In the morning of December 11, a young, well-dressed and largely unmasked crowd flocked to the lower level of Phillips in midtown Manhattan for the 2021 New York Watch Auction, abuzz with the kind of anticipation one would expect when doing queuing for a concert. Phillips’ brand new headquarters sits at the foot of 432 Park Avenue, the matchstick-thin luxury residential tower that teeters on a short stretch of Midtown commonly referred to as Billionaire’s Row, but might as well be called the watch district: On the same block are tiered flagship stores for a number of coveted luxury watch brands, including Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet and Richard Mille, some of whose watches sell for seven figures.
Auctioneers took their places in the brightly lit white-walled room, iPhones ready to document what promised to be a momentous event. Just days before the sale, long after the catalogs had been printed and shipped to collectors around the world, Phillips had announced a surprise first batch: a new Patek Philippe Reference 5711 Nautilus sports watch, made in partnership with Tiffany’s, complete with a robin dial egg. The retail price for the watch was $52,635, a fallback to the type of big game collector auction that auction houses typically target. Earlier in the year, Patek Philippe (perhaps the ultimate luxury watchmaker) sent the watch world into hysteria when it announced it would be discontinuing the 5711, perhaps its most iconic model. . Tiffany’s iteration would be among the last ever produced. Patek only made 170, so unless you’re one of Tiffany’s top 169 customers, your only chance to buy a new one was to bid on it this morning at Phillips.
The star of the event, aside from the watch, was the handsome, grizzled man behind the podium, Aurel Bacs, whose company, Bacs & Russo, has partnered with Phillips since 2014. Bacs is as close to a celebrity as an auctioneer can be, having presided over many record watch sales over the past 20 years at three major houses. Born in Zurich in 1971, Bacs has a flair for unearthing unique pieces and a genius for drama. In 2017, Christie’s sold an ultra-rare watch previously owned by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and in two days Bacs stole the show with a Rolex that once belonged to Vietnam’s last emperor, Bao Dai – it sold almost the double the price.
His taste for the show manifested itself last December. Exuding a wolfish, Mitteleuropean charm, Bacs brandished his hammer like a staff, the hall both his audience and his orchestra. Lot #1 started pianissimo: Bacs opened the auction at $20,000, less than half the retail price. Starting with such a low and unrealistic bid is often designed to build momentum before the real bidding begins.
Crescendo: Responding to offers from dozens of entrants as well as phone banks and thousands of online entrants, Bacs effortlessly bumped the price up to six figures, then seven. His voice rising in intensity, he cajoled, teased, flattered and driven to coax the ever-increasing number. When the bidding reached $4.9 million, Bacs turned to the only paddle-lifter left in the room – a young man standing by the stairs, wearing a white t-shirt and cotton coat. camel hair – smiled and said, “You know what my ambitions are here, right? Come on…” to the delight of the crowd. When the laughter died down, Bacs let a tense silence reign. of Phillips shouted “5 million!” on behalf of a telephone bidder, and Bacs gave a blazing “Bravo!” leading to a round of enthusiastic applause.
Fortissimo: Several minutes later, with bidding stalled at $5,150,000, Bacs began swinging his hammer with great momentum when a higher bid – made online from Miami – stopped him inches from the tribune, interrupting Bacs halfway through the word. sold. Amidst the hubbub, Bacs hissed and clutched his heart. The sale continued, as if bidders were as eager to keep watching the maestro as they were to win the watch.
Bacs hammer finally fell three minutes later. The lot went to an anonymous online buyer in New York who had bid $5,350,000, easily setting a new record for a Patek Philippe Nautilus. With fees and commissions, the buyer would end up paying $6.5 million, more than 100 times the retail price.
Although proceeds from Batch #1 went to the Nature Conservancy, the sale was nonetheless a marketing stunt for Phillips, Patek Philippe and Tiffany’s owner LVMH. Four days later, Jay-Z (a Tiffany brand ambassador) was photographed wearing one. Shortly after, LeBron James showed off his own Nautilus robin egg on Instagram.
The watch would have sold for a high price no matter what, but Bacs’ performance made it a moment. “It was auction theater at its best,” says a watch industry insider. “It was masterful in the way it was orchestrated. I think it wasn’t until the last two bidders went in that we saw the real bid.
In a dramatic twist, the deal never went through. In late January, Phillips executive Paul Boutros told watch website Hodinkee that the item was “unable to go to the first winning bidder”, without giving further explanation. Tiffany’s and Patek Philippe eventually decided to sell the watch to Taiwanese actor and watch collector Zach Lu – the underbidder in the camel hair coat – for his final bid (plus fee): $6.2 million .
“IF YOU WEAR THEM, YOU’RE AN IDIOT”
The sale capped a triumphant year for Phillips, which in 2021 achieved the highest total watch sales of any auction house in history, at $209.3 million. Phillips’ competitors also had their best years, with Christie’s grossing $205 million and Sotheby’s $148 million, a 50% increase on the previous year and well ahead of pre-pandemic annual sales. .