Study the past two decades of wristwatch auction records and one essential fact about the high-end timepiece market will soon become clear: It is a hegemony. So much so that the dominant power hardly needs to be stated. Anyone with a passing familiarity with luxury watches knows it already.
We are of course talking about Patek Philippe, the family-owned, Geneva-based brand whose timepieces have ruled the secondary market since the mechanical watchmaking renaissance began in the late 1980s. In fact, many scholars date the beginning of the renaissance to 1989, the year that Patek Philippe introduced the Calibre 89, a pocket watch commemorating the firm’s 150th anniversary.
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But it wasn’t until the 21st century that Patek’s wristwatches regularly began to fetch more than $2 million at auction. In that same time period, Rolex, another Geneva maker, ascended the auction ranks, proving that steel sport watches with provenance to spare are worth millions to collectors (make that $17.8 million—see item no. 2 for details).
Below you’ll find the top 10 wristwatches sold at auction since the year 2000—a decade of lots divided almost evenly between two auctioneers, Christie’s and Phillips. We deliberately excluded pocket watches and limited the selection to single timepieces (otherwise, a number of Sotheby’s sales—from Patek Philippe’s Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, which sold in Geneva in 2014 for $23,983,140, to the collection of 64 Swatch watches sold in Hong Kong in 2015 for $6,021,720—would have made the cut.)
The list begins with the least expensive model and culminates with the priciest. It’s worth noting that the top five sales occurred within the past three years and the top sale—i.e., the most expensive wristwatch in the world—sold just last month. If that’s not a clear indication that the 2020s are bound to see more horological fireworks at auction, we don’t know what is!
10. Patek Philippe Ref. 1526
This Patek Philippe Ref. 1526, is a unique stainless steel perpetual calendar wristwatch manufactured in 1949, with phases of the moon, magnetic balance and applied painted Arabic numerals that belonged to Briggs Cunningham II, “the epitome of the millionaire American sportsman, a victorious America’s Cup skipper and a respected motor racing personality, esteemed as a driver, owner and manufacturer.” Sold at Christie’s Geneva in May 2008 for $3,956,159.
9. Patek Philippe Ref. 2458
This Patek Philippe Ref. 2458 is a unique platinum chronometer wristwatch with Guillaume balance, Bulletin d’Observatoire, additional diamond-set dial and platinum bracelet, commissioned by the American lawyer J.B. Champion in 1952. Sold at Christie’s Geneva in November 2012 for $3,992,858.
8. Patek Philippe 18K Minute Repeater Commissioned by Henry Graves Jr.
Arguably the greatest watch collector of the 20th century, if not all time, Henry Graves Jr. commissioned this Patek Philippe unique 18k gold tonneau-shaped minute repeating wristwatch. Movement no. 97,589, manufactured in 1895, and case no. 605,759, manufactured in 1927, and sold to Graves on June 16, 1928, with an engraving of the Graves family coat-of-arms and the family motto: Esse Quam Videri (“to be rather than to seem”). Sold at Christie’s Geneva in November 2019 for $4,607,396.
7. Rolex Ref. 6062 “Bao Dai”
The Rolex Ref. 6062 “Bao Dai,” is a diamond-encrusted triple calendar wristwatch with moonphase in 18-karat yellow gold commissioned by the last emperor of Vietnam in 1954. The timepiece is one of only three black dial Rolex models known to be set with diamond markers. Sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: Five in May 2017 for $5,060,427.
6. Patek Philippe Ref. 1527
Patek Philippe Ref. 1527, a unique 18k gold perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with moon phases and tonneau-shaped case, manufactured in 1943 and famed for its unusual-for-the-time size (37.6 mm) and dial layout, which presaged some of the watchmaker’s most iconic models. Sold at Christie’s Geneva in May 2010 for $5,708,885.
5. Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6265 “The Unicorn”
The Rolex Ref. 6265 “The Unicorn” Cosmograph Daytona is a unique 18k white gold chronograph wristwatch with black dial and bark finished bracelet, circa 1970. Elusive doesn’t begin to describe this mythical white gold reference, which resided in Rolex specialist John Goldberger’s collection before he gave it up for charity. Sold at Phillips’ “Daytona Ultimatum” Geneva auction in May 2018 for $5,936,906.
4. Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 Retailed by Gobbi
A unique 18k pink gold two-crown world time wristwatch with 24-hour indication and double-signed blue enamel dial, the Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 was manufactured in 1953. Described by Christie’s as “breathtakingly rare,” the watch is the only known reference 2523 to feature both Patek Philippe’s signature and that of the prestigious Milan retailer Gobbi. Sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2019 for $9,008,856.
3. Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph
The Patek Philippe Ref. 1518 perpetual calendar chronograph in stainless steel is so rare that not even the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva has one. Widely considered the brand’s defining reference, the 1518 was the world’s first perpetual chronograph wristwatch to be produced in a series by any manufacturer. Sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction: FOUR in November 2016 for $11,112,020.
2. Rolex Ref. 6239 “Paul Newman” Cosmograph Daytona
The Rolex Ref. 6239 “Paul Newman” Cosmograph Daytona is a stainless steel chronograph wristwatch with off-white “exotic” dial and tachymeter bezel, purchased by Joanne Woodward, likely in 1968, as a gift for actor and budding motorsport racer Paul Newman. Sold at Phillips’ Winning Icons sale in New York in October 2017 for $17,752,500.
1. Patek Philippe Ref. 6300A-010 Grandmaster Chime for Only Watch
The Patek Philippe Ref. 6300A-010 “Grandmaster Chime,” is a unique stainless steel version of a timepiece introduced in 2014 to mark the watchmaker’s 175th anniversary. The double-face reversible watch boasts 1,366 movement components and 214 case components and features 20 complications, including a perpetual calendar, a minute repeater, a second time zone, a leap year cycle and esoteric chiming mechanisms known as grand and petite sonneries. Sold at Only Watch auction in Geneva in November 2019 for $31,000,000.
Launch Gallery: The 10 Most Expensive Watches Sold This Century—In Pictures
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