Like a lot of watch lovers, my first move when pulling up a watch catalog online is to find that always-present drop-down menu and sort the lots to display the most expensive pieces first. The shock-and-awe feeling of seeing a pristine 2499 or some wild Big Crown Sub gets the adrenaline going and sometimes even results in finding something truly special. But my second move? The reverse. I love sifting through the watches with four-figure and low-five-figure estimates. A few years ago, these watches were usually run-of-the-mill examples of blue-chip pieces, but with auction houses catering to a larger group of more enthusiastic collectors, variety and intrigue have skyrocketed.
I’ve said before that your likelihood of scoring a major steal at an auction is basically zero, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a great watch for a great price. Sometimes, that’s just how the market works. Prices don’t always correlate directly to value and quality, and if you’re willing to follow my lead and look at the less-talked-about pieces in an auction catalog, you might just be rewarded. Phillips recently dropped the catalog for their upcoming Geneva Watch Auction XI (which, in a non-COVID-infected world, would have been their annual May Geneva sale), and here are eight watches that you definitely don’t want to miss.
Cartier Tank Asymmetrique (Lot 18)
It was just a few weeks ago that Cartier dropped a few new versions of the Tank Asymmetrique, only the fourth version ever released in the brand’s 100+-year history. It’s an absolutely stunning design that can trace its roots back to 1936, making it one of the older Cartier designs too. What we have here is one of the CPCP (Collection Privée Cartier Paris) models released as an homage in 1996. Only 300 of these yellow gold pieces were produced (there are an additional 100 in platinum) and they’re on the smaller side at 33mm top-to-bottom and 23mm side-to-side. However, in my opinion, that’s an ideal size for a watch like this. The design does enough talking – you don’t need something oversized too. If this actually sells for under $ 10,000 as the estimate suggests, it will be a total steal; if it sells for under $ 15,000, it’s still a tremendous find and one that you don’t want to pass up.
This watch is Lot 18, and it carries an estimate of $ 6,400-$ 9,600.
Ressence Series One (Lot 97)
Alright, this one is definitely a niche item, but I smiled ear-to-ear when I first saw it. This is one of the very first Ressence references ever made commercially available, back in 2012. There were 150 pieces made in total, and they were only predated by the 50-piece Series Zero a year earlier. You’ll notice something unusual for Ressence though: This watch has a crown! This watch is the predecessor to the Type 1, and it came before the brand’s signature no-crown design was developed. This is essentially a proof-of-concept watch for the no-hands display. I reviewed one of these during my first weeks at HODINKEE, also in 2012, so the watch holds a special place in my heart, and I know many collectors of independents who feel the same way. These almost never come to market, and for under $ 10,000, you could own a small bit of modern watchmaking history.
This watch is Lot 97, and it carries an estimate of $ 5,100-$ 8,200.
Ulysse Nardin Sector Dial Chronograph (Lot 211)
This watch is an absolute stunner. There are no two ways about it. This is a 38mm stainless steel chronograph with almond-shaped pushers, a Valjoux 23 movement, and a killer sector dial with a pulsation scale in French. It was made in 1942, during World War II, when steel watches were exceedingly rare. Because it says Ulysse Nardin on the dial, it’s estimated to sell for somewhere between $ 10,000 and $ 15,000; if it said Patek Philippe on the dial, you’d be able to add a zero and then some to the price. Now, I have no idea if the estimate here is anywhere close to realistic. I’ve never seen a UN chrono quite like this one, but I’m betting you haven’t either. Even if it sells for quite a bit more than that range, this is still a rare opportunity to own a watch that looks and feels like this for a sub-six-figure price.
This watch is Lot 211, and it carries an estimate of $ 10,300-$ 15,400.
Omega De Ville Co-Axial (Lot 112)
I’ll admit it right off the bat – purely based on looks, this watch wouldn’t have caught my attention. The pink dial is plenty cool looking, but otherwise, this watch is very much a relic of late-’90s watch design (which, generally, isn’t a great thing). That said, this is a historic watch and one that I’d love to own. You all probably know by now that legendary watchmaker George Daniels invented a new kind of co-axial escapement and sold it to Omega for commercialization. It took more than half a decade to spin things up, but in 1999, Omega finally released its first co-axial watches: two 999-piece LEs in gold and this 99-piece LE in platinum. The co-axial has defined Omega as a brand and launched its modern strategy of developing technically-advanced movements, so in some ways, this watch represents a major turning point for one of Switzerland’s most storied watchmakers. Daniels was also directly involved in the development of this watch (and its gold siblings), so if you can’t afford a Millenium or a Roger Smith, this is another way to buy into the family.
This watch is Lot 112 and it carries an estimate of $ 5,200-$ 10,300.
Audemars Piguet Minute Repeater (Lot 205)
Yes, this watch is going to sell for well north of $ 20,000, but I still think it belongs on this list. Most people immediately think of the Royal Oak when they think of Audemars Piguet, and for good reason. However, as we’ve talked about before, the Le Brassus manufacture has a long history of making incredible complications, including chronographs, calendars, and striking watches. This 1996 minute repeater harkens back to an iconic piece made for American businessman John Shaeffer in 1907, and it definitely looks the part. The cushion-shaped case is made of platinum and is just 33.5mm across, and the dial has sharp, darkened hands that stand out against the white dial and its applied Breguet numerals. This is an understated mega-watch if there ever was one, and the fact that you might be able to pick it up for less than the cost of a ref. 15202 “Jumbo” is absolutely bananas.
This watch is Lot 205, and it carries an estimate of $ 16,000-$ 26,600.
IWC With ‘Caravelle’ Cloissoné Enamel
Watches with these cloissoné enamel dials occupy a very particular place in the watch collecting pantheon. They’re exceptionally rare, they were painstakingly made by hand by specialized artisans who can rightfully be called artists as well, and they appeal to a rather narrow band of collectors, as they’ve got such a distinctive look. Are they to my taste? Not really. But I get the appeal, and the watch here is a pretty special one. On its own, this 35mm yellow gold IWC with a matching bracelet and classic Geneva-style movement is plenty appealing. But this dial is what makes it so special. This pattern has been named the Caravelle pattern, showing a ship sailing through the waves. A Rolex with a nearly identical dial sold at Phillips in 2015 for CHF 1.2 million, and it’s almost certain that the dial in this watch came from the very same artisan that produced that dial. The catch? This watch is estimated to sell for well under $ 50,000. If that’s not value, I don’t know what is.
This watch is Lot 58, and it carries an estimate of $ 20,600-$ 41,200.
Habring² Erwin Tribute To WWW (Lot 47)
Looking to independent watchmakers can often be a good way to find value, and Habring² always comes through in this regard. The watch in question here is one of just 10 examples in a limited edition produced for a club called “Watches, Wine, and Wonders.” The name conveniently abbreviates to WWW, lining up with the name of a classic style of military watch, so Habring² looked there for inspiration and made a 1940s-style pilot’s watch with a deadbeat seconds complication to boot. It definitely wears larger than the 38mm x 38mm dimensions would indicate, but I think that’s kind of cool with a piece like this. When it comes to limited editions, 10 pieces is truly limited (we’re not talking about a “limited” edition of 2,500 or something like that) and the everyday wearability makes this all the more appealing.
This watch is Lot 47, and it carries an estimate of $ 3,100-$ 5,100.
Patek Philippe Aquanaut Ref. 5066 Japan Edition
The last watch on this list is definitely going to be the most controversial pick. Nautilus madness has in turn sparked Aquanaut madness, and now these less popular sport watches are nearly impossible to get at retail. If you want one, you’re likely paying 1.5-2x retail on the grey market or from a private dealer. Personally, I’ve always preferred the older Aquanaut models, and this special blue model, made exclusively for the Japanese market, is a longtime favorite. The smaller 36mm size, the less flashy dial, and the more flexible rubber strap make the 5066 a winner, and here you might be able to snag this rare variant for less than a modern 5167A. So, yeah, close to $ 50k for a steel Aquanaut (and I do think the price will end up somewhere around there), but at least here you’re getting something genuinely special for your shekels.
This watch is Lot 120, and it carries an estimate of $ 20,700-$ 41,300.