Esse quam videri—“To be, rather than to seem”—was the motto of American banker Henry Graves Jr. (1868-1953), one of the most famous watch collectors in history. Graves passed his passion on to his grandson, Reginald H. Fullerton Jr., who died in March. Over the course of their two lifetimes, the men assembled an eye-popping collection of dozens of one-of-a-kind timepieces by Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, and Breguet. Now those watches are up for sale.
On June 14, Sotheby’s New York will host the watch auction of the century. Sotheby’s (BID) Senior Vice President John Reardon says he hasn’t seen this sort of pre-sale excitement over watches since the last time the auction house sold a Graves watch, in 1999. The Patek Philippe Supercomplication in question hammered for over $11 million. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but we’ve been fortunate enough to get to experience it twice,” Reardon says.
Of the 61 pieces for sale, most of the attention is focused on the Patek Philippes originally owned by Graves. But Reardon insists that “like his grandfather, Fullerton had a talent for collecting pieces that he knew would create a lot of excitement.” These watches should prove to be the dark horses of the sale.
Bob Maron, a watch dealer from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who specializes in vintage Patek Philippes, will definitely be in attendance—as will, he says, “a veritable who’s who of important watch collectors.”
Maron, whom we profiled in a recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, predicts that the auction will be historic, not just for the watches for sale but the action on the floor. “We now have the Asians interested for the first time in watch-collecting,” he says. “And the Asian collectors are voracious and aggressive bidders. It’s definitely going to reset the entire vintage market. It’s a game-changer.”
Sotheby’s cumulative estimates place the total value of the collection at from $3 million to $5 million, but vigorous bidding could drive the value well past that number. Maron, for one, expects individual pieces to go for six figures. He singles out a particular Patek Philippe—the Henry Graves Jr. Yellow Gold Tonneau Minute Repeating Wristwatch—as “the most important watch in the auction.” He claims the estimated price is “something of an inside joke.” At the low end, he predicts a final bid for the watch in the ballpark of $2 million, “without question.” If several prominent collectors get into a bidding war, Maron says, he “wouldn’t be surprised if this watch sells for [$]4 to 5 million.”
And then there’s the Patek Philippe 1436, Yellow Gold Split Second Chronograph.
“An undervalued watch,” Maron says, which he predicts will go for much less than it’s worth, mostly because of the absence of a coat of arms on the back. He’s especially impressed with the Breguet numbers on the side, which he says “are not usually seen on 1436s.” This is one that Maron is recommending to several of his high-profile clients, who include John Mayer, Charlie Sheen, and Jennifer Aniston. “I’ll be bidding on it,” he says with a grin. “Let’s just put it that way.”