Time can be a precious thing

A big collection of Rolex watches is about to be auctioned. John Windsor asks why people find them so attractive
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The Independent Online
Just when you have locked your Rolex in the safe, out of reach of muggers, the biggest private collection of watches comes to auction - every one a Rolex.

The 361 specimens, dating from the Geneva-based company's foundation in London in 1905, are expected to raise more than pounds 1m at Christies London this month. If that makes you whistle, consider that a single picture owned by the same collector, an oil painting by the German futurist August Macke, is estimated at up to pounds 1m at Christies next month.

So what price Rolex? Those in the sale will sell for between pounds 300 and pounds 15,000 each, not a patch on the 1945 Patek Philippe perpetual model showing moonphases, in stainless steel, not even gold, that fetched pounds 573,500 at Sotheby's in October, a British record price for a wristwatch.

The ultra-discerning cannot help shaking their heads over Rolex. They are not hand-made: the company now turns out 800,000 a year compared with Patek's hand-finished 30,000. Ever since 1910, when the meaningless but internationally appealing name Rolex was dreamed up by the brand's creator, the 22-year-old German whizzkid Hans Wilsdorf, there has been a suspicion that they are flashy and over-hyped.

The first woman channel swimmer in 1927 just happened to be wearing the new Oyster waterproof model, the intrepid Explorer model went up Everest with Sherpa Tensing and the seemingly indestructible Submariner dived with Jacques Piccard. Then there was the Paul Newman Rolex...

Who loves them? Not long-term investors, who put their faith in Patek, but, typically, cash traders who understand the value of portable wealth which, in lean times, can be quickly transformed into folding money without loss. That is, as well as muggers, fairground operators and car salesmen: the sort who, to BMW's dismay, drive BMWs.

Be snooty about Rolex if you will. There may come a time when you will be pleased to discover that they are the pawnbroker's pride and joy. They are a steady investment.

What was the only wristwatch that kept its value when the price of collectables crashed around 1990? The distinctively double-dialled chronometer-standard Rolex Prince, made between 1927 and 1950. A yellow and white 18ct gold Prince, sold at auction for pounds 7,480 at the market peak in 1989, sustained its value throughout the recession and is now worth double. By comparison, Patek prices, which were spiralling 50 per cent a year at peak, dropped two-thirds in value as hard-pressed investors rushed to unload them. A late Forties Patek World Time model that sold for pounds 250,000 at peak would be worth only pounds 70,000-pounds 80,000 now, and is only just beginning to recover in value.

The only reason for investing in watches that are more expensive than Rolex, despite their Patek-style roller-coastering from boom to slump, is the belief that tip-top workmanship will win in the end. Most dealers and auctioneers have at the back of their minds a form-card of dark-horse tickers whose innards, they believe, are undervalued.

Such as International Watch Company: one of their models takes 18 months to make. Then there is Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, Piaget and pre-1960 Cartier. Movado, a first-division hanger-on hurt badly by the recession, is also tipped as undervalued.

But with only Rolex to choose from in the sale, there is still plenty of scope for discrimination. Look first at the watch's dial. Is it the original? American, Japanese and British collectors want original, not refinished dials. Some of them will wait months for a bright original dial that has been shielded from sunlight for years in a drawer. Others savour the parchment-coloured patina of age. But German taste is for the pristine and unblemished, even if refinished. This is worth bearing in mind if you are thinking of resale.

The consignor of the collection at Christies, 76-year-old Hans Ravenborg, accepted refinished dials and there are plenty in the sale. One or two are poor, such as lot 297, one of the famous Rolex Oyster waterproof models, which has a childishly painted skew-whiff Rolex crown (pounds 800-pounds 1,200).

Trade bidders may shun this one, but the Ravenborg sale will not be one of those regular gatherings where dealers with an eye on their margins nod and wink and keep prices down. Being unprecedented, it will attract private collectors from throughout the world. They are expected to chase prices up to 150 or 200 per cent of the sale's published estimate. Do not get carried away. Fix a budget and stick to it.

James Dowling, vintage Rolex dealer, consultant to the Christies sale and co-author of the authoritative Rolex guide book, The Best of Time - Rolex Wristwatches (Schiffer 1996, pounds 100), expects the final lot, a stainless steel triple calendar chronograph estimated pounds 5,000-pounds 7,000, to go for pounds 15,000 or more. Why? Because it is rare (fewer than 1000 were made) and it doesn't look like a Rolex. If you want the Rolex rectangular look but cannot afford a Prince, consider bidding for lots 205 and 206. They are Thirties models in stainless steel, rectangular, but without the Prince's double dial. One is estimated at pounds 300-pounds 500, the other at pounds 600-pounds 800.

The Ravenborg Collection of Rolex Watches, Tuesday 30 September, 10.30am, Christies, 8 King Street, London SW1, 0171-839 9060. Dealers: James Dowling, 0171-794 3836; George Somlo, 0171-491 8916; John Das, 0956-581 419.

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