ON THE UP

A star auctioneer on ob­tain­ing stun­ning new prices for in­cred­i­ble old watches.

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents -

A star auctioneer on ob­tain­ing stun­ning new prices or 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 CHF5.07 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 CHF11 mil­lion 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 USD8 mil­lion to USD130 mil­lion.

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.”

01 CROWN­ING GLORY The “BaoDai” is one of only three known Rolex Ref­er­ence 6062 watches fea­tur­ing a black dial and di­a­mond in­dices. 02 HAM­MER TIME Bacs works the room at a Phillips auc­tion last Novem­ber.

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