'The internet has completely changed the business'
Julien Schaerer, Watch Director and Auctioneer at Antiquorum USA, tells us exclusively why the future is bright for watch collectors
Julien Schaerer is the Watch Director and Auctioneer at the New York auction house Antiquorum USA, Inc.
Originally from Switzerland, he was introduced to the world of horology by his father who is an enthusiastic collector himself.
Julien's interest in timepieces further developed as an assistant at 16 at major auction houses during sales times, and later working as an advertising rep on significant accounts such as Citibank and Cointreau.
Julien auctioned Gandhi's Zenith
pocket watch for over $2m
He was lured back to horology and embarked upon his career as a watch expert at the then-recently created auction house, Phillips dePury & Luxembourg.
After presiding over a number of World Record sales - most notably for Patek Philippe and Rolex wristwatches - Julien moved to Bonhams before joining Antiquorum as its Watch Director and Auctioneer in 2005.
Antiquorum's New York sale takes place next week, on March 10-11, where the Jules Audemars Tourbillon Répétition Minutes Quantième Perpetuel and Breguet 5447 will star alongside other luxury timepieces.
As anticipation builds for Antiquorum's Spring sale, Julien kindly took time out from his busy schedule to chat to Paul Fraser Collectibles about his love of fine watches, and why Patek Philippe and Rolex are still the leaders in luxury timepieces.
What was your fascination of watches and clocks as a child, and your first memory of watches and clocks?
My first memories of watches really came with the success of Swatch. People used to wait in line for hours to get the rare models and it was a real trading game.
It was, for me, the first sign that rare watches could be traded for another rare model or for cash. I think that most Swiss children who liked watches started off by collecting Swatches.
What have been your highlights during your years in the business?
There have been a lot, I have been very fortunate: Auctioneering Gandhi's Zenith pocket watch, Steve McQueen's Rolex Submariner, Henri Graves's Patek platinum minute repeater and the Caliber 89 for 5.1m Swiss Francs.
Hollywood legend Steve McQueen's
How has the industry changed since you first started at the beginning of your career?
It has changed tremendously. The internet has completely changed the business.
Buyers are much more educated, come from literally anywhere in the world and auction room attendance has diminished in favour of live internet bidding that is now the leading way to bid at auction.
What is the most enjoyable part of your job?
The variety of watches I see and the mystery factor. After over 10 years in the business, you never know what is going to walk through the door. It is also great that you can still learn and see new things on a regular basis.
And what is the most demanding part of your job?
Creating the catalogue. It is sometimes quite a daunting task to create four catalogues (for our New York sales) a year that contain between 350 and 450 lots per sale. Timing is tight so it is a subtle mix of luck, contacts and stress.
What is your most interesting story from your years in this business?
My favourite is the Henry Graves story...
I received a call that some clients were coming to get an evaluation on a broken platinum Patek [that was] missing a hand and the crystal. Having encountered this situation many times, my expectations were low.
This extremely nice couple sat down and produced this unique platinum Patek Philippe minute repeating wristwatch with the family crest of Mr Graves engraved on the case back.
It was hard to contain my excitement, as Mr Graves was the world's most important Patek collector and had custom ordered from the company some of the most exquisite watches ever produced. The watch had sat in a deposit box for over 50 years, unused.
The owners had no idea of the value of the piece so when I gave them an estimate of $250-350,000 they were ecstatic.
The watch sold for $630,000 and I couldn't have been happier for the historical side of the piece and for the owners.
I even received postcards from the trips they took after the watch sold.
How has the recession had an impact on your business?
Well with bonus's being slightly lower there has been less available disposable income - so there was some slowing down.
But overall, compared to most other luxury items, we have been blessed with auctions still selling over 80% of lots offered and prices being down on average only 15-20% - performing far better than our clients portfolio's or real estate.
Are you seeing a growth in the number of collectors? From any particular countries or nations?
The growth has been so tremendous over the last 10 years it has been exponential. I would say there are fewer people joining the hobby than, say, five years ago but there is still a substantial flow of new customers every year. China is definitely an emerging market.
What is the oldest item you have at auction?
Some of the earliest are German made pocket watches from the 1600s.
And the most expensive?
We still hold the record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction: A platinum Patek Philippe World Time that sold for 6.6m Swiss francs.
In your opinion, what is the finest timepiece ever made?
Opinions, of course, vary tremendously according to what you treasure the most. In terms of design, quality of manufacture and importance in the collecting field, the Patek 2499 - with a preference for the rose gold version - has to be one of the best made and best designed wristwatches ever.
Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?
I am lucky enough to handle on a daily basis some of the best and nicest watches, so it has been difficult to be satisfied on a personal collecting level.
I collect what I find visually pleasing and for the past five years have focused on Art Deco table clocks.
What is your own personal most valued collector's item?
I have an early Atmos clock - they were called Reutter back then - that uses temperature variations to wind it; the dilation of the mercury inside the clocks powers it.
It is a true technological marvel and the Art Deco design is absolutely splendid.
What watch do you wear yourself?
I often change my watches according to what I wear, or the mood I am in.
These days I often change between my IWC ceramic Fliegerchronograph, Ref. 3705, and a 1973 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak A serial.
Do you have any hot leads for 2010? Which watchmaker will excel? Are there any new trends emerging to look out for?
That is always the million dollar question. Rare timepieces and those that are in excellent condition - with all original accessories is always a big plus - and will continue to do well.
Patek Philippe and Rolex as the most collected brands will still be at the top of the list of collectors.
I personally believe that the trend for very large watches will diminish somewhat and we will return to more comfortable wearing sizes from 36-42mm.
Generally speaking, steel, white gold and platinum watches will continue to do better than the other metals.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
I always give the same advice: buy the best you can afford.
One watch in outstanding condition will be a better investment than three in mediocre condition. Condition is key - stay away from reprinted dials and over polished cases.
Knowing why a watch is more collected than another, or worth more, takes research and practice.
Use online forums where fellow collectors can give you advice and help you to get all the knowledge you need before making that purchase - impulse buys are usually the most costly ones.
And finally, go to auction previews, watch fairs and handle watches so you can learn how to spot a dial that has been reprinted, or how the polishing of the case can affect its dimensions, and its price.
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Images: Courtesy of Antiquorum