Why Patek Philippe Reigns Supreme at Auctions

Why Patek Philippe Reigns Supreme at Auctions
An exceptionally fine and very rare Patek Philippe 18ct gold automatic 'cathedral' minute repeating wristwatch.

In 1933, Patek Philippe created a pocket watch with 24 complications for U.S. banker Henry Graves, an ardent collector of watches. The 18-karat gold pocket watch had taken five years to build and included a perpetual calendar, moon phase display, a chart of the night sky over New York City complete with the magnitudes of the stars and the Milky Way, and a minute repeater chiming London's Big Ben melody. “It was as if Merlin captured Galileo, Shakespeare, Newton, and Beethoven, encased their essence in gold, and then slipped the mechanism inside a man’s waistcoat, where their collective genius might tick through eternity,” wrote Stacy Perman in A Grand Complication: The Race to Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch.
In 1999, Sotheby’s New York sold the technical marvel for slightly over $11 million as part of its “Masterpieces of the Time Museum” to an anonymous phone bidder (later revealed to be Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali al-Thani, a cousin of the Emir of Qatar). To this day, it remains the most expensive timepiece sold at auction. The most expensive wristwatch at auction is also a Patek Philippe, a unique platinum Patek Philippe World Time, Ref. 1415, which sold for 6,603,500 Swiss Francs ($7.43 million) at Antiquorum in 2002.
“Patek is always a strong force at auction, a name very well regarded for good reasons, a great heritage as a brand and their craftsmanship is certainly among the very best in the world,” said Nicholas Biebuyck, senior watch specialist at auction house Bonhams.
Julien Schaerer, managing director of Antiquorum, estimates that today about 80 percent of the most expensive wristwatches and pocket watches at auction carry the Patek Philippe name.  “There are notable exceptions, of course with fantastic Breguet pieces, some enamelled, and automatons that rival them in term in pricing, but it’s not quite the same market. In terms of world records, Patek Philippe is always out there,” he explains.
To see photos of Patek Philippes at auctions, click here.
“One reason is the strong philosophy behind the brand. It’s a family owned watch business, free from any large corporation influence and I think collectors appreciate that independence. It also has a fairly limited production with usually beautiful timeless design combined with great quality,” Schaerer adds.
He also points out that the value of a brand at auction is as strong as its collector community and this is where Patek Philippe has shone, developing a strong brand identity and following,largely through consistent, savvy marketing such as the tagline, “You never actually own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation” launched more than 15 years ago, which has proven extremely enduring and a perfect fit for collections and therefore auctions. Schaerer adds, “Marketing is one thing, but quality and design is also key here.”
The rise of Patek Philippe at auction started in the early 1990s after Antiquorum held a dedicated auction, “Art of Patek Philippe” in 1989 to mark the company’s 150th anniversary. “The auction created a shift in the market, then collectors started to look at wristwatches where they had been mainly looking at pocket watches before.” Schaerer recalls.
Today, Patek Philippe timepieces consistently top auctions, and in recent years more watches have been breaking the million-dollar mark. Last November, four achieved the feat at Christie’s Geneva with a 1966 perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases, ref 2499, setting a new world record at $1.024,184 for such reference with a silvered dial. Perpetual calendar chronographs are considered the most iconic of the brand’s wristwatches, and can easily average over $300,000 at auction.
 “Very rare variations of existing models that were either made upon request or in very few examples are usually what attract collectors: An unusual model made in platinum in one or two examples, or made in steel upon request when you would have expected the timepiece to be made in gold.” Schaerer explains, “It may amaze people from outside the field that a steel watch would be worth so much, but connoisseurs appreciate the value; particularly for watches from the 50s and 60s that would primarily have been made in gold, if somebody ordered it in steel they were going against the grain of the time and these achieve record prices, now.”
Biebuyck agreed that some of the rarest Pateks are actually in steel “and once you add a complication, and if it’s an older piece, produced as a one-off, commissioned by a well-known personality, you have this perfect storm of factors that will really create an auction frenzy.” He adds, “We’ve seen steel Pateks making significantly more than platinum ones, simply on rarity alone.”
Earlier this year a Patek Philippe Observatory with Luminous Dial in stainless steel, fetched CHF 111,750, nearly three times its high estimate at an Antiquorum auction in Geneva, “(It) demonstrated that even small examples in steel are generating tremendous excitement amongst the collector community,” said Etienne Lemenager, watch expert & director, Antiquorum Geneva.
Patek Philippe timepieces from the 1950s to 60s are usually preferred, Biebuyck said, because the grand complications from that period were at the forefront of mechanical engineering. A split-second chronograph in 18-karat gold, ref. 1563, manufactured in 1947 and one of only three ref. 1563 watches known to exist, sold at Christie’s for $1,572,789 last November, while a unique aviator prototype wristwatch from 1936 sold for $1,710,690 at Christies in May 2009.
A celebrity- or heritage-link will also add value. In 2012, a platinum Patek Philippe ref. 2499  “Eric Clapton,” which had belonged to the rock legend but was also one of only two made in platinum for that reference went for $3.6 million at Christie’s, while a unique extra-large single button chronograph especially made for Count Carlo Felice Trossi, the president of Scuderia Ferrari, sold at Sotheby’s for $2,240,000 in May 2009.