Have you worn a modern Patek Philippe for years but never thought of buying a vintage model? Or maybe you have never owned a Patek and would like to start with a vintage one. Perhaps you want a Patek Philippe pocket watch to wear for a special event such as a wedding. Whatever your motive, here is a brief and straightforward buying guide for your first vintage Patek Philippe. Buckle up, since it won’t be your last.
Let’s start with a quick discussion of the risks of addiction in collecting vintage Patek Philippe watches. There are very few people I know that have only one vintage Patek. Typically, once you have one, you want another and soon you realize that you have more Pateks than your local authorized dealer. Those new to collecting vintage Patek are often surprised by the relative value. Quality vintage Patek wristwatches can easily be found for under 10,000 USD and pocket watches for under 5,000 USD. The fact that you can buy three to four vintage Pateks for the same price as a modern Patek at full retail is rocket fuel for collectors putting together their initial collection. Before long, many beginners consolidate and sell off some initial pieces to trade up to bigger and more expensive pieces. It’s the circle of life for collectors and we all start somewhere!
The trend for smaller watches
First, let’s talk about millimeters. Many people are used to wearing 38mm to 41mm modern-sized wristwatches and the reality is that vintage watches are, on average, much smaller. A typical vintage Calatrava, for example, is 33mm to 35mm; and some are even smaller still. In recent years, the trend with modern production watches toward smaller models is certainly helping people get over that hump when buying their first vintage Patek. Wearing a 35mm watch on the wrist is more than ‘acceptable’ for most and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues in the coming years.
Time-only versus complications
In terms of function, time-only watches are typically the entry point in terms of pricing for vintage Patek. It’s possible to see a time-only bring hundreds of thousands at auction, but more often, a vintage Patek time-only manual watch will sell for well under 15,000 USD and a vintage automatic for under 20,000 USD. Once you get into complications, it’s a whole different story. Vintage chronograph wristwatches start around the 40,000 USD mark, travel times approach 100,000 USD, and minute repeating wristwatches can easily fetch over 500,000 USD. The disconnect in the marketplace is with vintage Patek Philippe pocket watches with time-only pieces under 5,000 USD, chronographs under 12,000 USD, and repeaters often under 20,000 USD. These are only general comments on pricing but you get the idea: you can get a lot for your money with vintage Patek Philippe wristwatches, and even more for pocket watches.
Condition really counts
Condition is where things get really interesting. You can find the exact same reference from the exact same year of production, with a price disparity that is almost unimaginable. A ref. 96 for example can be found in poor condition for 5,000 USD, but the exact same reference with a nicely preserved, unrestored case and dial can easily bring upwards of over 15,000 USD. Here’s where you need to be cautious: if a vintage Patek seems to be too good a deal, it probably is. You need to know what you are looking at, or work with someone who does, to buy a watch in the right condition for the right price. And then there is the question of restoration. We will deal with this thorny subject in separate articles, since the market at the moment is quite unsure how to handle restoration, in comparison to other collecting categories.
Where will you be wearing your vintage watch?
When buying vintage Patek Philippe watches, special consideration needs to be given to where you will be wearing your watch. If you are going to be in a brutally harsh environment, you might consider wearing your Rolex rather than a ref. 2526. If you are sweating through straps on the equator, you might consider a water-resistant bracelet watch over a ref. 570. Extra attention should be given to the proper care and upkeep of your vintage watches, but by all means, they should be worn. However, knowing about the threshold and limits of shock resistance, water resistance and magnetism is a good idea.
Restoration and servicing
Regarding service and restoration, it is comforting to know that authorized Patek Philippe service centers can take care of just about any Patek that has been made since 1839. However, it is best to be informed about what work is actually being done before sending your watch to Patek so you don’t make any critical errors that decimate the real market value of your watch. I have seen one too many Pateks ‘destroyed’ by Patek Philippe with over-restored dials and cases by watchmakers just trying to do the right thing. In my opinion, restore your Patek using the original parts as much as possible and generally don’t touch the case and the dial unless absolutely necessary. Many local traditional watchmakers can service and overhaul a movement and put your vintage watch back in order brilliantly with as little intervention as possible with the case and dial.
Just do it
To wrap up this overview, my best bit of advice is take the leap into the world of vintage Patek Philippe and see what happens. Next time you are at a dinner, and everyone around you is proudly wearing a ref. 5711/1A that they bought over market value you can take out your Patek Philippe minute repeating pocket watch and literally steal the show. It’s amazing what a watch from the past can do and the treasure hunt to find great examples is a good part of the fun. The best watch stories often don’t start with a trip to your local authorized dealer to fulfil a waiting list order. The best stories are often much more complex and more likely to be rooted in the past.
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