With an illustrious history of working in the sphere of horology, we sat down with Aurel Bacs to decipher what his take is on collecting watches, vintage pieces vs reissues, iconic timepieces and more.
Dubbed as the ‘auction hero’ Aurel Bacs began his journey at Sotheby’s as a specialist in the late 1990s, he worked up the ranks and over the years, Bacs has been wielding the hammer at the most significant auctions across the globe. After a successful run with almost every auctioning platform out there, today he is a special consultant with Phillips Auctions. Armed with the knowledge of vintage watches like none other, a contemporary legend in his own right, when it comes to buying a watch at auction, he’s your guy.
THM: Aurel you are synonymous with introducing the world to vintage watch collecting, but tell us what is vintage watch collecting and how is it different from everything else?
AB: The aspect that you mentioned ‘vintage watches’ was something that I used to see vividly till about the early 2000s, that’s when collecting these was really sought after. Today there is a new breed of collectors that are interested in rare limited editions of contemporary watches, rare handmade independent watches, special limited editions made for a specific market or a specific anniversary. And today if I look at our Phillips auction catalogues I see anything from the early 20th century to 2022, the market is broader, deeper and needless to say, no one needs a high end mechanical finished watch. We are leaving the territory of rationelle and entering a world of passion, intellectual stimulation, curiosity and storytelling, heritage. People are interested in the little details like who polished this watch? Who did it belong to? And today the landscape we are in is very similar to vintage watches. There used to be a very clinical cut between contemporary and vintage and now they have come together finally. The manufacturers are now looking at both eras and now are aware that they are crafting an obsolete object and are now adding more to it.
THM: How does one define a collector? If I own 30 interesting timepieces, does that make me a collector?
AB: I’m sure all of us have some goods at our homes in multiple numbers, but that doesn’t mean I collect that specific item. To collect is not defined by the volume or the number of pieces, it is actually not even defined by the amount of money you invest, I think it’s a state of mind. When you randomly buy something without a collector’s gene and perhaps purchase for practicality or vanity, a collector on the other hand makes that purchase predominantly with his heart. This could maybe be intellectual if they are looking to complete a set and it also is defined by how much time they take to study the subject year in year out. Like I don’t study ties when I am off to buy one, in fact I barely plan it. Watches on the other hand, I read as my favorite literature, I read newspapers, I read books, online and in print, the amount of time I am hanging out with watch collectors or historians to bounce off ideas, to nurture my brain and my heart is insurmountable. And so that’s how you define a collector vs a hoover.
THM: What is your take on reissues?
AB: Any reissue is not going to be the real deal. But if the original is either not available or prohibitively costly then I think it is absolutely appropriate to say that we do a limited edition of 1000 vintage inspired watches. The disadvantage is that sadly the watch is not vintage, therefore a larger quantity is made and sadly it will not tell you a story you started to be enamoured by, most likely the finishing of the watch is not vintage or original. But the advantage is the cost, the wearability, stability and reliability has definitely increased and so its a trade off for those who cannot go vintage.
I don’t think it’s wrong, I have created some pieces with brands that are limited edition and are clearly vintage inspired, because there is simply more appetite for certain pieces than others in the market. I am not criticizing them, I just hope that everyone knows what the pros and cons are.
THM: Could you tell us about the hidden gems in your collection?
AB: I’d like to be as private as I can about my own watch collection. A watch is to me a very personal pleasure, one that I can equally enjoy alone as much as I do with a small group of friends, but I don’t need to be in a large group to enjoy it. There is absolutely no list of criteria that all my watches have in common, it’s just when I pick up a watch and I like it, that’s all it takes. The linking can be emotional or intellectual, I do my research. There is no brand I wouldn’t like to explore or any period that I would steer clear from, in fact there are so many watches out there that I desire but I obviously can’t have them all. The most precious ones are those that have been gifts or are associated with someone very dear to me. These are the ones that I would try and keep forever—watches that marked a moment, it can be a moment of happiness, sadness, or like the watch that I wore to my wedding. But it’s not the price tag that makes me respect the watch more or less, it’s really the emotional connotation, the vibes, the karma that comes with it. A family heirloom watch or a timepiece that was with me in the most significant moments of my life are the most valued ones.
THM: You do have a special watch, the Zenith El Primero, the 5am watch, tell us about that.
AB: It was a significant watch, it had a story to it. It was October 2014, I was in New York celebrating my birthday and I did not know what my professional future was going to be. Both my wife and I left our previous employer simultaneously, and were taking a sabbatical and it was during that birthday party with some watch friends that I acquired that watch. And I saw it on the wrist, I thought yes, the price tag seemed right, I couldn’t examine it very well, it was pitch dark in that place, but I knew the person in front of me was a highly reliable distinguished gentleman. But, the next morning I struggled to remember how it got to me, and that I still had a debt to pay.
THM: In the auction market the (Rolex) Paul Newman is one of the most coveted watches right now, what according to you are some of the underrated brands and pieces?
AB: I think in every segment of the market you can find something underrated, that means you can pick any brand in the world and I can tell you of that brand which is the underrated model. Which will shock you is that there is something like an underrated Rolex? Yes there is. Is there an underrated Patek Philippe?
Yes there is. So there are plenty of opportunities out there. For example Zenith, I am so pleased to see so many here in GPHG, but I personally believe the El Primero as a model is one that should deserve much more respect for the vintage and the contemporary renditions. Zenith offers you a chronometer which is 36,000Hz high oscillation with date with steel for less than $10,000 (approximately INR 8,22,836), it is an amazing value proposition. The same movement is in the Rolex Daytona, from years ago for $100,000 (approximately INR 82,28,360).
But I also believe going to more important watches like Patek Philippe, today I am wearing the Ellipse that so many say that it’s an old man’s watch, I hope you don’t think I am an old man, but I love how simple it is, this watch here today is worth a tenth of a green Nautilus. Now you tell me which one is the more seducing value proposition? If we go by retail price, this Ellipse costs more than a steel Nautilus but the green Nautilus is currently almost $500,000 (approximately INR 4,11,41,800) and this one if you are lucky you pick it up. The same thing with Rolex, not every Rolex is automatically hyped, go and look at a vintage Milgauss, for the last 10-15 years this has been between $10,000-15,000 its their piers that are less rare that are like the Sea-Dwellers, Daytonas among others that are in the tens to hundreds more.
THM: The women watch collectors community – Your thoughts?
AB: This has been my biggest frustration in the last 27 years of me being in the suction industry that the balance between the men who collect and the women who collect has not significantly shifted. When I started it was 100% men and 0% women, at one point it was 99% to 1% and I cannot say today whether it’s 90% to 10% or 85% to 15% but it’s a long way to go until we are 50-50. I find it incredibly regrettable because many collectors, other than the object itself, they appreciate the community. And no matter what walk of life they come from, once you are a part of it, nobody cares about your background, once you are in you are in. And I can only imagine how much more interesting this would get if we had women who could bring in their perspective if what they like or what they view is on certain models. I would love to see women add their take or opine on suggesting, what’s wrong with a 35mm watch? What’s wrong with gold bracelets? Or Ultra-slim from the 70s? I would be so intrigued. Let’s hope that more women discover the beauty and pleasure of horology.
So the next time you’re wondering which timepiece should be the next addition to your watch wardrobe, pick the one you like, research it, ask fellow enthusiasts about it, and most of all, follow your heart.