When I first saw the memo for Patek Philippe ending its current archive policy, I thought it was an early April Fool’s joke from a friend considering it was dated April 1. Unfortunately, this is no joke. Starting April 1, there will no longer be any archives issued for watches made after 1989, and the new price will be 500 CHF (up from 150 CHF), subject to further restrictions.
In life there are few certainties other than death and taxes, and I have to admit, that I would add getting an Extract from the Archives from Patek to that list. For my entire professional career, I have had the pleasure of ordering and receiving thousands of Patek archives and they have always represented a comforting certainty in my life. After researching a watch, I could always estimate the date of production and would love to hear the stories relating to the ownership of each watch. The archive was the final word that translated the mythology into fact, something concrete, something real. Knowing the actual date of production and date of original sale always adds a bit of certitude to the quest for the truth. And I thank Patek Philippe for the opportunity to have these glimpses into the past with something factual and unchanging. An archive from the era of Antoine de Norbert de Patek or Adrien Philippe’s lifetime is equivalent to hearing their whispers from the past, their pride in workmanship. The same is true for an archive from the Henri Stern era, Philippe Stern era, and most recently the Thierry Stern era. I can wax poetic all day on how much these archives mean to me and collectors globally, but as we embark on a new era all I can do is assess where we were, where we are, and where we are going.
First, a bit of history on the archives themselves. Dating back to the early 20th century Patek Philippe would regularly issue letters to people curious about the history of their watches. I have seen dozens of these letters dating from the 1920s – 1980s in which a manager or representative of Patek Philippe would share with an inquiring customer the birth year of a watch, and even often share the name of the original purchaser. These letters were signed in the later parts of the 20th century by leaders of the Patek world such as members of the Stern family, Alan Banbery, and Werner Sonn. These precious historical documents were often preserved with the watches and passed down from generation to generation. The fact that a set of archive books exists within Patek Philippe, Geneva that contains the movement and case numbers as well as production details and names of purchasers (or distributor, retailer, etc.) of almost every Patek dating from the earliest years of the company through today, is both magical and monumental in its appeal for brand identity and defines what makes a Patek a Patek. The fact that this information exists physically is a bedrock of Patek Philippe’s identity and arguably one of their most important assets.
There are thousands of important watches out there but the information contained in the archives is the bottom line and without the information contained in the archives, the seemingly most important watch can be deemed historically worthless if we can’t prove it is legitimate. This is a fact that the management of Patek Philippe embraced in the late 1980s and in 1989 the Extract from the Archives program as we know it was born replacing the sporadic personal letters of the earlier decades. From 1989, an Extract from the Archives could be ordered and anyone could learn the history of their watch directly from Patek Philippe. It was a brilliant way to connect the owner of a watch to the brand, past and present. It is no coincidence this was the same year that the Caliber 89 was released in celebration of the company’s 150th anniversary, and the famous Antiquorum Art of Patek Philippe auction took place. It was the birth of the modern Patek Philippe era, and the last 32 years have shown unprecedented historical growth of Patek Philippe as a global powerhouse of horology with both their vintage watches as well as current production.
There are many reasons Patek Philippe watches, past and present, have the best resale value and are literally number one at auction year after year. First and foremost, it is based on scholarship that is supported by the facts presented in the Extract from the Archives. It is our bible of fact in the world of vintage Patek Philippe collecting. Unfortunately, for watches produced after 1989 without their Certificate of Origin, we cannot confirm that changes may have been made, or case and movement numbers manipulated. Without an official way to police the market, the doors are open to fraudulent activity and sadly, it won’t be long until we see fake Extracts. Soon, the mantra “buyer beware” will be far too common in the world of Patek Philippe.
Werner Sonn, honorary Chairman of Patek Philippe USA, taught me that, “There are always two sides to every story”, and one always needs to hear the other perspective to make an informed decision. I have no doubt that Patek Philippe made this policy change for good reasons. It is their business to sell modern Patek Philippe watches and to keep the market as clean as possible to avoid resellers and challenge the forces of the secondary market.
However, as a result of this new policy, the consequences could be severe. I predict Patek will see an increase of more than 20 – 30% of service estimate requests as many collectors, and those in the industry will attempt to obtain service estimates as a way to circumvent the extract request procedure. We have seen this happen with Rolex, a company without shared archives. Thousands of Patek Philippe watches will now be sent to authorized service centers around the world that otherwise would not have been sent in for service. Or perhaps, even more gravely, we will see the regular exchange of watches that are simply not authentic as a result of the higher price of the archives. We have seen this with Cartier watches as the price for their archives was raised into the thousands of dollars. The result is that vintage Cartier prices have crashed relative to other brands. A potential end result for Patek Philippe is that we will see a rise in prices in the vintage market for archived pieces, and modern resale prices will go stagnant. Most importantly, this is all about optics. Everyone in the Patek Philippe collecting community feels a personal connection to the Manufacture and the signed archives by the current president reminds collectors that they have a timepiece from a family owned company tied to tradition and history.
I don’t like to raise a problem without offering a possible solution, and in this case the solution could be relatively simple. Perhaps Patek could consider changing the date for archives to watches 20 years or older, and this date would roll as time goes on, always reaching back 20 years. This allows the market, especially dealers and auction houses, to focus on pieces over 20 years old and help support a vintage market that is the backbone of the watch collecting universe. For current production watches, and pieces still with retailers, this 20 year limit will be far away from the secondary market and not support it in any way. Yet a buyer will take comfort in knowing that their watch will someday become ‘vintage’ and they too can request an archive once their watch comes of age if they need it.
Whether or not Patek Philippe moves forward with this suggested new policy, there will always be demand for the finest watches ever made. The archives will remain a bedrock of understanding vintage Patek Philippe and no doubt archive policies will change again in the future. However, now more than ever we see the importance of scholarship and education for both buyers and sellers of Patek Philippe. Better educated consumers will demand forensic analysis and more transparency in the watch world which can only be a good thing.
Image credits: Collectability
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