: Golden Rules When Buying Vintage Watches
Text & Photos Nicholas Biebuyck

There are a few golden rules that are always worth considering when buying vintage watches, and while this list is certainly not exhaustive nor intended strictly as a “buying guide”, it is a good place to start and aims to put you in the right frame of mind:

  1. If it looks too good to be true, it is – if it is an unbelievable deal, there is always a reason for it, no ifs, ands or buts. Whether the watch is put together, badly polished, has a refinished dial or incorrect parts, there is a reason it is strangely cheap and should not be bought unless you are prepared to accept its faults and the potential related costs to fix them.
  2. Rarity does not directly equate to value – Just because something is hard to come by does not mean it is worth lots of money. Generally, there is a reason something was produced in limited quantities in a period: it was not a sales success due to it not being very good or was offered in a configuration that was not fashionable at the time and has not aged well. Of course, if it is rare because it is hard to make or was extremely expensive originally, these may be additional reasons why a model is sought after.
  3. Condition is everything – The premium now paid for watches which have been extremely well preserved is now multiples of what one in average condition is worth. Collectors are in pursuit of the best of the best examples and condition is prized over nearly everything else, meaning that those in a compromised condition can be very hard to move on further down the line. On a related note…
  1. Provenance is increasingly important – As we enter the era of “super fakes”, continuous history can prove to be invaluable. If the watch appeared with a major auction house a decade or two ago in the same configuration and condition or has resided with the original owner (and their family) or a distinguished collector for an extended period these can all prove to be reassuring factors.
  2. Correctness and desirability are two different things – There are some combinations of parts and patinas that are very hard to prove are correct, yet are pursued relentlessly by some collectors. Just because it is attractive does not mean it was born that way, so do your homework before you make a decision with your heart and not with your head.
  3. What is meant to be will be – If a deal does not look like it is going to work out, there is probably a good reason for it, and it is not worth spending time trying to push something through when it will likely end in disappointment and frustration.
  1. Shopping your own book will not endear you to others – As the great philosopher Notorious B.I.G. said, “Never get high on your own supply”. Just because you have gone down the rabbit hole on one brand or model, it does not mean others should follow you and start by buying your “best of the best” examples so you can make a profit.
  2. Informed consensus is better than opinion – There are a plethora of armchair “experts” on social media who are looking for the scalps of auction houses and dealers, but it is always better to take advice from those who are well regarded in the community and have handled tens of thousands of watches in their collecting career, especially if they are focused on the specific make and/or model you are aiming to acquire. Saying that, always make sure you reference multiple sources rather than taking the advice of one person; it’s better to be safe than to be sorry.
  3. Look away from the light – While there will always be specifically hot models in the market, maybe the sensation can be had at a more sensible price point. Looking for manufacturers that shared the same component suppliers is a good place to start, whether it was a case made by Spillman or a dial produced by Singer.
  1. Don’t buy a car with a story, the same applies to watches – If every time you are asked about your watch you have to deliver some length caveat about why it is in the configuration is, it is probably not worth the hassle of getting involved in the first place.
  2. Buy what you like, not what you think is going to make you money – If you don’t read the Racing News every day, speak to the vets at the track, study thoroughbred pedigree and check form in the paddock, then you shouldn’t really be betting on horses. The same logic applies to “investing” in watches.
  3. Behind every great collector is a great watchmaker – Whether it is servicing, disassembly for inspection, or just technical advice when considering an acquisition, having a watchmaker that you can call upon and who is trustworthy is really an invaluable resource.
  4. As soon as someone says they are an expert you can immediately ignore them – It should be noted that even people who are held up as oracles of the watch market do not describe themselves as all-knowing, or as the total authority on the subject. Even the most learned individual will acquire new information on a daily basis which may change fundamental beliefs on particular references or models. Always be humble.