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Time to buy: The classic watch business

If you want a classic watch, there are only two ways to get one: inherit one from dad or grandpa or go to an auction house.
/ Source: Forbes

If you want a classic watch, there are only two ways to get one: inherit one from dad or grandpa or go to an auction house.

On Dec. 3, Christie's New York is having one of its semiregular auctions of what they call Important Watches. But, this pretentious sounding title should not scare away potential punters. A watch is not really important, after all, except when it fails to tell the time when you are late for a business meeting. Then it is very important. The rest of the time, especially in an age when every cell phone and PDA also has a clock function, a fancy watch is really nothing more than glorified arm candy — a sop to one's ego and a visible appendage that reflects more succinctly than anything else in a modern man's wardrobe his relative net worth.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. To greater and lesser extents, cars, clothes, paintings and real estate do the same thing. Like them, watches are also things of great beauty, not just great cost.

At the Christie's event, it will be possible to acquire some truly extraordinary chronometers--watches so rare, beautiful and expensive that they go far beyond the mere utilitarian act of time telling. A good rule of thumb when pricing such a watch is that there is a direct correlation between the number of functions it can perform and the number of zeros in its price. Other factors that can increase value are the quality and quantity of attached gems as well as any famous provenance, i.e., if it had belonged to Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy.

There are, of course, exceptions. One of the stars of the auction is an 18k gold minute repeating wristwatch made around 1958 by Swiss maker Patek Phillipe. This watch is simplicity itself. It does not offer such complications as a moonphase or a calendar or any of the other refinements that ratchet up a watch's price. Yet, with an estimate of between $250,000 and $350,000, it is far and away the most expensive lot in the auction.

While there are a number of other lots that climb into six figures, the great majority of watches on the block are far more reasonably priced. Lot 30, for example, is a very handsome 18k gold automatic Jaeger LeCoultre from around 1950 that has an estimated value of between $1,000 and $1,500. And, even though its price tags are among the highest and its quality among the best, not every Patek costs as much as a Ferrari. Lot 85, a rectangular Patek Phillipe from around 1925, will only set you back between $4,000 and $6,000.