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 let 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 on May 13 and 14, 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 offered a glimpse into 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 continued: “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 a few days 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 less than 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’s track record is a long one: During his ten-year tenure as the head of Christie’s watch department, he helped to grow annual sales from US$8 million (S$11.19 million) to US$130 million.
Many industry watchers have largely attributed Phillips’ rapid ascent to Bacs himself, citing qualities such as his charisma, knowledge and ability to work a roomful of bidders: Depending on who he is addressing, the quadri-lingist easily switches among English, French, German and Italian at the rostrum. Under his guidance, the Phillips watch department has adopted a highly niche position, eschewing quantity for quality. “Quality”, in this case, translates to rare watches with a good, or at least full, provenance – such as the “Bao Dai” Rolex – 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 not only helps to build trust among clients, but also stands Bacs in good stead at a time when the highest bidders are willing to shell out top dollar for the right watch. He said: “I believe that we are the pickiest player in the market, and we reject the vast majority of the watches that are proposed to us. Once we have selected the watches, things go into the next phase, which is research, diligence and presentation in a catalogue.
“We do the work for our clients. Often, when clients go to a standard auction, they are left to do their own research. We feel that the clients should only have to decide if they like a watch or not, and if they do, how far they would like to bid. Any element of 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. One key difference between auction-goers today and those two decades ago, according to Bacs, is the former’s depth of knowledge. “Ten, 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.”
Or a million. In November 2015, horology website Hodinkee ran a story about how two pink gold Rolex 6062s from the 1950s had been sold at two separate auctions (Antiquorum and Phillips) on the same day. Even though both watches were from the same production batch, the model sold by Phillips – under the hammer of Bacs, unsurprisingly – had fetched 950,000 Swiss francs more. There were apparently two main reasons for this major discrepancy: The Antiquorum model had retouched lume plots (ie, the luminous material on its dial had been replaced) and did not have a documented history, whereas the Phillips one was in its original condition and had a clear provenance.
While Bacs & Russo has been credited for reigniting interest in the watch auction scene with their exceptional pieces (Bacs proudly shares that Phillips has the most popular Instagram account among the commercial vintage-watch players), Bacs points out 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 said: “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.”