar (Only Watch 2019 followed by the GPHG, then the major auctions around the world) it's worth taking a moment to consider that in less than a week, we might have a new record holder for the title of Most Expensive Watch in the world.
Some time shortly after 2pm on Saturday, at the Hotel des Bergues in Geneva, Christie's will bring the hammer down on the star lot of Only Watch 2019: the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime ref. 6300A-010, and I think that when it does, we will be looking at a new record for expensive watches. (You can check out our guide to Patek Philippe reference numbers, if the significance of "6300A-010" isn't immediately self-explanatory...)
Here's why. Firstly, the auction world has been streaking higher and higher in the last five years regardless of every mention of a bubble, or any attempt to apply rationale to the economics of very desirable watches. The downturn in retail didn't slow the auction market. Currency fluctuations, trade wars, international uncertainty and all the other factors which make watch executives lose sleep haven't slowed the auction market; when you have thousands of watches to sell, these are vitally important, but when you only have one to sell? Less so.
A decade ago, the most expensive watch ever sold at auction was a Patek Philippe Calibre 89, sold for $5.04m at Antiquorum. That is still the ninth most expensive watch of all time, but since then the threshold has rocketed up to $24m, for the 2014 sale of the Henry Graves Supercomplication - the original mega-complication from Patek Philippe. Now we have a third hyper watch from the most reliable auction brand, and although the price is going to have to be huge to top the Henry Graves, I would argue that up at this extremely rarified level, you are dealing with buyers who are very resilient to macro-economic trends. If this watch sells for $25m, it will be to someone who could easily have paid twice that, if necessary.
But you don't just need one buyer; you need (at least) two, for a record-breaking auction result. And again, I think the stars are aligned around this watch. In 2013, the Only Watch auction drew a price of $3.99m with Antiquorum for a Patek Philippe 5004T. In 2015, now with Philips, Only Watch's top lot went for $7.3m (a Patek Philippe 5016A-010), and in 2017 a Patek 5208T-010 topped the list at $6.2m for Christie's.
The point is, Patek Philippe has established a track record of creating special pieces in either stainless steel or titanium - which is always unique for that reference - for Only Watch, and the buyers have a track record of turning up for this event in particular. The auction estimates are not particularly useful, as they deliberately tend to lowball the price for PR reasons, but even so: the 2013 and 2015 pieces mentioned above carried high estimates of $900,000 and $1.1m respectively. This year's 6300A-010 is estimated at $2.5m-$3m; if it outperforms its high estimate by the same multiple, we'll be close to new record territory.
And this is all before you consider the watch itself. The last three Patek Philippe Only Watch creations have been pretty high-grade watches, to say the least, but not in the same horological league as the Grandmaster Chime. This is the watch Patek Philippe made to celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2014, and it went all out to create a successor to Calibre 89 and the Henry Graves (it was then designated reference 5175R). The retail price for each was $2.5m and the seven-piece series was reported to be sold out within a year; this year, a new version has since been made, in white gold and without the engraving that characterised the anniversary model, priced at $2.2m. This model is the basis for the Only Watch variant, which as well as a stainless steel case, gains a salmon-pink dial on the "front" and a black dial with rose gold detailing on the calendar side.
Just as a reminder, the 6300 is a hyper-complicated model, comprising a perpetual calendar and no fewer than five different striking complications, including two that are unmatched anywhere else: an alarm that strikes a pre-selected time, and a date repeater, as well as "standard" minute repeater, grande sonnerie and petite sonnerie functions. The case revolves in its housing thanks to a neat and easy-to-use mechanism in the lugs, which pull gently but firmly away from the case to allow it to rotate, so that you can flip the dials over.
Existing Grandmaster Chime watches don't change hands very often - there are only a handful out there, after all, and those who bought them know that Patek Philippe will keep a very close eye on any entering the secondary market, whether by auction or by dealer. But we're told that the "going rate" for a 5175R is at least $16m-$18m. How much more might a Patek devotee pay for a completely unique version of the brand's most complicated watch of the modern era? If Christie's has done its homework, and bidding is lively, I can easily see it smashing through the $20m mark and from there, quite possibly going on to set a new record.
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.