The world of collectible watches is an odd one. Sometimes, great watches – ones that are objectively wonderful and rare – languish well below retail price, even after they’re out of production. And then, one day, they pop! And their value sky-rockets. An example of this is the early F.P. Journe Tourbillons, which we called out in 2014 as seriously undervalued. We even did a Reference Points on them two years later, putting them alongside the most iconic watches in the world, and you could still get them for a relatively reasonable amount. And then, one day, things changed and they more than doubled in value. And we are currently living in a world where early Journe watches are immensely desirable and valuable. We suspect that trend will only continue with items like these coming for sale soon. Another watch that may, or may not, follow this path is the A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 reference 101.026, better known as the steel Lange 1.
We have it on good authority that there are less than 30 stainless steel Lange 1 examples in the world. Maybe 20 out there, or maybe 25 – but we’re pretty sure it’s less than 30. And for a long time, they were rarely seen. An example would come to market about once a year at most, and when it did, it was a big deal. And it still is, except something interesting is happening: They’re coming to market more frequently now.
Dr. Crott Auctioneers has an example up, and Sotheby’s in Geneva has another that will cross the block this week. In October of last year, Ben covered a trio of desirable watches from A. Lange & Söhne, a stainless steel Lange 1 among them. Then, following a strong result on the watch he wrote about, another one came up from Phillips two months later and sold for an outstanding $ 343,750. Including the two upcoming watches, that’s four stainless steel Lange 1 examples in less than a year’s time!
Is there a story in the data here? What does the emergence of two examples at once tell us?
This wave of stainless steel Lange 1s is a strong example of a phenomenon that happens when one watch brings in big numbers: More come out of the woodwork.
The aggressive estimate on case no. 117952, the watch that’s up at Dr. Crott’s currently, points to the idea that this watch has reached a new level of standard pricing; the $ 343,750 sale price of Case No. 117955, sold by Philipps has inspired a certain confidence that’s perhaps influenced the high estimate of this watch. Surely Dr. Crott’s is hoping to pull in the same sort of numbers that case no. 117952 did, although it is not NOS. After all, the stainless steel Lange 1 is a watch that Aurel Bacs himself wears frequently.
Keep in mind also that these watches sat around $ 140,000 for years – granted, far more than their original retail price, but certainly less than what the last two have traded for recently.
Further, there’s a very interesting connection between the two watches about to hit the market. Dr. Crott’s is auctioning the aforementioned watch, but it’s case no. 127695, the upcoming watch at Sotheby’s, that’s perplexing. At 12 o’clock on the caseback there’s a name engraved: Stefan Muser. It’s not just a Lange 1 in stainless steel – it’s a personalized Lange 1 in stainless steel. But it gets even more interesting. Mr. Muser is the author of three books on wristwatches no longer in production, including pricing guides. However, that’s not even the most interesting part. Stefan Muser also owns Dr. Crott’s. A watch bearing the name of the owner of Dr. Crott’s auction house is being auctioned at Sotheby’s. What’s the backstory here? We’re working on it. But to understand where the watch is going, it’s best to look at where it came from.
Lange 1 Reference 101.026 In Stainless Steel
Collecting watches from A. Lange & Söhne is an intellectual pursuit in itself. There’s something cerebral about the brand and its watches that just isn’t quite present in other horological subcultures. There’s incredible depth and nuance, and Lange devotees are almost cult-like in the way they worship Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the original founder of the company, and Walter Lange, his great-grandson who brought it back in 1990. In a similar fashion to the way German thinkers influenced intellectual currents in Europe, the Lange family has done so in watchmaking. Germany is called Das Land der Dichter und Denker, “The country of poets and thinkers.” The modern A. Lange & Söhne perfectly encapsulates that notion.
Part of the charm of Lange is a set of imperatives the company operates under, and one of those is the strict adherence to precious metals used in case manufacturing. In the late ’90s, however, an undisclosed number of the company’s most iconic model, the Lange 1, was made in stainless steel. As mentioned, it’s less than 30, although the exact number has never been disclosed officially by Lange. It went by the reference number 101.026.
The stainless steel Lange 1 was one of the few – if only – instances that a stainless steel model made it to retailers, and ultimately, collectors. There are other examples of stainless steel being utilized, but the stainless steel Lange 1 examples went through the standard consumer channels. It came with either a silver or black dial, and it’s the kind of watch that gives die-hard Lange fans butterflies. It’s an über-watch.
The estimate on the example auctioned by Dr. Crott’s last October, Case No. 117958, was posted at €100,000-130,000. Ben wrote that the estimate “feels right, considering there are both hammer fees and, very likely, import duties, depending on final destination.”
It ended up selling for $ 220,000, and that was considered a strong result for the sixth example to ever come to auction. It was the next example, the seventh to come to market, that would bring in roughly $ 100,000 more. The NOS condition likely contributed to the sale price. It sold for $ 343,750.
When considering those data points, it makes the upcoming watches at auction all the more interesting. The supply of stainless steel Lange 1 watches is actually limited, and these watches rarely leave collections. Unlike air-cooled Porsche 911s or vintage Rolex dive watches, of which there are countless examples, the dramatic increase in price of the Lange 1 can be substantiated through looking at just how few are out there, and of those, how few come to market.
Every Lange 1 Reference 101.026 To Appear At Public Auction
While the entire history surrounding the Lange 1 ref. 101.026 isn’t officially known, we can use case numbers to extrapolate some information regarding the production patterns of the model. The intermittent succession of case numbers suggests that throughout time, small batches of stainless steel Lange 1 examples were made, and not all at the same time. It’s been reported that a number of examples were made in 1994 when the modern A. Lange & Söhne debuted, and then again from 1996-1999. This theory is based on the fact that there are large gaps in case numbers. There are groupings starting with 113, 114, and 117. A. Lange & Söhne produces roughly 5,000 watches per year.
Looking at the auction results listed below, something else comes to light: The upward trend in the sale price over time. This is to be expected, of course. With any valuable commodity, that’s generally the case, but the stainless steel Lange 1 has steadily increased for a long time, and now it may be set to increase exponentially based on the past few results. That’s what makes the upcoming auctions particularly interesting. It’s also important to note that many—any by many, I mean the rest of the 30 or so watches—have traded hands privately.
Case No. 113561
This example was sold in the Rare Watches Including Nautilus 40 Part II sale in November 2016. It sold for CHF 143,750.
Case No. 114404
Part of the Important Watches auction in 2013, the watch brought in CHF 147,750, exceeding the CHF 50,000-100,000 estimate.
Case No. 117955
This watch hit an impressive $ 343,750 this past December. The NOS condition likely bolstered the final sale price.
Case No. 117956
This example with a black dial fetched $ 233,000, near the low end of its $ 200,000-$ 400,000 estimate in 2016.
Case No. 117958
Case No. 117960
This example was auctioned in 2014 and held an estimate of € 140,000-180,000. The auction summary notes that this is the fourth example to ever come to auction.
Case No. 117965
Appearing in May 2014 in the Important Watches including Property from an Important European Collection, the watch realized CHF 100,000.
When the two upcoming watches sell, the story will be complete. The stainless steel Lange 1 has always been a rare watch that has generally flown under the radar to the larger collecting world, but now, it might just become a rare watch that’s known for bringing in big numbers. Looking at the known case numbers, it becomes clear that there are plenty of examples still sitting in collections. If the upcoming auctions go well, maybe more examples will come to market. Then we’ll finally be able to piece together the case numbers and answer the question of how many were made, once and for all. A wise man once said “you can’t start a fire without a spark,” and after these two watches hammer, we’ll know if the spark seen in the fall of 2019 lit a forest fire or a camp fire.