Geneva: Omegamania

“Your blog suggests you died in mid March…”, said Rachel. Inevitably the initial desire to share my views with the world waned fairly fast – correlating closely with my workload going up. But I’m back.

I’m writing this from the Hotel des Tourelles in Geneva. This has to be the best value hotel in a city where hotel rooms are at a premium. I have a large room with a view over the river and only 5 minutes walk from the main station. It’s the second time I’ve stayed here, usually it’s full so book early!

I’m here partly for Omegamania – an auction of Omega watches organized by watch auction specialist Antiquorum. I’m not a great fan of Omega watches, if truth be told, and my presence here is really due to a combination of coincedences. Nevertheless, I was interested in bidding for a pocket watch in Saturday’s session. My lot was 104 out of 110 (there were three sessions in total – I skipped Sunday morning’s but went to the afternoon one). After just a few lots however, I realised that my chances of coming away victorious were slim. Everything was going for way over estimate, and my budget was within the estimate range. Eventually, the lot went for twice what I was prepared to pay.

Over the course of the (surprisingly informal) auction, only a handful of lots old within their estimate range, and some lots went for crazy money: an ugly Lalique clock estimated at CHF 8-10,000 went for 34,000, a watch estimated at CHF 4-6,000 went for 30,000, and one estimated at 7-10,000 went for 50,000! By the time we got to the “special” watches on Sunday afternoon, some bonkers amounts of money were changing hands, including CHF 225,000 for a watch owned by Swiss icon and Bond girl extraordinaire Ursula Andress. (Swiss exchange rate: £1=CHF2.41, $1=CHF1.21).

It was very noticeable that the Omega Museum, owned by the company, bought (or bid) for a very high number of lots – sometimes for obvious reasons, sometimes the rationale was less clear. This is the first ever auction dedicated to Omega watches, a brand that over recent years has lacked the cachet of its more illustrious rivals, such as Rolex, Audemars Piguet, and the grand-daddy of them all, Patek Philippe. Omega is still a mass market brand (owned by the ubiquitous Swatch Group), albeit an expenisve one. A cynical person might wonder whether by pushing up the prices of its lots, the company is artificially boosting the value of the brand. After all, if the company/museum was to release some of its purchases back onto the market in a year’s time, then they could legitimately claim that each item sold at auction for x Swiss Francs. It is true that to push the price up you need more than one interested party; but not everyone buys for investment purposes, many people buy because they like the object, and the fact that it might grow in value is subsidiary. It also helps reinforce the brand as “important”, which is a big deal in watchmaking circles, where the origin of innovations are contested over decades. One of the oddities of some Omega watches is that they containt Breguet balances. Breguet, a watchmaker in its own right, is up there in the exclusive brand category and its workmanship is considered among the best… so by buying a Breguet balance in an Omega watch you could be said to be getting a bargain.

Auctioneering is a good business to be in, if you’re good at it. In the room in Geneva were probably around 100 people, there were telephone bidders, a satellite link to Baselworld (the world’s biggest watch trade fair) where people could also bid, a link to eBay, and the auction house’s own dedicated online auction site. Of course it’s great that whether you live in Vermont of Vladivostock you can still participate – it’s great for the auction house as the more people are interested, the higher the price will go. Of course there’s also the enormous benefit of anonymity to internet bidding. Who knows who the individuals or organizations at the other end of the line are!

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