At the age of 23, Aurel Bacs applied for a job as a watch expert at a famous auction house. His professional experience left a lot to be desired: he had nothing but a passion for rare watches. He got the job despite this – or maybe exactly because of this. Today, Bacs is the best auctioneer in the world, turning over record sales of vintage watches. An interview with a man who has kept his feet firmly on the ground in spite of all his major success.
The sought-after watch expert and his team work in an unassuming building with equally modest offices, a fitting location for the start-up company founded by Bacs and his wife back in 2014. Piles of watch catalogues sit stacked up on the desks in the communal office shared by two employees and Bacs’s wife. The auctioneer and his assistant work in a small office next door. There is no luxury to be found here – a refreshing juxtaposition.
Mr Bacs, you make millions in sales of your vintage watches at auction. What’s the secret to your success?
I think if you have a passion for something, be it sport, playing chess, gardening or watches, you are head and shoulders above those who see it as no more than a job. Offering your customers beautiful auctions, great catalogues, rare watches and excellent results is almost like a machine that constantly reinvents itself – ever-changing. What’s more, we now know which watches sell well and which ones don’t. As long as I only take on watches for auction that I know to be popular among collectors, I know I will achieve great results and high sales quotas.
How do you know that?
When you spend almost 35 years doing nothing else but thinking of watches, spending anywhere from 12 to 16 hours a day in contact with dozens of collectors and when you’ve got the watch bug yourself, then you can’t help but know what customers want. It’s not routine, it’s a feeling.
Do you ever worry about failing to sell your goods at auction?
I’m not the worrying type. But if you’re too sure of something and aren’t afraid of failing, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. That’s why I’m always nervous at auction because there’s always something that could go wrong.
Can you give me an example?
We don’t manufacture any products ourselves. In this respect, we are dependent on what customers offer us and what they need. They might say, “There’s nothing here today that interests me.” This in itself makes an auctioneer nervous, because he hasn’t managed to satisfy his customers’ tastes. But external factors, over which we have no control, also play a role. That includes, for instance, terrorist attacks. If a plane were to fly into the World Trade Center the day before my auction – and that did actually happen – then it wouldn’t matter if I were to offer the most beautiful watches in the world. People lost relatives and had more important things to think about than watches. Those are factors that have even more influence today than they did in 2011. The world has become generally more unstable and nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. But I’m not the kind of person that worries about the future and gets caught up in worst-case scenarios.
“I’m not the worrying type. But if you’re too sure of something and aren’t afraid of failing, then you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
What’s the biggest flop you’ve ever experienced?
There have been a number of flops. Some of these have included not selling watches because the pictures in the catalogue didn’t look good. A good friend of mine, Jean-Claude Biver, once said: you don’t learn from your successes, you learn from your failures. Making mistakes shouldn’t be taboo. A fear of making mistakes robs you of the courage it takes to blaze new trails.
Auctioneering is not a profession that can be learned.
I would agree with that, there’s no theoretical training for it. As a teenager, I accompanied my father – a passionate watch collector – to watch fairs, flea markets and auctions. At that time, I had no idea that I would later turn this hobby into my job. I studied at the University of St.Gallen before later studying law and economics in Zurich. Half a year before graduation, I happened to come across an advertisement for a job at an auction house in a watch magazine. It was looking for a specialist for its watch department in Geneva. I was 23 at the time, had zero professional experience and a great passion for beautiful watches. At first, they thought my application was a joke, but after several interviews and tests, I got the job.
“At first, they thought my application was a joke, but after several interviews and tests, I got the job.”
So you’ve never regretted this change of career?
Yes, at the beginning I did. I was young and a nobody in an industry that values experience and seniority above all else. All of my contemporaries with whom I attended university got great jobs afterwards. They all had a job title, a top salary and a fancy car. My job was not well paid at all. I had also completely underestimated the complexity of this new role. And my first auctions were anything but successful. But that changed after a few years. When I was 28, I sold a watch for one million Swiss francs. That was an indescribable feeling. My colleagues patted me on the back, customers suddenly started taking me seriously and I got a bonus. What started out as being very frustrating transformed into something truly thrilling.
In 2014, you purchased the Henry Graves pocket watch – the Holy Grail of watches – at auction for more than 23 million Swiss francs on behalf of a collector. While undoubtedly a special piece, is that not an awful lot of money for a watch?
I asked myself that same question. One million Swiss francs is a lot of money, and 23 million is absolutely crazy. But how much does the most expensive Ferrari cost? 50 million? So, a frequently produced car, not a unique edition, costs twice as much. What’s the highest a picture sells for? 150 million? 180 million? For an oil-colour painting on a canvas. It took five years to produce the Henry Graves pocket watch you’re talking about. In this respect, this watch is, relatively speaking, quite cheap. The situation on the market is very complex today. For that reason, I cannot say whether or not the watch is worth more today. But the new owner and I can sleep easy knowing that it was relatively cheap in comparison to objects in other collector’s segments.
Do people even wear watches like that? Or do they keep them in a safe with other treasured possessions?
The pocket watch resembles a large oyster. It was commissioned by Henry Graves. The American banker approached Patek Philippe in 1933 and said, “I want you to make me the most complex and beautiful watch in the world.” This model – made entirely by hand – was the answer. Graves never had any intention of wearing the watch. There are, however, other collectors that do wear their valuable timepieces. The man who purchased a watch for 11 million Swiss francs a few months ago wears his with extreme care. And the watch looks so modest, you would never know how valuable it is.
“It’s about loving something, not just an investment.”
Are vintage watches an object of affection or simply an alternative form of investment?
I wish there were more aficionados than speculators. It’s about loving something, not just an investment. People don’t choose to marry someone for their bank balance – well, I hope not (laughs)! Thankfully, speculating on watches is not all that easy. But some people think all they have to do is buy a Patek Philippe or a Rolex, keep it for all of two years and then they can sell it for double the price. But it’s not as simple as that. The collector’s watch market is very complex and if you don’t have specialist knowledge and experience, you might get your fingers burnt.
Patek Philippe and Rolex are the two most iconic brands. Heuer is, however, becoming more and more popular. Are there any other brands where you see potential?
Every vintage watch has potential; they have to be rare, original and cannot be broken. But over 50 per cent of vintage watches are no longer originals because they have often been revised and restored. That is why I advise every collector to refrain from tinkering with them or cleaning them. Show your watch to a specialist. This will prevent you from doing any irreversible damage.
North America and Europe are the most important markets …
They used to be.
… and auctions are held regularly in Hong Kong. Which markets do you think are the most promising and who determines the price?
The great thing is that none of the countries determine the price. I don’t think that would be good if that were the case. On the contrary, we have struck a very good balance between America, Europe, the Middle East, the former Soviet states and Asia. The Hong Kong, Japanese and Taiwanese markets were big even 30 years ago. And over the last ten years, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and China have joined them. If one single market were to dominate and then disappear, this could lead to a major correction.
“Vintage is immensely popular at the moment. In today’s fast-living world where a lot is thrown away, the demand for vintage is greater than ever.”
Is the demand for vintage watches growing almost as a counter-trend to the digitalised world?
Absolutely – and that’s something that is measurable. Vintage is immensely popular at the moment. In today’s fast-living world where a lot is thrown away, the demand for vintage is greater than ever. A disposable item, let’s say a T-shirt for 9.90 Swiss francs, won’t give you anything to hold on to. A wooden chest of drawers inherited from your grandmother, on the other hand, gives you a feeling of solidity and eternity. More and more people today are wearing leather shoes in appreciation of items that last. Others collect wine rarities, rare art or old houses. Vintage is about exclusivity. Plenty people could buy a modern heavy-weight gold watch, and there is a genuine risk that you could meet somebody with exactly the same watch. This will not happen to you with a vintage watch; these are much rarer and have a unique history.
How do you find extraordinary watches?
It’s actually the opposite: the watches find me. Watch collectors are very discreet people. Most collectors I know have been active for 20 or 30 years. I have worked with many of them for just as long.
“There is a genuine risk that you could meet somebody with exactly the same watch. This will not happen to you with a vintage watch; these are much rarer and have a unique history.”
Bidders want to pay as little as possible, while you want to get the highest price. How do you draw them out?
The best auctioneer isn’t one who says the most, talks the loudest or for the longest time. The first thing you have to learn is that every collector has his own motive. One person might want a watch because they’ve been looking for one for 20 years to complete their collection. Another might want it because his friends said, “You’ve got to have this watch.” As an auctioneer, you have to know all the things that motivate collectors. Only by doing so can you offer the right watch at the right time.
Can you tell when somebody has reached or gone over their bidding limit?
Many collectors are very open with me before the auction and tell me that they’re going to bid up to 600,000 Swiss francs for a certain watch. Then, during the auction, they stop at 550,000. Others offer up to 900,000 Swiss francs and go over their personal limit. Few decisions are taken rationally on the collector’s market; they’re based on emotions and much more. Those are variables we cannot control. It is always a mystery how much a watch will actually go for.
“The best auctioneer isn’t one who says the most, talks the loudest or for the longest time. The first thing you have to learn is that every collector has his own motive.”
How many auctions do you organise a year?
Very few. Last year, we held four regular auctions; two in Geneva and two in Hong Kong. In addition to those, there were two special auctions dedicated to steel chronographs and the history of Rolex.
Your wife is also a watch expert. Together, you founded the company Bacs & Russo. Do you sometimes take advice from her?
Absolutely. The market is so complex that it’s not possible for one person alone to know it all. You always need somebody to ask difficult questions and challenge you.
What is it that made you decide to collaborate with the Phillips auction house?
Over the course of my long career, I have worked at three auction houses. Five years at Sotheby’s, three years at Phillips and ten years at Christie’s as head of the watch department. After my time at Christie’s, my wife and I decided that it was time for a break. We travelled around the world and enjoyed having time to ourselves. When we came back, I met with Edward Dolman. He is the CEO of Phillips and former CEO of Christie’s. He asked us if we’d like to work for Phillips. I politely declined. After several talks, he proposed a joint venture. He said, “Build up our department exactly how you think it should be.” My answer? Okay, sounds good. And the rest is history.
You concentrate on quality and organise only a few, but top-class auctions. How, in your opinion, should auction houses position themselves to ensure future success?
That is something every company has to decide for itself. I know what I enjoy. Thanks to my parents and grandparents, quality has always been important to me. That shows in many areas of my life. I’d rather spend the week eating fresh vegetables than bad meat. I’d rather live in a beautiful little house than an ugly big one. I have no intention of building up a volume business. For me, it is important to give every customer enough time to have a proper look at each watch. When I see how other companies auction off thousands of watches, yet employ less specialists than we do, I can only draw one conclusion: each expert spends less time with the watch and less time with the customer. That goes completely against my ideals.
“For me, it is important to give every customer enough time to have a proper look at each watch.”
Is there a watch that you’d really like to buy or sell at auction?
Yes, the next one! I look forward to getting my hands on new watches that I’ve never seen before. By that I mean collector’s pieces that may, for example, have been purchased in the 1940s and hidden away in a vault at a bank. And, who knows, maybe this could be the next record-breaking watch at auction. Finding watches like that is like a sailor discovering a new island. That’s what makes my job so exciting.