I landed in Geneva this morning on a mission. I’ll be in the capital of Swiss watchmaking for the next week in order to cover the spring watch auction circuit. Phillips, Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Antiquorum all have sales lined up to occur around the city each day from May 6 to May 10.
These aren’t the first auctions of the year. Sotheby’s officially kicked the auction calendar into high gear last week in Hong Kong with two auctions, headlined by the heavy-hitting Nevadian Collector sale. Antiquorum has also had a number of live auctions already, and the Monaco Legend Group had an impressive showing in late April as well. But the upcoming week of auctions is the first major moment for the collective big houses to come together since the fireworks that took place last December in New York.
I’ll be in the room each day with my friend, the photographer James K., aka @waitlisted, to capture all the drama. Phillips starts things off this Friday, May 6, with the long-awaited Royal Oak 50th Anniversary Auction, followed on May 7-8 by the Geneva Watch Auction: XV.
I have a special week of content planned leading up to all the auctions, particularly Phillips’ Royal Oak 50th Anniversary sale and Sotheby’s Important Watches, that will focus on the major lots and the world of the Royal Oak at auction. But before we dive into those stories, it’s worth taking a macro-level look at some of the highlights and hidden gems that make up the nearly 300 lots that will be up for grabs this weekend at Phillips.
The Royal Oak 50th Anniversary Auction
Phillips has put together a deeply impressive catalog for this Friday’s Royal Oak-exclusive sale. Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak turns 50 this year (who knew?), and it feels like almost every auction house in the world is trying to commemorate the milestone. Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, just so happened to do the most comprehensive job.
Aurel Bacs’ dream team has put together a dedicated catalog of 88 rare and important Royal Oak watches, including a PVD-coated example believed to have been customized and owned by Karl Lagerfeld and the legendary A2, the second Royal Oak ever made and the earliest-number ref. 5402 to appear at auction. (It’s one of the original four Royal Oak models that were presented in 1972 at the annual Basel watch fair.)
But before we take a deeper dive into those later this week, let’s explore 10 interesting lots in the sale that also deserve some time in the sun. We’ll start with the perpetual calendars. Buckle up!
The first Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar was officially released in the mid 1980s, approximately 12 years after the birth of the Royal Oak. The inaugural ref. 5548 (AP would soon switch to a five-digit reference number format) utilized the 2120/2800 perpetual calendar movement, a stunningly slim self-winding caliber with, and this will be important later on, no leap year indication. Now, I’m not going to dig into the entire early history of Royal Oak Perpetual Calendars – James already did that two years ago in tremendous form – but it’s important to understand just how significant the perpetual calendar complication is to the Royal Oak identity. We had a Royal Oak QP nearly a decade before we ever saw a Royal Oak Chronograph, and 13 years before a Royal Oak Tourbillon. Just think about this – in this Phillips catalog, which is purportedly meant to include as many of the rarest and most desired Royal Oaks ever made, there are 27 lots featuring a perpetual calendar (including the Grand Complications). That’s 30 percent of the catalog! These are five of my favorites.
AP released the first skeletonized version of the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, the ref. 25636, in 1986, although it reportedly started development back in 1983. A total of 312 examples are known, with only 41 cased in platinum. This example, lot 15, has a C serial number and a Mark 1 dial (indicated by the small Audemars Piguet signature at six o’clock) that place it early in the production pipeline for the reference. The last time we saw one of these hit the block, it broke 400,000 euros at Monaco Legend in October 2021. Phillips has the estimate between CHF 200,000 and 400,000 right now; I’d feel comfortable betting the over. Sotheby’s also has a lovely example of the 25636PT coming up in its Geneva watch auction on May 10, but it dates to a few years after the Phillips example.
We have another super cool ref. 25636 in lot 42. It’s one of just 25 examples to combine steel and platinum, with the case built out of the former and the bezel and central links of the bracelet made of the latter. There’s definitely an element of stealth wealth at play here via the cool mix of metals that can really only be identified by the mirror-polished finish on the platinum bezel. While the appearance might be stealthy, you still need to be plenty wealthy to make the watch yours. It carries an estimate between CHF 150,000 and 300,000.
A second-generation skeletonized Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, lot 33 is a ref. 25829TP with a two-metal construction via tantalum and platinum. It’s an interesting combination that blends polished platinum elements with the extra dark grey tone of tantalum. Only 16 examples of this combination of metals with a skeleton dial are reported to exist, but interestingly, the case number of this example is number 25. The reason being that AP produced a series of 25 cases and used them non-consecutively, between a skeleton and solid dial 25820TP. Lot 33 has an estimate between CHF 80,000 and 160,000.
So I initially thought that the dial of this Asprey-signed ref. 25654PT had gradually turned tropical, but the copper brown tone is actually all-original. This non-skeleton QP dates to 1988 and is the first – numero uno – of only 38 examples produced in platinum. Add the Asprey signature in and you’ve got one seriously collectible Royal Oak. And it has the estimate to match – Phillips has lot 40 set at between CHF 250,000 and 500,000.
The final QP I want to highlight here is lot 54, a four-digit example that dates to 1985, the second year of serial production for the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar. It has a Mark 1 dial, and no leap-year indication, two easily identifiable features of an early RO QP. The catalog notes show that this example is hiding a few interesting details as well, most notably a serial number for the case that’s stamped on the interior of the caseback. Phillips worked with Audemars Piguet’s archivists to confirm that this is, in fact, correct and all original. AP says that they repurposed some cases used on the standard three-handed ref. 5402 (which would be thinner than a traditional case used in a QP) and left the number that would have corresponded to the 5402 designation. It’s esoteric, sure, but the real impact here is the dimensions. Since it uses the 5402 case, AP confirmed that it measures 10 percent thinner than other ref. 25654, at 7.5mm in height compared to 8.25mm. Phillips indicates that only 49 examples of this reference in steel are known to exist. The estimate on lot 54 is set at CHF 80,000 to 160,000.
Dude, where’s the crown? Lot 30 in the Royal Oak 50th Anniversary Auction is the only Royal Oak without a traditional crown on the watch’s caseband; instead, it’s placed on the caseback. The Royal Oak Tourbillon ref. 25831 was created for the model’s 25th anniversary in 1997 (man, I feel old). This model is part of the very first batch of Royal Oaks with a tourbillon, and it was produced in a run of 25 pieces in steel with a blue dial.
It also, oddly enough, features a bumper movement as AP wanted to prioritize thinness but retain an automatic movement. Take a closer look at the tourbillon cage and aperture – it looks a little weird, right? AP designed the frame of the regulating organ to mimic the model’s world-recognized octagonal bezel. Funny enough, they even included the Royal Oak’s screws. This example of the 25831ST is number one out of 25 pieces. It carries an estimate between CHF 120,000 and 240,000.
Phillips included a number of different unique-piece Grand Complications in the sale, but this one is the absolute mack daddy of them all in my mind. Lot 68 is a beast of a complicated, gem-set Royal Oak, featuring a minute repeater, a perpetual calendar, and a rattrapante chronograph inside of a brilliant diamond-set case and bracelet.
For the collector who appreciates the subtlety and sleekness of the Royal Oak line, this ref. 25990BC will likely make them groan. But for everyone else? It’s jaw-dropping. From a sheer spectacle, there’s not a single watch in this sale that tops it. Phillips has the estimate set between CHF 250,000 and 500,000.
I think this 36mm Royal Oak, lot 38, with a bloodstone dial is the absolute sleeper hit of the entire auction. I’d never seen a Royal Oak with a bloodstone dial, also known as jasper, and it appears there’s a good reason why. Apparently only five examples of the 36mm ref. 14701BC with a bloodstone/jasper dial were produced in the early 1990s.
Just beautiful. Unless I just blew the cover off on this lot (doubtful), the estimate is currently at CHF 70,000 to 140,000. Not cheap, but the combination of rarity and pure attractiveness make it, in my mind, incredibly desirable.
The above watch is a downright awesome find, an early 5402ST that dates back to 1975, just the third year of production for the Royal Oak. That’s cool in itself. But what makes this watch insanely special is that the dial is signed by the Parisian jeweler Chaumet. Phillips says only three ref. 5402 examples are known with a Chaumet signature, which was the result of a special order through the jeweler. Chaumet has some serious history in the watch game (even owning Breguet for a while), so it’s extra cool to see the company’s name on the same dial as Audemars Piguet. The estimate for lot 39 is between CHF 80,000 and 160,000.
Finally, we come to an example of the unsung 36mm ref. 14700. AP offered the Royal Oak in this smaller format for less than a decade, and this special example was the very first one to be produced after it was announced in 1990. It’s a bit of a deep-cut without the obvious appeal of celebrity provenance or interesting complications, but for those interested in the history of the Royal Oak, it represents the start of an underrated chapter for the model as a whole. Phillips has the estimate pinned down on lot 70 at between CHF 30,000 – 60,000. Anyone want to lend me a few racks?
The Phillips, In Association With Bacs & Russo, Royal Oak 50th Anniversary auction takes place at the hotel La Réserve, starting at 2:00 PM CET, on May 6, 2022.
The Geneva Watch Auction: XV
After the curtain draws on Friday’s Royal Oak thematic sale at Phillips, business as usual – if there is such a thing in the watch auction world – takes over on Saturday and Sunday, with Geneva Watch Auction: XV. This is the fifteenth Geneva sale hosted by Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, since the current form of the company took shape in 2014 – and it’s an absolute doozy.
There will be 200 lots going under the hammer – so many watches that you really need to spare a few hours to sit down and study the catalog if you want a full picture of the diversity on display. Here’s what stood out to me.
Eric Clapton. As controversial as the musician is today, there are few – if any – names that are as legendary in watch collecting circles. His taste in watches is as noteworthy around these parts as his skills as a guitarist. (Remember his platinum Patek Philippe 2499? Yeah.) Well, Phillips has a Rolex Daytona ref. 6239 he once owned up for grabs. But lot 116 is not just any 6239, no sir. This is the “Crazy Doc,” a likely unique Daytona in yellow gold with a pulsations dial. Clapton purchased the watch in Italy in the 1990s but it gained worldwide attention after it was sold in 2003 at Christie’s New York, and then again in 2007 at Antiquorum Geneva. Neither of those sales topped half a million. I can’t help but think this time it soars past.
Three words: John Player Special. The yellow-gold, black-accented Daytona ref. 6241 is considered one of the rarest configurations of the chronograph ever produced, with only a reported 300 made over three years. Phillips sold an example on its original gold bracelet for over $1.2 million in New York last December. This example, lot 119, comes on a strap, but it will still be extremely interesting to watch how it performs.
The original Rolex Milgauss dates to 1956 and is one of the rarest vintage Rolex watches. The line wasn’t always about green-tinted sapphire crystals; the mid-’50s ref. 6541 was the definition of a tool watch, intended for real-world use by those working around areas with high magnetic fields, such as scientists and engineers. Given its original toolish remit and the admittedly low profile of the intended user base, very few original Milgauss 6541 examples have made it to today. This example, lot 112, has it all – a Honeycomb dial, a lightning bolt seconds hand, and non-luminous fixtures. Phillips has the estimate set between CHF 200,000 and 400,000, which feels conservative to me, but Antiquorum sold a similar example in Monaco in January for around 220,000 euros, so perhaps it’s right on target.
Only two examples of the Rolex ref. 6032 Oyster “pre-Daytona” Chronograph have gone to auction in the past two decades, so suffice to say it’s a rare bird. Cased in a 36.5mm 18k pink gold case, this early 1960s chronograph was specifically featured in our old friend John Goldberger’s book, 100 Superlative Rolex Watches. This is the very first 6032 to make its way to the Phillips stage – ever – that’s how rare it is. And, I mean, how often do you see two-register chronographs from Rolex? Practically never, right? Phillips has lot 114 slated to land somewhere between CHF 200,000 and 400,000.
Next we have lot 219, a second gold pre-Daytona Chronograph, except this example is a bit more well known. The ref. 6036 combines a triple calendar display and chronograph, and it’s recognized by collectors across the globe as the preferred wristwatch of one Jean-Claude Killy. What makes this example special is the case metal – you typically only ever see Killy’s in steel. This yellow gold example is sure to melt plenty of hearts, but with an estimate between CHF 500,000 and one million, only the richest will survive.
My final Rolex highlight from the fifteenth Phillips Geneva Watch Auction is yet another solid gold pre-Daytona Oyster Chronograph. However, this is a ref. 6034, which came two generations before the introduction of the Cosmograph Daytona in 1963. This specific example, lot 221, is special due to the presence of its original Gay Frères bracelet and the use of an unexpected metal for the case and bracelet; very few 6034s are known in rose gold.
As such, two years ago, in 2020, a similar ref. 6034 sold at Antiquorum Geneva for CHF 600,000. Phillips – always operating on the safe side – has the estimate on this example listed at CHF 200,000 – 400,000.
This is a very special Patek Philippe. And while you could say that about nearly every watch in this catalog, this lot just hits differently. Where other lots are about rarity, hype, and the thrill of exclusive esoterica, this Patek ref. 1503 from 1941 has a unique provenance. It was once owned by Simon Wiesenthal, a Jewish Austrian gentleman and Holocaust survivor who dedicated his life’s work to hunting down and bringing to trial fugitive Nazi war criminals in the decades after World War II.
The watch not only has the provenance of being owned by a tremendous individual, it’s also remarkably attractive, with teardrop lugs, a black lacquered dial, and applied Breguet numerals. It was initially consigned by Wiesenthal’s family in 2007, after his 2005 death, at Christie’s Geneva. The estimate for lot 212 is currently set at CHF 250,000 – 500,000.
Deja vu, yet? Sotheby’s auctioned off a pink-on-pink 1518 less than a week ago, and there’s already another one up for grabs. For a watch with only 14 known examples, that’s a hell of a coincidence. In December we saw Sotheby’s New York sell the third most expensive wristwatch at auction ever, via a particularly clean pink-on-pink 1518, so it’s clearly resonating with some prestigious collectors that it might be time to test the market. Can it sustain multi-million dollar price tags over and over again? We’ll have to wait until lot 213 this weekend to find out.
Indies, Oddballs, & More
We live not on Rolex, Patek Philippe, and Audemars Piguet alone, and neither do the auction houses. Phillips Geneva Watch Auction XV includes a nice selection of pieces from independent watchmakers as well as a few unexpected watches from the major group brands.
The first lot I’d like to highlight here is actually the last watch of the sale, lot 300, a unique piece F.P. Journe Octa Zodiaque that the watchmaker created in 2005 for the Children Action sale. Everyone knows that F.P. Journe is hot, hot, hot – and a unique piece sold for charity should catch even more attention. Best of all, the consignor and Phillips have agreed to donate all auction proceeds to the Children Action charity once again. The current estimate is CHF 150,000 – 300,000.
I’ve always been fascinated by MB&F and Urwerk’s 2012 collaboration, the absolutely bonkers C3H5N309 Experiment ZR012. Crafted in a pair of 12-piece limited edition runs made from either zirconium or black zirconium and featuring a Wankel engine-inspired movement, I think the Experiment ZR012 should rightfully be considered a foundational piece of the weirdo world of independent watchmaking that’s proliferated over the past decade. Lot 104 has an estimate between CHF 20,000 and 40,000.
Kicking off a trio of unique Omega Speedmasters, Phillips was able to source an original Alaska Project “ALASKA II” Speedmaster to include in Geneva Watch Auction XV. On the heels of last November’s record-breaking 2915-1, I would be shocked if this Alaska Project, lot 111, didn’t top its high estimate of CHF 200,000.
Here’s another interesting Speedmaster – lot 168 is a prototype produced circa 1995 with a white dial and an odd red signature at six o’clock that reads “MONZA.” The watch has no serial number, so no extract is included with the watch, but Omega confirmed to Phillips that the watch is a legitimate prototype. How cool is that? The estimate on this offbeat Omega is CHF 30,000 – 60,000.
At first glance, lot 273 looks like any other old Speedy Pro – but then, you notice it: A date window. Near the 4:30 position on the dial, there’s a framed, color-matched cut-out for the date display. What I think is particularly cool about this prototype Speedmaster are the visible engravings hidden behind the lugs that state “Not For Sale”. For the Speedmaster lover who already has everything, I think this could be a super-cool, under-the-radar example worth looking at. The estimate here is CHF 20,000 – 40,000.
The final lot that stood out to me in the Geneva Watch Auction: XV is lot 276, a special Lange 1 ref. 101.027 from A. Lange & Söhne that’s cased in white gold with a silvered dial and heat-blued hands. It shares a similar aesthetic to the famous and highly collectible stainless steel Lange 1 examples, except it’s in a more traditional precious metal. Rare examples of the Lange 1 are more in demand than ever before, and very few examples of the Lange 1 in this aesthetic combination have previously come to market. The estimate is set between CHF 30,000 – 60,000.
Phew – there we have it. Twenty-four interesting, intriguing, and unusual watches, each one up for grabs starting this Friday at Phillips. But we’re just getting started – check back on Tuesday for a Hands-On report of one of the more culturally significant Royal Oaks that will be up for sale.
The Phillips, In Association With Bacs & Russo, Geneva Watch Auction XV auction takes place at the hotel La Réserve, starting at 2:00 PM CET, on May 7-8, 2022.
All Royal Oak images by James K./@waitlisted, unless noted.