Watches are increasingly going for astronomical figures at auction, but will anything touch the five most expensive watches ever sold?
A boom in luxury watch sales is underway throughout auction houses around the world. In 2021 the total sales of watches auctioned at the ‘Big Four’ auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, and Antiquorum – reached $608m, according to Rare & Fine Vintage Watches, a market analyst. Compare this to $347m in vintage watch sales in 2020.
The boom represents a change in who the typical watch buyer is according to James Marks, head of watches at Phillips. In an article published earlier this year, he told Spear’s that ‘watches have gone from being a slightly nerdy passion project for those in the know to becoming a mainstream core collectible’.
A new generation of watch collectors emerged from the crypto boom, he explained. These new collectors existed in a world of social media, where watches and watch-wearers were an essential element of the culture. When Jay Z, LeBron James and Leonardo DiCaprio were spotted sporting the ultra-limited product of a Patek Philippe-Tiffany collaboration, the watches skyrocketed in value. A single Tiffany Nautlius fetched $6.5 million at a charity auction in December 2021, a cool 120-times its retail price.
But as the boom continues, will anything touch the five most expensive watches ever sold at auction?
1. Patek Philippe, Grandmaster Chime 6300A-010 – $31m
Perhaps the pinnacle of watch design, the Grandmaster Chime took around 100,000 hours to make and was sold in 2019 by Christie’s. Patek Philippe themselves say ‘the Grandmaster Chime is the most complicated Patek Philippe wristwatch ever made’. It has twenty complications and two independent dials, with six patented innovations.
2. Patek Philippe, Henry Graves Supercomplication – $23.98m
Commissioned in 1925 by the banker Henry Graves JR for the handsome sum of $15,000 (around $219,000 in today’s money), the Henry Graves Supercomplication has become an important watchmaking artefact.
It is believed that Graves commissioned the pocketwatch in order to best his rival, American automaker James Ward Packer, who had recently come into possession of a Patek Philippe Grand Complication – the world’s most complicated timepiece.
While the story is likely apocryphal, the complexity of the Henry Graves Supercomplication is breathtaking. Forged of 18-karat gold, with 24 complications, the timepiece is made up of 920 individual parts, 430 screws, 110 wheels, 120 removable parts, and 70 jewels.
3. Rolex, Paul Newman Daytona 6239 – $17.75m
Sold in 2017 in New York at an auction hosted by Philips, the legendary wristwatch is a testament to the pricing power of a watch’s wearer. Carrying the iconic white and black dials, the watch was said to have been wrapped round Paul Newman’s wrist every day for fifteen years.
As a lover of cars, Newman had a particular affinity for the Daytona model which was designed for timing race cars. This watch was bought in 1968 by Newman’s wife, Joanne Woodward, who had the words ‘drive carefully’ engraved on its back in a nod to the actor’s nascent racing career.
A deserved inclusion, the Rolex breaks Patek Philippe’s hold on the world’s most expensive watches.
4. Patek Philippe, Stainless Steel 1518 – $11.14m
Produced in 1941 and sold at auction in 2016 by Philips, this watch bounced between more than seven bidders before reaching its sale price.
It is the first and only perpetual calendar chronograph made in stainless steel. Patek Philippe produced 281 examples of the 1518, with the majority encased in yellow gold. Around 55 versions were produced in rose gold, but stainless steel versions were the rarest.
The dials have a modern and simple layout with day and month apertures, two dials for the 30-minute register, and constant seconds at the 3 and 9 o’clock positions. It also includes a moon phase indicator, as well as a date indication.
5. Patek Philippe, Prince Mohammed Tewfik A. Toussoun Pink Gold 1518 with French Calendar – $9.57m
Often referred to as the best “pink on pink” 1518 ever made, this Patek Philippe was once owned by Prince Mohammed Tewfik A. Toussoun of Egypt. The original production date is 1948, but it was not sold at auction until 2021.
Earlier this year, Spear’s columnist and one of the world’s foremost watch authorities, Nick Foulkes, said that ‘it would be worth crawling across broken glass just to see my favourite timepiece: a Patek Philippe Ref 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph from 1948 with pink gold case and pink gold dial on a Gay Frères bracelet.’
This ‘pink-on-pink’ 1518 however, is the only one to come with its original certificate, which states that the Prince bought the watch on 25 July 1951.
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[What to read next: check out Tim Barber’s exclusive interview with Patek Philippe head Thierry Stern to see where the brand is heading next]