When almost perfect time can be kept by mobile phones, many people are looking to their wristwatch for something different.

Omega Seamaster watch

An Omega Seamaster gentleman's automatic wristwatch with box – £240 at David Duggleby Auctioneers in Scarborough, North Yorkshire in August 2019.

A vintage or pre-loved timekeeper is about style, status and storytelling. 

Buying – and collecting – mechanical wristwatches, a hobby that grew in the 1980s and then became even more popular with the advent of the internet search engine, has proved well suited to the 21st century auction room. Buyers can easily find technical data and price trends online and then hunt down their quarry – whether it’s a recently-made and good-value Rolex, a typical gold ‘dress’ watch, a coveted ‘sports’ model or a rare military issue.

You’ll find whatever suits your taste on 

Bidding at auction for a good-quality second-hand wristwatch can provide you with a way of getting a top brand at a bargain price compared with buying one new.

Swiss legends

There are purchasing opportunities for classics by the so-called ‘bullet-proof’ brands – Omega, Rolex and Patek Philippe – or watches by lesser-known makers.

Patek Philippe Calatrava watch

A vintage piece: this Patek Philippe 18k Calatrava gentleman's wristwatch with a leather strap from the 1940s sold for £3000 at Gardiner Houlgate, Corsham near Bath in February 2019.

While a number of them are no longer in business due to the era now known as the ‘quartz crisis’ when the Swiss watch-making industry shrank by two-thirds, their rarity today can make them particularly desirable.

Increasingly popular are watches in original condition – they are honest survivors that show signs of wear and tear but have not endured regular episodes of restoration meaning they still have the dials and hands as they were when new.

What to look for

If the watch comes with accessories such as papers, boxes, tags, instruction booklets and point of sale materials from the shop where it was originally sold, it will be of particular interest to collectors and is likely to cost more. But such peripherals may not be of interest to you if you are looking to simply buy a good value watch to wear and enjoy.

Fortunately, there are watch sales at auction all year round so you will always be able to seek out the right item for you.

Look for auctioneers that provide the sort of clear cataloguing, detailed descriptions and high-quality images that informs buying choices. If in doubt, ask questions in good time before the date of sale. Check, too, the cost of packing and delivery: typically this can usually be arranged, via the auctioneer or a third party, at a modest sum as watches are not very heavy and easy to pack.

Of course, many of the watches traded on the secondary market post-date the birth of vintage wristwatch-collecting. Although the boundaries are blurred, the market can still be divided between those watches with a genuine collectable status (mostly pre-1980s) and those whose price is set primarily by recent retail values.

Perfect sense

Most ‘second-hand’ watches are sold at fractions of their retail levels. In this regard, buying at auction, free from high street mark-ups and the depreciation that goes with buying new, makes perfect sense.

Vacheron & Constantin watch

An 18ct gold cased Vacheron & Constantin wristwatch with champagne dial and brown crocodile strap. It sold for £800 at Jones & Jacob of Watlington, Oxfordshire in February 2019.

What to do next

Decide how much you’d like to spend and use the search facility on to find watches coming up for sale. You can filter your search by, among other things, price and by location of the auction house to narrow down your selection.

To research recent prices at auction so you can see how much different vintages of wine sold for you can also try out the Price Guide.

If you are new to bidding check out our guides to buying at auction – it’s easy once you know how.

Read our buying guide to Rolex Watches here.

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