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The 10 biggest watches to sell at auction in 2021
The most expensive watches to go under the hammer this year
The most expensive watches to go under the hammer this year
2021 was another banner year for watch auctions. Phillips, the biggest game in town, reported selling $209m in watches over the course of the year, highlighted by its record-setting $75m auction in Geneva in November. Christie’s, for its part, also sold $200m+ in watches. This is due to rising prices on all fronts (“a rising tide lifts all boats,” and all that), but of course there are also headline-grabbing and record-setting lots to thank for the big year. Let’s take a look at the 10 most-expensive watches to sell at auction in 2021.
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1a. Patek Philippe reference 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph (‘pink-on-pink’): $9.57 million
The biggest seller of the year. It had to be this one. Just the fourteenth known example of the vintage Patek Philippe ref. 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph in pink gold with a gorgeous salmon pink dial, and perhaps the best example yet. We wrote about this watch when Sotheby’s announced it earlier this year, and were thrilled to see it get so much attention and smash expectations at Sotheby’s New York auction in December, selling for $9,570,900. This also makes it the third most expensive vintage wristwatch of all time, behind only Paul Newman’s Paul Newman and the steel 1518 that Phillips sold in 2016. Sotheby’s specialist Jonathan Burford said he got “goosebumps” when he pulled this watch out of its safety deposit box after it had been hardly worn since Prince Tewfik Adil “T.A.” Toussoun of Egypt purchased it in 1952. We understand why.
1b. Patek Philippe Desk Clock for Only Watch: $10.3m
I struggled with whether or not to include Only Watch lots in this list (or, charity lots more broadly, e.g., the Tiffany Blue Nautilus, below). But, these watches (and clocks, in this case) are an important part of the narrative of the year in watches, so I’ve included them, calling this desk clock “1b”, alongside the “1a” pink-on-pink 1518. The top-performing lot from this year’s bi-annual Only Watch sale was Patek’s complicated desk clock, an homage to the early-20th century desk clocks commissioned by Patek mega-collectors Henry Graves Jr. and James Ward Packard, in particular Packard’s clock which now sits in the Patek Museum. It’s an amazing clock for a worthy cause — raising money to find a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy — so it was exciting to see this clock perform so well in November. It sold for CHF 9.5m ($10.35m).
3. Patek Philippe World Timer ref. 2523: $7.8m
Proof that Patek Philippe is still the be-all-end-all of watches, both modern and vintage, it also takes the next slot for the most expensive watches to sell at auction in 2021.
This Patek World Timer from 1953 was just the third of its kind ever to be found, and it commanded the price and attention worthy of such a rare watch. It ended up selling for CHF 7,048,000 at Phillips Geneva in May (about $7.8 million), a record for a yellow gold wristwatch sold at auction.
4. Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 ‘Tiffany Blue’: $6.5m
Remember this one? Of course you do. While the two most expensive non-charity lots were vintage Patek, the next slot goes full-on hype with the limited-edition Patek Philippe Nautilus ref. 5711 “Tiffany Blue”. From being introduced on a Monday to being auctioned off for $6.5m just five days later at Phillips New York, it’s a pretty impressive feat, no matter your opinions on whether this watch represents the best or the worst of modern watch collecting.
5. Philippe Dufour Grande et Petite Sonnerie No. 1: $5.2m
After Patek dominated the first few slots, Philippe Dufour represents the first independent on the list, and rightfully so. An important collection of Dufour’s first wristwatches came up for auction at Phillips this year, and this Sonnerie — bearing movement number 1 — was the top performer of the bunch. This wristwatch is a superlative, important wristwatch from the preeminent independent watchmaker. Here’s what Phillips said about it in its catalog entry:
“The present Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch, fresh to the auction market is stupendous in more ways than one. Bearing movement number n°1, this is not only the very first wristwatch ever made by Phillipe Dufour, it is also the world’s first Grande & Petite Sonnerie wristwatch ever made, increasing its collectability even further if such an occurrence is possible.”
The lot sold at Phillips Geneva XIV in November for CHF4,749,000 ($5.18m)
6. FP Journe x Francis Ford Coppola, FFC Blue for Only Watch: $4.9m
Another charity lot from Only Watch, this one from independent watchmaker FP Journe, representing his first appearance on this year’s list of top lots. It’s a fascinating creation, perhaps something that could only be conceived by one of the greatest minds in horology collaborating with one of the greatest in movie-making. Here’s what FP Journe said about the FPJ x FFC for Only Watch:
“This watch was born in 2012 while having dinner at Francis Ford Coppola’s house in the Napa Valley. He asked me if it could be possible to tell time with a hand in a watch. I replied that the idea was interesting and required thinking about it. But how to display 12 hours with 5 fingers? It was not an easy matter and this complex challenge inspired and motivated me. Once I figured it out, Francis immediately sent the sketches for the fingers positions. After more than 2 years, I could finally focus on “Fecit”. After 7 years of development, I am proud to present the FFC prototype”.
7. FP Journe Chronomètre a Résonance ‘Souscription’ No. 1: $4.3m
Next up, another beautiful watch from FP Journe, this one a Resonance. But not just any Journe Resonance. It’s the first of the 20 Subscription Resonance watches Journe ever made. It’s the embodiment of Journe’s studying of Breguet’s theories about resonance to create a wristwatch implementing the theory. If the historical importance isn’t enough, even the configuration of the watch itself sets it apart from the rest of the production: of the 20 Resonances made, only 5 feature a two-tone case in platinum and rose gold like this oneEven better, this example is 1 of only 3 two-tone Resonance with a silvered dial.
8. Philippe Dufour Duality in Pink Gold: $3.99m
After a couple lots from fellow indie FP Journe, Dufour is back on the list, this time with a pink gold Duality. This simple, gorgeous time-only watch sold at Phillips Geneva XIV in November for CHF 3.66m ($3.99m), one of only three Duality examples realized in pink gold.
Dufour introduced the Duality in 1996, his second wristwatch after the Grande & Petite Sonnerie (above). Like the Sonnerie, the Duality was a wristwatch “first” too: it was the world’s first wristwatch incorporating a double escapement featuring two independent balance wheels compensated with a central differential gear. This feature is designed to enable greater accuracy for timekeeping, as the balances average out their rates, also creating less variation across positions. In other words, another early Dufour worthy of all the attention it received this year.
9. Patek Philippe ref. 2499 retailed by Serpico y Laino: $3.9m
We’re not done with Patek just yet. This fresh-to-market Patek Philippe ref. 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph in yellow gold looks to be remarkably well preserved, and the retailer-signed Serpico y Laino dial is just the coup de grace. It’s a gorgeous first series 2499, and as Phillips explains, it’s now the earliest known example of 2499 with a Wenger case (the second producer of 2499 cases, after Vichet produced very early cases for the reference).
This is only the second example of a 2499 to bear the Serpico y Laino signature. The gold Gay Freres bracelet, also stamped SYL for the retailer, is another nice detail for the Patek diehards. This example sold for CHF 3,539,000 ($3.9m) at Phillips Geneva XIV in November.
10. FP Journe Tourbillon Souverain ‘Souscription’ No. 1: $3.9m
The number 10 spot on the list goes to one more FP Journe, this one the Tourbillon Souverain from the amazing Soucription collection of No. 1 of 20 Journes that Phillips sold at its November Geneva auction in 2021. The Resonance, above, also came from this set. Quite famously, a box for the full set also sold for $100k. Buckoo bucks for boxes aside, one can’t deny the historical importance of this tourbillon, or of the Journe Souscription set sold by Phillips this year. As a young indpenednet brand, Journe sold his first wristwatches as “subscriptions” in the 1990s, asking collectors to make a down payment so that he could finance the production of these amazing watches.
He ended up making 20 “Souscription” tourbillons, delivered in 1999 and each featuring its individual number on the dial. As Phillips says of this particular example No. 1:
“To own one of Journe’s subscription tourbillons equals to owning a piece of horological history, but to own the first one (1/20) is a grail that only one single collector will be able to call his or her own.”
For those keeping track, here’s the tally of brands represented in this year’s top 10:
Patek Philippe: 5
FP Journe: 3
Philippe Dufour: 2
Three of the lots on this list — the Patek Desk Clock for Only Watch, the Tiffany Blue Nautilus ref. 5711, and the FP Journe for Only Watch — were charity lots.
While Patek Philippe has long been a mainstay of auctions, achieving big results and breaking records, 2021 might represent the year where the independents, led by Journe and Dufour, were recognized as artisans worthy of such numbers in their own right. This trend was no doubt accelerated by the early and important Journes and Dufours brought to auction this year, some of which are highlighted in this list. Whatever the case, we’re excited for what 2022 has in store.
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