How to Navigate Vintage & Luxury Watch Auctions in the UK

How to Navigate Vintage & Luxury Watch Auctions in the UK

12 min read
Richard Fox


Industry News

Richard Fox


Industry News

‘Yours,’ said the auctioneer. I had just brought my first ever watch at auction and I must admit I felt quite elated. While the somewhat used Omega Seamaster quartz from 2001 was by no means one of the rare vintage watches we hear so much about at auction I liked the watch, and it was now mine.  That was a few years ago, and now over the last five years I have written articles about a whole range of items sold at auction houses. In all I have found auctions to be highly enjoyable, sometimes frustrating when you lose a bid, but always absorbing. So, for this article I will cover some of the basics to consider when going to an auction if you are considering buying.

Watch Auctions - A Global Business

As a collector category watch auctions have experienced exponential growth over the last six to eight years. Indeed, some might even feel that the publicity around watch auctions has in part been responsible for helping increase the desirability of collector watches and their prices. What is certainly true is that watch auctions are now very much an established part of the wider watch collecting ecosystem. They have also successfully generated a global reach and contributed to a broader knowledge about watches and collecting. To give one example of this global reach Sotheby’s June 2023 sale of Important Watches in New York provides some useful statistics. As Sotheby’s noted the auction achieved US $16.4 million, selling 94% of all lots. Further, the auction attracted nearly 500 bidders from 61 countries, with more than a third (69%) of buyers choosing to buy online. One watch in the sale, a vintage 1947 Patek Philippe ‘Pink-on-Pink’ Reference 1518, sold for US $3.9 million, including buyer’s premium.

Patek Philippe Pink on Pink
Fresh to the market and previously unknown this Patek Philippe ‘Pink-on-Pink’ Reference 1518 originally purchased in 1947 made US $3.9 million including buyer’s premium at Sotheby’s June sale of Important Watches in New York. The watch was estimated at US $2.5 – 4.5 million. © Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Looking back, one of the key sales that helped kick start the current high-profile era of watch auctions was the Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, 2017 New York sale of Paul Newman’s, 1968 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, reference 6239. The watch sold for a staggering US $17.7 million including buyer’s premium. This sale attracted world-wide attention and profile at a time when watch collecting was already gaining popular momentum. Since then, many auction houses have grown their watch sales and departments. Even the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t seem to slow things down with bidders around the world happy to logon and bid from home. This has all resulted in some truly record-breaking auction sales. Even now in 2023 as we consider how the current economic climate with higher inflation and interest rates might impact popular collector categories there have already been some million dollar plus sales for the very rarest sought-after watches as evidenced by Sotheby’s sale of the Patek Philippe, ref 1518, noted above. Another recent high value sale saw Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo achieve a superb result for a unique gold cased perpetual calendar tourbillon pocket watch made by the esteemed independent British watchmaker, Dr Roger W Smith OBE. The watch sold for US $4.9 million including buyer’s premium at Phillips’ New York watch sale in June.

Dr Roger W Smith’s pocket watchBreaking an auction world record for any British timepiece this unique hand-made gold cased perpetual calendar tourbillon pocket watch, known as ‘Pocket Watch No. 2’, was made by independent British watchmaker, Dr Roger W Smith OBE in 1998. The watch sold for US $4.9 million including buyer’s premium at Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo’s New York watch sale in June. The overall sale realised US $26.4 million and was a ‘White Glove Sale’ selling 100% by lot. © Photo courtesy of Phillips.   

Do your Homework First!

Away from the glamour of the big auction sales, hundreds if not thousands of other watches come up for auction at all levels of value and category, so the choice is extensive. But if you are considering taking the plunge into the world of auctions it is a good idea to do some homework first. Get online and view a good range of auction houses to see their watch auction listings. Have a look at the international auction houses such as Bonhams, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in Association with Bacs and Russo. Look also at local UK auction houses websites as well. Fellows Auctioneers, Gardiner Houlgate, and Watches of Knightsbridge all hold watch auctions; these are just a few examples. Aggregator websites are another way to research the auction market as their databases list extensive numbers of searchable collector items worldwide. Some examples of aggregator websites include, Barnebys, Easylive, LotSearch, Invaluable and The, but again this list is not exhaustive. A number of aggregator websites also offer bidding platform services. This research will help give you an overview of which auction houses are holding regular watch auctions as well as their estimates and results. 

Grana part of the famed 'Dirty Dozen' military wristwatchesOn parade. Military watches continue to attract collector interest at auction. Two rare examples were auctioned in June at Bonhams Fine Watches sale in London. These included a rare Grana military wristwatch from circa 1945. The Grana part of the famed 'Dirty Dozen' military wristwatches is noted as the rarest of the group. The watch sold for £23,040 including buyer’s premium. © Photo courtesy of Bonhams.    

While you are doing this research take time to read the buying (and selling) guides that are often found on the auction house websites and aggregator’ websites. These are worth reading as they explain the bidding process and commonly used auction terms. Additionally, the auction house websites should have their Terms & Conditions and Fees listed which you should always read. Just to note, before you can bid for any item, you must register in advance with the auction house concerned.  

Rolex Military SubmarinerThe other very rare military watch to sell at Bonhams was a Rolex Military Submariner, Reference: 5513, from circa 1974/5, the so-called ‘'MilSub.' The watch sold well making £190,900 including buyer’s premium exceeding the original estimate of £70,000 – 90,000. © Photo courtesy of Bonhams.    

Think about the wider market as well. If you have a specific watch or category in mind, find out what pre-owned and vintage dealers are listing the same watches for and check well profiled selling website platforms, such as Chrono 24, that list both private and dealer watches for sale. Talk with other collectors, read watch publications and news information sources to understand the market better. To help with your research many auction house websites will also let you view recent sales results. This should give you a better overall picture of the market.  

Viewing Time, is Time Well Spent.

It may sound almost old fashioned but if you can go in person to see a watch auction viewing it is usually very enjoyable and highly informative. You often get to see watches you may have only read about online. Viewings are free to go to and you are not committed to bidding. Obviously, you can’t take the watches apart, but you can ask to see watches that you are interested in. Plus, you should always ask to see the condition reports. If it is not practical to attend a viewing in person and you would like more photos of a watch than available online ask for these. Similarly, if you have a question about the watch condition contact the auction house.

Valuing Watches at Fellows AuctionWatch auction viewings can be fascinating to attend and highly informative. Pictured – a watch department specialist valuing watches at Fellows Auctioneers. © Photo courtesy of Fellows Auctioneers.

If you do go to an auction viewing talk with the watch department specialists. Usually, they will be at the viewing, or you can contact them by e-mail or phone. Ask them about the watches you might bid on and the general market. Appreciating that the specialists are not independent advisers, as they work for the auction house, they do however value and sell watches all the time so can be very helpful to speak with.     

Do I need to Pay Fees to Buy at an Auction? 

Yes, is the short answer – fees will apply when buying from an auction house. As this article focuses on auction houses, we will consider the fees that typically apply related to auction houses. There are of course other auction providers and online selling platforms, and different types of auctions, for example timed online only auctions vs live auctions. But in all cases make sure you know in advance what the fees are and factor these into you bidding parameters. With traditional style auction houses when you buy at auction there is a fee called the ‘buyer’s premium’. The buyer’s premium is usually a percentage amount which is applied to the ‘hammer price’, (the hammer price is the price that the item, or Lot, is sold for during the auction before any fees are applied). In the UK auction house buyer’s premium fees tend to typically range between 24% to 28%, (lower buyer’s premium fees can apply however for very high value lots). So, for example, if you successfully bid at a hammer price of £2000 and the buyer’s premium is 25% the cost including buyer’s premium is £2500. Stating the obvious, you need to take this into account when bidding. There may be other fees to consider as well such as an ‘overhead premium’. Additionally, if you are using an aggregator website bidding platform there might be an ‘online commission fee’ to pay. On top of the buyer’s premium, (and any other applicable fees), you will also be charged VAT in the UK. Generally, VAT is applied just on the buyer’s premium amount, but sometimes on both the hammer price and buyer’s premium. In other parts of the world similar value added or sales taxes may apply. Finally, please keep in mind that if you are thinking of buying a watch at an auction outside of your home country always check first what the situation is with regard any import requirements / restrictions, duties / taxes, postage, and insurance costs to bring the watch home.

Patek PhilippeA design classic, a stainless steel cased Patek Philippe Nautilus, reference 3800/1 sold by Fellows Auctioneers at their May, Luxury Watch Sale for £41,600 including buyer’s premium. © Photo courtesy of Fellows Auctioneers.

An Auction House View

For this article we spoke with Alexandra Whittaker, Communications & PR Manager, at Fellows Auctioneers to get her view and some tips for those looking to bid at auction. Here is what Alexandra had to say:

“If you are bidding for the first time with an auction house check their credentials – have a look at consumer review websites for example. Find out if the auction house has an established watch department, preferably with a horologist on staff. Always ensure that you view items before you bid, either in person or online, and read the condition reports. Fellows Auctioneers provide an online 360-degree view for many of our watch lots. Take time to speak with the watch specialists and ask any questions you have. Decide your spending limit before bidding and know what the fees will be. We have an online ‘bid calculator’ which allows bidders to check what the fees will be for any bids they plan to make. Finally, ask in advance how you can collect items you have won and if there are any posting costs. We ship 90% of our lots for free, worldwide.”   

‘As is’

Literally the auction term, ‘as is’, means just that. When you buy at an auction, (either via an absentee bid, in person, telephone bid, or online), there are no warranties or guarantees given relating to working order. If the watch stops working once you get it home it is not the auction house responsibility. This might sound a little harsh, but it is well established auction practice. Remember the auction house is only the intermediary and not the seller and the auction itself is governed by the Terms and Conditions of the auction house. You might encounter another auction term, ‘buyer’s remorse’. This means that once you have won an auction bid you can’t return the watch because you no longer want it and ask for a refund. With online only auctions there might be some return options, (for example under the EU Consumer Rights Directive), but always read the Terms and Conditions in advance to check. If, however, you feel that the watch you obtained at auction is different to the description and photographs given by the auction house discuss this with the auction house. Importantly though please remember that the onus is on the bidder to have satisfied themselves about the Terms & Conditions, description, and condition before bidding.    

With regard fakes if you believe that an item you have purchased at auction is fake immediately contact the auction house and refer to their Terms and Conditions. Some auction houses have a time limit to notify them of a potential fake item.

Another point worth noting is that auction house watch departments will often open watch cases to check watches for condition reports. This might compromise water tightness as the watches are not factory resealed. So, for example, if you have just successfully bid on much sought-after diver watch before you take it for a swim ask the auction house if they opened the watch. 

Watch Valuation at FellowsAuctions have become an increasingly important part of the world of watches as the popularity for collecting has grown. Pictured, a watch valuation in progress at Fellows Auctioneers in Birmingham. © Photo courtesy of Fellows Auctioneers.

Are There Bargains to be had at an Auction?

This is always an interesting question, without necessarily a straightforward answer. Given all the publicity that watches have had of recent times the days of an auction house woefully underestimating the value of a watch are probably less likely. Additionally, in today’s online world private collectors and dealers are constantly looking at values and which watches are coming up for sale. But that’s not to say that there are no bargains out there. The saying ‘right place, right time’ is very apt for auctions. Even in the age of online bidding you may find yourself as the only bidder for an item, or for example a seller may list with no reserve. Of course, finding a potential bargain is just one of the elements of auctions, along with seeking out an item, bidding successfully, and having the enjoyment of watch to add to your collection, or even your first watch.

But, as mentioned when I referenced doing your homework, understanding what might make a good buy for you is about your research to help build up your knowledge base. Other key factors to consider when looking at a watch include the condition of the watch, its originality, quality, rarity, maker, movement type, any supporting items like box and papers, manufacturer certificates of authenticity, service history, and to ask yourself what makes this watch interesting and collectable?  For example, a watch may look like a bargain until you read in the auction house description that it has a later replacement dial, or case, or its not working properly, and then you need to decide how important these factors are before you bid. The overall market is another key factor. Are you buying in a rising market, declining or flat market? More recently for instance there has been some media commentary that parts of the secondary watch market once hyped are a bit softer. Additionally, collector tastes and markets evolve over time. Once for example we spoke about vintage watches as an all-encompassing term for older watches. Now we have the term ‘neo-vintage’ to describe a specific newer collector category related to some watches from roughly around the 1970’s to early 2000’s, that are gaining attention.  

Making a Bid

Once you have registered there are no shortage of options for bidding, including absentee bids with an agreed maximum limit on your bid, telephone bidding, in-person, and online bidding.

Phone Bidding at Fellows AuctionPhone bidding in progress at Fellows Auctioneers. © Photo courtesy of Fellows Auctioneers

All these options are well described in the buying guides provided on auction house websites. A couple of things to be aware of. Firstly, auction houses typically use minimum amount bid increments. For example, if someone bids £1000 the next minimum bid increment might be £100, to make a bid of £1100. If bidding gets to £5000 the next minimum bid increment could be £500, to make a bid of £5500. Secondly, with regard estimates - all estimates are guides only and items may sell above the estimates. Many auction lots will also have a ‘reserve’ price, typically the lower estimate value amount. If bidding does not reach this reserve the item will not sell. If a lot has no reserve this sometimes is flagged by the auction house.

One excellent way to learn about auctions before you bid is to see an auction in person or live online as a viewer only. This can be a very helpful learning experience and will give you a sense of how the bidding process works. Finally, should you decide to participate in an auction ask yourself in advance what are your objectives for buying at auction? Have you done your research? What is the maximum amount including fees that you are comfortable bidding and to remember this when the bidding action starts. Auctions can be a lot of fun, but you want to be pleased with your purchase when that hammer goes down.  

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Richard Fox

About the Author: Richard Fox

Richard is a freelance writer specialising in auction reporting and has a passion for watches and horology. Since 2018 he has written about auction sales of watches, clocks, and fine collector items. His articles have been published in Antiques Trade Gazette, Horological Journal (British Horological Institute publication), TimePiece (British Watch & Clock Makers' Guild publication), and online watch website

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