7 Tips for Buying a Vintage Watch

Time equals money, and a collectible watch can be a good investment.

While pocket watches and antique clocks have been collected for centuries, during much of the 20th century, the wristwatch seemed too “modern” to qualify as a collectible. That has changed.

“In 1970 there was no place to buy a vintage wristwatch,” remembers dealer George Aloi of Tempvs Fvgit in New York City.

Then watch technology changed. In the 1970s, inexpensive quartz and electronic movements all but wiped out mechanical production. Collectors started looking back to the golden age of the mechanical watch, and the vintage market was born.

By the early ’80s Antiquorum and Christie’s were holding specialty auctions, and 10 years later the market had become an international juggernaut.

The value of a vintage watch can start at just a few hundred dollars. Yet prices have topped $1 million, and in 2002, a platinum Patek Philippe “World Time” wristwatch from 1946 sold at an Antiquorum auction in Geneva for a record $4,026,524.

The Seven Factors for Watch Value
Unlike other antiques, older isn’t necessarily better with watches. Rather, the value of a vintage watch depends on seven key factors: maker or brand, rarity, material, bells and whistles (known as “complications”), condition, accessories and provenance.

1. Maker/Brand
Maker is the No. 1 determinant of value. While some watches by Cartier, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet are highly collectible, “80 percent of collectors want a Patek Philippe or a Rolex,” says Julien Schaerer of Antiquorum, an international auction house specializing in vintage timepieces.

2. Materials
When it comes to materials, think white. “Generally, platinum trumps gold,” says Edward Faber of Aaron Faber Gallery, a New York vintage watch dealer. “In contemporary watches, white gold trumps pink gold, which trumps yellow gold, and, in vintage watches, because of its rarity, steel trumps them all.”

For example, a rare steel Patek Philippe “split chronograph” (a stopwatch that times two events), reference number 130, from the 1930s and 1940s originally sold for approximately $800. “Prices for watches of this caliiber are obtaining very strong results at auction,” says Aloi. “The sky is the limit it seems.”

With women’s vintage watches, style is everything, according to Faber; platinum and diamonds are the materials to seek.

3. Complications
Any complication, like a chronograph or moon phase calendar, adds value to a vintage watch.

4. Rarity
One version of the Rolex “Daytona” watch, made in the 1970s to commemorate Rolex’s sponsorship of the Daytona races, has an optional snappy extra colored ring on the black and white dial and is known as the “Paul Newman.” Aloi of Tempvs Fvgit would place this watch in the $65,000 to $100,000 range in 2012, depending on the specific model (there are several different reference numbers) and if it includes the original papers. “This estimate range of course assumes that the watch is in excellent condition and that the dial can be verified as original,” he adds.

Aloi also notes you can look on the new watch market for potential rare gems. If you buy an “Edsel,” a modern watch no one else is buying, he says, it may increase in value. Fewer of them will be made, and one day they will be rare.

5. Condition
Condition can subtract from a watch’s value. Even small damage or repair can be a deal breaker.

“A watch with a restored or refreshed dial can lose up to 50 percent of its value,” says Schaerer. “The movement should be clean and in working order, and the case shouldn’t look worn and tired from over-polishing. But,” he cautions, “the watch should reflect its age. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. There are a lot of fakes out there.”

6. Accessories
Original instructions, the box, a bill of sale and the like can add as much as 30 percent to a watch’s value.

Remember, counsels Andrew Block of Tourneau, to keep your original box and papers when you buy a new luxury watch. Today’s purchase may be tomorrow’s vintage star.

7. Provenance
A gold Patek Philippe watch from 1965 that sold at Christie’s in April of 2006 for a whopping $240,000 boasted a long list of complications, including a perpetual calendar, chronograph and phases of the moon, but it was its former owner that really made bidders go Looney Tunes: Mel Blanc, better known as the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.

Art expert Ann E. Berman has written for The Wall Street Journal and Architectural Digest.

Photos by Maryanne Russell Photography, Inc. All vintage watches courtesy of Aaron Faber Gallery.

What can Wells Fargo do for you?

Experiences like travel can make life memorable, but you have to prepare. Your team will be happy to help you with financial needs.

Collectibles are non-income producing and are highly speculative. They are generally illiquid and difficult to value and perceived value can fluctuate wildly. Collectibles should not represent a significant portion of an individual’s portfolio.

This information is provided for educational and illustrative purposes only.


Sign up to receive monthly email updates of what’s new at Wells Fargo Conversations.

Please submit a valid email address.

Thanks for subscribing!

You should receive a confirmation email shortly.

Your privacy is important. Read our privacy policy.