A star auctioneer on obtaining stunning new prices for incredible old watches.
In the watch auction world, multi-record-setting auctioneer Aurel Bacs is the closest thing to a superstar. But even a bona-fide pro with 20 years of experience gets the pre-game jitters, as he lets on during a phone interview with The Peak – two weeks before Geneva Watch Auction: Five. At the two-day sale that took place in Geneva last month, Bacs would go on to obtain nine record-breaking prices for rare watches such as the Rolex Reference 6062 “Bao Dai” – a timepiece formerly owned by Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai. The watch sold for 5.07 million Swiss francs (S$7.1 million), making it the priciest Rolex wristwatch to be sold at auction.
Speaking to us from his Geneva office in late April, the Zurich-born auctioneer shares his pre-auction state of mind: “Excitement, anticipation, and a healthy degree of anxiety.” With a note of humour lightening his deep, clipped tones, he continues: “I’m not usually an anxious person; I’m actually quite serene. But, whether you are a tennis player heading to the Wimbledon finals, or a politician before an election, you must have some anxiety. The minute you are not concerned about the outcome, you should probably stop doing it, because you’re either too sure of yourself or not interested anymore.”
Not that the 45-year-old has any reason to be unsure of himself. In 2014, he and his wife, Livia Russo (also a well-regarded watch specialist), started the watch sales consulting firm Bacs & Russo, and embarked on a partnership with auction house Phillips. In three years, and with just two selling locations – Geneva and Hong Kong – Phillips has smashed numerous auction records, including the most expensive wristwatch sold at auction (a steel Patek Philippe that went for 11 million Swiss francs in Geneva last November). Bacs’ track record is a long one: During his 10-year tenure as the head of Christie’s watch department, annual sales grew from US$8 million (S$11.2 million) to US$130 million.
HAMMER TIME Bacs works the room at a Phillips auction last November.
Many industry watchers have attributed Phillips’ rapid ascent to Bacs himself, citing qualities such as his charisma, knowledge and ability to work a roomful of bidders. Depending on whom he is addressing, the quadri-linguist easily switches among English, French, German and Italian at the rostrum. Led by him, the Phillips watch department has adopted a highly niche position, eschewing quantity for quality.
“Quality”, in this case, translates to rare watches with a full provenance and original components. They should also be in good condition, which in the vintage universe does not mean showroom-sparkling, but rather, refers to how a timepiece “shows its age in an authentic and good manner”, says Bacs.
This fastidiousness helps to build trust among clients, and stands Bacs in good stead at a time when the highest bidders are willing to shell out top dollar for the right watch. He says: “We reject the vast majority of the watches proposed to us. Once we have selected the watches, things go into the next phase, which is research, due diligence and presentation in a catalogue.
“Often, when clients go to a standard auction, they are left to do their own research. We do the work for our clients. We feel that they should only have to decide if they like a watch or not, and if they do, how far they would like to bid. Any uncertainty, any awkward questions or doubts, should be long gone by the time the catalogue is in the hand of the clients.”
Such thoroughness and transparency are especially important, as the typical vintage watch buyer evolves. Compared to auction-goers two decades ago, observes Bacs, today’s clients are a lot more knowledgeable. “Twenty years ago, many collectors simply bought a watch when they found it attractive. Today, collectors are equipped with scholarship that is readily available online, in literature or in auction catalogues. People can discuss a minute detail of a watch for hours, and that minute detail can mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars.”
While Bacs & Russo has been credited for reigniting interest in the watch auction scene with its exceptional pieces, Bacs believes that vintage – across the board – is enjoying a renaissance today. More than just symbols of permanence in a throwaway culture and times of relative instability, quality vintage items are modern artefacts.
He says: “To live, we need shelter, food and sleep. That’s what animals need as well. But mankind has built something called culture. Culture is fashion, luxury, entertainment, and vintage is a key element of all that. This is why we have museums. I have never seen a museum built by animals.”