On a hot late summer day in Geneva, I had the opportunity to interview one of the most important personalities in the sector, a professional who has revolutionized the watch collecting market as well as deeply in love with the world of hands. I'm talking about Aurel Bacs - Senior Consultant Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo.
It is with great pleasure to publish on Perpetual Passion the result of a long chat with Aurel where, between a pleasant sip of Swiss Chardonnay and the other, along the Rive Gauche of the Rhone, we entertained ourselves talking about his career and many aspects related to the world of watchmaking.
A frank, sincere chat between enthusiasts, which enriched and broadened my vision of the sector. Few people are able to convey their passion so authentically, to have a clear, 360-degree overview and such vast knowledge.
Aurel Bacs probably becomes one, but first you'll have to climb Everest. Enjoy the reading…
Tell us how you got interested in wristwatches. Is it a family tradition or have you developed a spontaneous interest in these objects?
Certainly through my father, who is now 87 years old. He is an architect, but more of an engineer, a lover of everything mechanical: cars, motorcycles, electric trains and of course watches. For him the watch was always a magical object, he loved to take them apart and reassemble them.
During the years of the quartz he was no longer able to enjoy that mechanical aspect and devoted himself to vintage, starting to look for them in fairs, antique markets and some shops that had unsold watches in stock.
I accompanied him, also because I had noticed that he was buying a Zenith at the flea market for 50 francs. He enjoyed it for a while and his friends, who were also passionate, saw that watch and offered him perhaps 80 francs. Crazy business in my eyes.
So instead of doing what we young people in high school did to earn a few francs, like washing a yard, a car, I took my piggy bank, broke it, took my 30,50 francs and said to myself, "Now I'm taking the my vintage watch to earn 10 or 20 francs! "
From there I discovered that that world was more complex than I thought, because often the movements were incomplete, full of rust or was not even present in the case. I still learned from my mistakes but I fell into the trap and from that moment I found out I was sick with clocks and this disease grew more and more.
And what was your first watch?
Probably a Tissot, which I certainly bought for 5 francs and sold it for 8, the equivalent of an ice cream. Not long ago I wanted to buy this model back and I found it at an important dealer, I saw it on his desk and I was there with my wife. The merchant did not want to sell it to me, absurd because it was a very banal watch, and he told me it was reserved for one of their customers.
At that moment I didn't realize that my wife Livia was giving him blows under the table because she knew I wanted it, she stopped him from selling it to me and then gave it to me together with our daughter - at the time 12 years old - as a Christmas gift to make me. a surprise. Today that Tissot is a historical treasure for me.
Tell us how your career in auction houses started. How did you enter this world?
At 23, I was finishing law school, thinking of one day becoming a famous lawyer intent on making a wonderful speech, like a real Perry Mason, to earn a lot of money and buy watches as a hobby. Except 6 months before the last exams, I read a job advertisement in a German newspaper in which Sotheby's was looking for a watch expert at its headquarters in Geneva.
It was my mother who convinced me to apply, I was skeptical. He told me: "Apply, you will have completed your studies in 6 months, but you can still try and have this experience before entering the world of work, and you will finally know what the world of great watchmaking is like".
I made my CV where they asked me for studies and professional experiences. It was a 12 line resume basically, I had no experience. However they called me and wanted to meet me. It was the first time I wore a suit beyond family weddings etc. I went to the first interview and a second to Geneva.
They put in front of me a tray with 20 vintage watches that in two hours I would have to evaluate, describe the history of each one, its importance, and draw up a "condition report", paying attention because some of these watches were "messed up" and I would have had to report them. At the time there was no internet where you could consult the information of the various watches. I had to handwrite 30 pages, like an exam.
One morning, after 6 months during which they also wanted to meet me in their London office, I received a call from the president of the auction house who told me: "Goodmorning, You have the job!”And wanted me to start the following Monday. I didn't want that job, I didn't even have the conviction of doing that profession, I had to finish my studies to become a lawyer.
So I asked friends for an opinion and they told me it was a unique chance, at most I could leave and go back to university the next semester to graduate.I said goodbye to my friends at the university and went to Geneva.
How was your debut in a sector unknown to you until then such as auctions?
After two months I hated that environment, my bosses, my colleagues gave me the incompetent, the idiot and the good for nothing. All of this was very motivating and I wanted to prove them wrong.
So when they went home at the end of the day at seven in the evening, I stayed in the office until midnight to study, understand, prepare even more interesting texts. From there there was a real turning point for me and I have been doing this profession for 26 years.
What sources did you use to document yourself?
There was no internet, so the only source to consult were the old auction catalogs. Which I still recommend to many young collectors today: consult them, there are still interesting things to read and discover written by some experts years ago. I learned only with the watch in hand and with an expert in front of me explaining it.
Today there is a generation of young experts, who are already traders, work at auction houses or write on various blogs, who do not even know what the live watch is like because they do a very analytical thing on the internet but do not they taste like the watch or have never had a collector / customer in front of them. It's like learning how to cook with YouTube tutorials. The clock tells a story and we must be able to read that story.
What do you love about this job after so many years?
The thing that makes me get up at six in the morning every day of the year is to think that there are still so many unknown clocks and stories that have not yet been told. But also people yet to meet, like you and me today.
Watches have a story and I want to know and tell it. I'll give you an example, there are two identical watches, one is a simple watch, while the other is identical but tells a story from 1945 onwards. I would pay 10% more every day just to find out where its owner has been all these years.
Even the engravings on the caseback have a certain charm and somehow tell a story ...
I love the engravings. One of the collections that I would make in another life would be made exclusively of watches with dedications. The watch was always an object of utmost importance in a person's life. A professional milestone, 10, 20, 30 years of service in a company. Fascinating..
You are indisputably the best professional in the sector, the results speak for themselves, what is the secret of your success?
From the selection to the presentation to the photographs, I am authentic inside. Not a product packed according to a marketing book, but how I would present a watch at home to a small group of friends or family.
Early in my career, I was burned by the fact that the watch department at every international auction house was considered a "loser" department. Always every auction house had a painting that had sold for more than the total turnover of the watch department. When we were selling 100 million, surely one painting was sold for 120 million. I never understood why.
Maybe Picasso worked more on a Dora Maar than a watchmaker at Patek Philippe to make a perpetual calendar? Rarity? I believe there are more Dora Maar than a steel Patek Philippe 1518.
Why don't we appreciate watches as works of art, as we value an important painting, an important Ferrari or an important diamond on an economic level? For me it was a mission. Bringing the clock to the level of works of art, which are inside museums or on the walls of the most important houses in the world.
I wanted to show that the watch deserves to be on the same level.
And you succeeded. Talking with Auro Montanari, alias John Goldberger, he himself felt that your “DAYTONA Lesson ONE” auction organized by you in 2013 for Christie's was pivotal in the collectibles market ..
Thanks to Auro. He never told me in person and I'm truly honored.
Surely I would also add "Winning Icons", that of the Rolex Daytona that belonged to Paul Newman. Because in the course of past auctions, the results achieved were achieved thanks to a small circle of watch enthusiasts, I would say “NERD”. Since that auction, however, everything has changed.
Now when there is an auction and those 50 Daytona collectors arrive, thinking they are buying a nice watch for 50 / 100K, they are massacred because the watches reach higher figures - 200 / 300K - thanks to new enthusiasts on the phone or in the room. . They are no longer the only ones and they almost feel resigned.
In the case of Paul Newman's Daytona, many have discovered on the pages of the “New York Times” of this auction and have begun to understand from there that perhaps the watch auctions are also worth a look. These events are catalysts to promote and make this world known.
Speaking of established icons such as Nautilus, Royal Oak that have actually entered the history of watchmaking, do you see watches capable of becoming one on the horizon? For example, the OCTO Finissimo by Bulgari..
The OCTO Finissimo is already an icon, despite being a relatively young watch. This shows that today it is still possible to create an iconic watch despite what many aficionados think that after the Reverso, the Portuguese is no longer another icon on the horizon.
I am hoping and encouraging everyone to try and dare. In fact, I have the greatest respect for Audemars Piguet, both for the family and for the CEO Francois-Henry Bennahmias, who dared to get out of the chains of the Royal Oak by CODE 11.59. We cannot always offer vintage re-editions, which in the long run become reheated soups.
Those who dare run the risk of being criticized, but do something truly commendable.
We must have courage, intellectual and emotional independence.
Let's take François-Paul Journe I knew him even before he founded his maison, when he was a restorer. Then his watches came out, for 20 years they were criticized on various aspects, you could find them below the list price. Today you go to a shop and you can't find a watch or a Resonance or a Chronometre blue… What happened? Who woke up? In reality it is we who change the perspective.
Are there still watches with untapped potential in the field of collecting?
There are still some watches that have not been appreciated as they deserve, whose history is already known but for some reason they are still overlooked. There are many. For example, I think of all the Pilots of IWC, one of the most important suppliers of watches for pilots with the various Marks and the Pilot himself.
After the war they developed Ingenieur 666, 866 then the SL designed by Gerald Genta. Where is the logic that a beautiful steel Ingeniur is still under 20k? Image? Quality? I do not think so..
Nautilus, Royal Oak, Vacheron 222 are watches that are now in an already high price range. What can a person buy with 20k? I think the best deal is the IWC Ingenieur 1832 "Jumbo" ...
The Speedmaster that on paper is more important than the Daytona for various factors: the Moon, the "in house" caliber. When the Daytona started catching up with the double swiss underline 100 / 150K, people started buying the 2915 / 1, Broad Arrow, first generation and give them 40/60/80/100 ..
Sooner or later people arrive ..
How do you see the development of the market? Despite the pandemic, the results achieved in international auctions and the prices of watches do not seem to be affected.
I admit that in April / May I started shaking, because we were all segregated at home. At the end of June I was very nervous and instead we collected record after record. Even today I'm not sure what were the elements that contributed to all this: whether the fact that it was the first post lockdown auction, for which people were "hungry", or that people realized that - since the stock exchanges collapsed in March - the watch can give them an emotional value even if on paper it is no longer worth the same amount.
We must always be on the alert, especially in the coming months. The world is certainly far from what we call stability, and it may even be that in such a situation someone finds stability and recognizes it in a beautiful watch, of excellent quality.
Our smartphones are the same, we struggle to understand which is mine or yours if we don't look at the screen. The t-shirts made by a Swedish company at € 4,9 are all the same. Where are we as individuals? And that's where we look for something personal, with a flavor. I have to keep something from the good old days, something that is somehow unique.
In recent years we are also witnessing an exponential increase in the prices of watches still in production. What do you think of this phenomenon? True enthusiasts also complain about the impossibility for them to be able to buy a "common" Submariner, given the small distribution. Isn't there a risk that the rope will break?
In terms of prices, although I have just confessed that I don't mind if prices go up, I definitely don't like a too aggressive climb. I'd rather have a gradual, sustainable climb rather than dizzying growths.
The economic aspect must be considered. Every day I hope that nobody goes to buy a watch with the idea of earning 20% more the next day. I have no desire or interest that speculators begin to enter the market without knowing and loving the watch, it is too "short term strategy".
However, the value of money must be considered: what do you buy today with 100k? Let's look at the stock market and the trillions of dollars and euros put into circulation to support the economy. There is nothing left to buy that matches that price.
It's not that the prices are going up, it's the value of the money that has gone down. We should start talking about inflation.
If 1 people buy watches out of passion, I know that I will never find myself with 000 sellers on the market, because they care. While 1 out of 000 people who buy watches are investors. The investor can wake up one morning and decide to sell because he needs that money, without any emotion.
So you see a "risk" ...
There is a risk that the rope will break. But if for every Nautilus and Daytona produced, there are 10 new customers who want it. We should start wondering if it were the opposite.
I believe and hope that the big houses are observing the temperature of the market every day. Although I believe that many of these manufacturers are not even able to produce more. They know what kind of treasure they have in their hands and they won't let it get away. I am optimistic.
Do you think the auction industry will also undergo changes? Will there be fewer physical auctions, perhaps only for major auctions, and more online auctions?
On our own we have organized two online auctions and twice we have sold 100% of the lots present. Obviously we have put more commercial and accessible things in the catalog. I know some auction houses don't even think about organizing physical auctions in the future. There is also a risk that printed catalogs will disappear. Everyone will choose which path to take.
For me the most precious thing is the physical contact with the watch and the personal relationship with the collector. I'm not interested in getting rich like Jeff Bezos, selling trading watches by the ton every day, on the internet.
I prefer to make less profitable auctions but that give me greater satisfaction of the encounter, of the touch of the clock, of the history linked to the clock. Maybe I'm wrong, going my own way, but this is my religion, my creed.
What are the projects of Aurel Bacs and Bacs & Russo?
I've never made any plans. At 25, I didn't even think about what I was going to do next year. Listening to my heart and seeing what I like and what I miss, which are usually two things that travel in opposite directions.
The job of a manager of a worldwide auction house meant traveling by plane for a week in New York, one in Hong Kong, one in Italy and a weekend on the phone. Fortunately, I managed to create a beautiful team of almost 30 professionals who work in the watch department. Really smart, intelligent, passionate, sensitive people, so much so that they wouldn't even need me.
The problem is that I like my job too much, so even if they wanted to throw me out the door, I would stick to the handle just to work with them. As long as I enjoy it, I keep doing what I've been doing for 25 years. I wake up in the morning and think about what to do and what will come ...