This week we were fortunate to have a chat with Alexandra Whittaker, the PR Manager for Fellows Auctions. It was a fascinating insight into the world of watch auctions and allowed us to get a preview of what is available in their forthcoming November sale. The plan is for Fellows to make regular contributions to the WatchGecko Magazine, so start saving for some truly fabulous watches.
Alexandra, thank you so much for giving WatchGecko some time. Tell us about the history of Fellows please.
We are still a family business. I am the 6th Generation to be involved. My mother was Jayne Fellows before she was married, and I also work with my sister Nicola who is the business development manager. We’ve been here 7 years and prior to us my parents and grandparents operated the business. We started off with the job of selling a collection of police bicycles and an auction seemed the best way. Up until the 1980s and 90s we were just a general auction house and pawnbrokers selling furniture and collectables but in the 80s we began to specialise in selling jewellery and the 90s watches. Now we have found our niche. Very few houses at our level have so many watch and jewellery auctions, most still focus on art and decorative arts. We sell about 1000 jewellery lots a week and hold monthly watch auctions. Hence, we have about 50 staff here at the Head office in Birmingham where the physical and digital auctions take place. We still deal with a lot of people who knew my grandfather or their father worked with my great grandfather.
We always do a wrist check. What do you wear?
Today I am wearing a steel Dunhill D-Type which I bought from the auction. It really works for me, it goes with what I want to wear. I also have a Garrard 1980s gents watch that’s gold plated. It’s really tricky being surrounded by everything all the time as you become a bit of a snob regarding things you can’t actually afford; “Oh I’d never wear that…” (laughing) and the reality is you were never going to buy it.
So what made Fellows diversify into watches and jewellery?
It seemed we had so many watches in the auctions; we had an interest and there was a lack of accessibility as not many people were selling them. We had some knowledge but made a point of recruiting specialists. Not many people still do what we do and in the 90s it was very rare.
We know the difficulties getting product from certain ADs. Is this playing into your business model?
Everyone has their place and we work with dealers but auctions are great if you have patience and are prepared to do your homework. We offer watch alerts for customers who know exactly what they want. We put as much care into smaller lots as larger sales. We do 360 degree photography and in depth condition reports on every lot. It really works on an e-commerce setting and plays to our customer services strengths.
You have a new sale on 28th November. What are the highlights? I have already spotted the Rolex Milsub.
All six members of the watch team have different perspectives. We have several Rolexes such as the Milsub, Kermit and Batman all of which people love and are super collectable. When we had our pre-auction meeting a few weeks ago I commented on the Omega Speedsonic, with an electronic movement, which I really wanted to learn more about and will be the focus of our blog this month. I’ll make sure I send WatchGecko a link. We also have a really cool bi-metal Nautilus.
(Ed. note: there then followed a discussion about how neither of us actually knew much about the Speedsonic so we will be excited to link to Fellow’s blog where their expert will tell us all about this rare model.)
How do you source watches? What’s the history of the Milsub?
A variety of places. We depend on people coming to us rather than us going out to get it. We do lots of outreach marketing. Its really all private people willing to sell. I do know the history of the Milsub but the vendor wants to remain completely anonymous, which is a little frustrating from a PR perspective. I can say the provenance is excellent and I would love to be able to talk more about it. Its not come to market before which is quite exciting.
How would you describe your customer demographic?
We have big mix. Many are repeat customers and others are dealers but increasingly we are seeing a new young private demographic, not necessarily for collection; just to get that special watch. It’s about the excitement of buying your first auction watch. I was approached just the other day by the Mail of Sunday whose angle was women buying watches. More women are buying and not just dress watches. I mean I am wearing a “gents” watch now. We do not describe anything as ladies or gents – we just list the size and you decide what you want to buy. It’s worth pointing out we can’t give investment advice but we are very attuned to prices and study other sites like eBay or Chrono24 to monitor what watches are selling for. For example, we’ve noticed just now that the Rolex market is fluctuating massively. We recognise you don’t really need to wear a watch today as we all have phones and computers. Today we see them often as expressions of your personality and interests which maybe is going back to what watches represented originally.
How has watch buying changed (if at all) over the years?
For us it has definitely. With a lot of forward planning thankfully we were very digital already when lockdown came. So we were quick to move to a wholly digitized services. It would be a shock to have 4 or 5 people in the room for a watch auction now (we’d be excited by that) whereas on the last auction we had in excess of 600 people registered online. People have faith in our descriptions being honest and our condition reports being fair and thorough so they are content to buy from a distance whether that’s in the UK, USA or Australia. We have a purchase posted to them the next day. We have invested a lot of time and money in a system to sell at a distance to ensure buyers have all the right information to make informed purchases and hopefully come back for repeat business. Our whole business model is based on trust.
Its also important to remember that to some people £30K is just a Tuesday whereas to someone else £300 is a really important Christmas present so we take the same care over the cataloguing the big ticket items as the small ones and looking after the clients who buy. We are genuinely interested in watches here from a Rotary to a Milsub.
And what is the most unusual watch you have sold?
The most unusual was called Arachnophobia and had a dead spider on it. Doing the social media for it was horrendous. I think it was a Wolf spider in the lens and was made by RTA. I’ll send you images. (Ed: Please don’t). We also had a Mask of Evil one by the same brand. It’s very “niche”.
We also sold a watch with the world’s oldest rum in it. At the 11 o’clock mark there was a small liquid filled capsule. Apparently it was at 11 o’clock when sailors had their rum ration? It sold for about £16K.
And rarest watch you have sold?
We had not one, but two, Paul Newman Daytonas in one auction. We had one in and we were so excited and then another was consigned. Both went for around £80-90K about 5 years ago. The rarest must be a Heuer “Skippera”. Yes “Skippera”. Only about 300-400 were made and it was a mash up of the Heuer Skipper and Carrera. So rare.
Do you ever come across counterfeits?
Daily! So many. We get them through and it’s a hard part of our expert’s job to sometimes break the news to sellers who think they have the real deal. We ran an information video on Tik Tok last month which has over 1 million views. It’s not that easy to tell now. There is an entire industry making these fakes and some of them are excellent. I sit within the watch department and you often hear conversations about whether a watch is real or not and what process will be undertaken to check. We’ve developed a sixth sense now before we even look inside.
Do you personally have a “grail” watch?
Personally – I became obsessed with the MoonSwatch phenomenon. The hype around it was so clever. I love what they’ve done with it. Also I’d like a Reverso or a Tank. Professionally I’d like us to get another (Rolex Submariner) COMEX. I love the story behind it.
Alexandra before we close is there anything you’d like to add to our chat?
Just to say again that the heart of what we do is our customers. We try very hard to make buying a good experience and actively seek out Trust Pilot reviews. For example requests for images; like wrist shots we now have as the principal image thanks to feedback. Although we are a 140 year old company its so important to us that we evolve and embrace technology. And that a big part of my job.
From the WatchGecko magazine we say a huge thank you to Alexandra for her time and expertise. It was a fascinating conversation which was quite a bit longer than these highlights however the good news is that Fellows will be contributing on an ad hoc, regular basis to the Magazine covering updates on rare and special watches they come across.