Collecting watches: the timing is right

By Geoff Harris

As regular Antiques Roadshow viewers will know, quality vintage watches hold their value well, and can now generate some serious money.

People are discovering this up and down in the country. In Somerset, for example, a Rolex Submariner bought by a Fleet Air Arm sailor for £32 in 1967 is expected to sell for more than £10,000 when it goes to auction in early April, according to the Somerset County Gazette.

Originals like this, bought in 1967, now fetch serious money

While his mates out in Singapore went for the then cutting-edge Bulova Accutron, the world’s first fully electronic watch, our wily Jack Tar decided to buy the much more traditional Rolex after seeing Sean Connery wear one in Dr No. His Rolex kept on keeping perfect time long after the Bulovas gave up the ghost, which tells you all you need to know about the build quality of classic watches, not to mention new technology hype.

“With the market for vintage Rolex and other prestigious watch brands remaining high the owner decided to part with his watch after 54 years as it is just too valuable for him to wear,” said the auctioneers, Charterhouse in Sherborne. The lovely Rolex also comes with the original box and paperwork, which pushes up the value even more.

As with art,many well-heeled investors are seeing classic watches as a good place to put their money, especially given the economic ups and downs caused by the pandemic.

So, how do you go about starting a classic or collectible watch collection? It’s not just a case of Googling ‘Rolex Submariner’ and getting your credit card out as there are lots of variations of just this single model. It’s also an absolute minefield for fakes.

As with most branches of antiques collecting, the first tip is to drill down and decide open a specific niche, based on what you are most interested in – for example, sports watches from a certain era, watches with a military connection, or, as with our sailor, watches with some kind of celebrity or cultural connection.

The next thing to decide on the era. The 60s was a golden age of design for many consumer items, hence the high value of the Rolex; but if you went for a watch from the 70s through 90s, the choices may well be more affordable.

Classic watches keep on working because in technology terms they are relatively simple (like a vintage Leica film camera) but most would have been serviced at some point. Herein lies another pitfall for the would-be collector.

“Once your vintage Rolex has swapped parts, even with later original Rolex parts, the collect-ability goes down rapidly,” notes Rolex specialist, Philip Stahl. “If it’s for the bezel insert only, you still can find period correct ones offered in the market to swap it back to original. But it is much harder and more expensive to find a correct dial that has been changed by worldwide Rolex dealers during one of the many services to bring back the waterproofness and durability.”

So if you are looking at prospective watch, and the dials don’t seem to fit the rest of the watch, be very careful. If things look OK, the next essential is to look at the serial or reference number, which, with Rolex, is usually engraved between the lugs at 12 o’clock. This can give you a lot of information to start researching online, but that is only the beginning. Then you need to consider whether the dial is genuine (including the Rolex coronet logo), whether the luminosity on the hands is the right type for the claimed age of the watch, and so on. As well a powerful loupe magnifiers to check the minutest detail, collectors also turn up with Geiger counters to ascertain the type of luminosity!

This retro beauty is yours for £115

All this is not for the fainthearted, but fortunately there is a lot of objective help online. A good place to get advice is the Vintage Rolex Forum, and there are similar resources for other iconic brands. Apps are now available too – staying with Rolex, a good one to try is the Vintage Rolex App, which costs about £18.

So to conclude. It’s definitely worth checking out the value of a vintage watch if one comes to you from a familiar member, but don’t instantly assume that just because it has Rolex or Omega on the front that you can pay off your mortgage. If you do find something in the attic, a good starting point is to contact a local specialist auctioneer for a full and objective appraisal. With so many high-value items passing through their books, they are unlikely to try and pull a fast one.

If you want to get your feet wet in collecting without taking too much of a risk – as any visitor to car boot sales or Bangkok street markets can testify, fakes are everywhere – why not start out with less exalted, but still attractive, vintage watches from a reputable antiques portal site?

On sellingantiques.co.uk, the Vintage Wristwatch Company is selling some lovely retro-look men’s watches from the 1940s and 50s for hundreds of pounds. If you are a fan of classic design, they will certainly be much more of a conversation starter than a similarly priced modern Casio….

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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