Vintage Heuer chronographs were well-represented in auctions staged by the major auction houses during the first six months of 2021.  In this posting, we’ll look at some highlights of these sales to take a measure of the market and to see what might lie ahead for the brand.  Looking at the ebbs and flows of the vintage Heuer market over the past five years, we can say that over the first half of 2021 sales of the best vintage Heuer chronographs met with good success.  We also seem to be in the midst of a “changing of the guard” or rotation, as some models that were particularly popular in 2016 and 2017 (for example, the 1960s Autavias) settle in at stable prices but in some instances yield the top of the marquee to different models that are emerging as favorites for collectors (for example, the Skipperrera, early Seafarers and 18 karat gold automatic Carreras).

In this posting, we will review highlights from the following auctions, each of which is covered by an OnTheDash page showing the watches and auction results:

  • Sotheby’s, March 19, 2021, online only, covered HERE.
  • Phillips, May 8 and 9, 2021, Geneva, covered HERE
  • Antiquorum, May 9, 2021, Geneva, covered HERE.
  • Iconeek, June 12, 2021, online by Druot Digital, covered HERE.
  • Bonhams, June 16, 2021, London, covered HERE.

The disclaimer is that in most instances my observations about these watches are based only on the photos of the watches presented in the online catalogs and — for the vast majority of these watches — I have not inspected the watch in the metal or reviewed additional photos or condition reports.  In a world where the difference between a watch with the original finish on its case and a watch that has been lightly polished can be significant, it is difficult to assess auction results based only on the catalog photos.

Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer, Ref 2446 – Starting the Year Style

The year 2021 got off to a flying start for the vintage Heuer community, with Sotheby’s sale of an extremely rare Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer at its “Fine Watches” auction, an online-only sale that closed on March 19, 2021.  (The catalog listing is HERE.) Heuer produced the Seafarer for Abercrombie & Fitch, with the model being introduced in 1950 and offered in 10 executions over the next 20 years.  The Seafarer never had a case of its own, always occupying a case that was used by Heuer for its own chronographs.  The Seafarer in the Autavia Reference 2446 screw-back case, circa 1962, is the rarest of all the Seafarers, with fewer than six examples known to collectors and none of them being seen in public sales in recent years.

The sample offered by Sotheby’s was particularly appealing, coming from the family of the original owner, with the silver / white dial aging to a tropical color favored by many collectors.  We had not previously seen this “tropical” aging on samples of the Reference 2446 Seafarer, but it did remind us of a Reference 346 Seafarer that performed exceptionally well at a Christie’s auction in June 2017, selling for $60,000 (or approximately twice the price of a model with a non-tropical dial).

The Seafarer sold by Sotheby’s in March 2021 quickly moved past this previous record price, achieving a final price of $94,500.  This result confirmed that the Reference 2446 Seafarer rightly belongs at the top of the vintage Heuer food chain, alongside models such as the Skipperrera and the best examples of the “Big Sub” Reference 2446 Autavia.  (See our posting covering the Seafarer sold by Sotheby’s HERE.)

Skipperreras – Old and New. 

In recent years, the first version of the Heuer Skipper (circa 1968), known in the vintage Heuer community as the “Skipperrera”, has solidified its position as among the most valuable of the vintage Heuer chronographs.  In a posting on Hodinkee, we discussed the factors that have taken the Skipperrera to this position, including an interesting back-story related to Heuer providing timing gear for the successful defense of America’s Cup in 1967 and a unique style that captures the look of the 1960s.  Of course the dynamics of supply and demand also support the top value of the Skipperrera, with the market seeing only a small handful of these watches in any particular year.

We saw only one Skipperrera offered for sale publicly in the first half of 2021, with the watch sold by Bonham’s in its “Fine Watches” auction on June 16, 2021 (Lot 17).  The watch appeared to be in good condition, with the orange, green and blue on the registers being stronger than usual, although the paint loss around the applied markers was more severe than on most other samples that we have seen.  The watch achieved a final price of $60,487, toward the low end of the range for the Skipperreras, leaving observers to wonder whether it might have done better if offered by another auction house, particularly one not based in the UK where Brexit has led to confusing tax structures on auction lots.

In June 2017, TAG Heuer offered a limited edition re-issue of the Skipper, in a collaboration with Hodinkee.   The 125-pieces sold out quickly, at the $5,900 price, and we have recently begun to see these watches offered for sale in the secondary market.  In November 2020, at its “Retrospective” auction in Geneva (covering innovative watches of the period 2000 through 2020) Phillips sold a Hodinkee Limited Edition Skipper for 22,680 CHF($25,152).

This result was validated when Phillips achieved a price of 23,940 CHF ($26,573) for a Hodinkee Limited Edition Skipper, in its May 8, 2021 “Geneva Watch Auction XIII”.   Also in the first half of 2021, TAG Heuer released several limited edition chronographs that sold out quickly.  These first-half 2021 limited editions include a Carrera Dato collaboration with Hodinkee (250 pieces), a Carrera 12 with a teal green dial (500 pieces), and two series of Monacos, one with a green dial (500 pieces) and one in a titanium case (500 pieces).  All four of these 2021 limited editions were well-received in the market, suggesting that TAG Heuer has been successful in sizing these limited edition models so that they sell out reasonably promptly, but without the hysteria (and frustration) that has accompanied recent offerings from some other brands.

With the Hodinkee Limited Edition Skipper serving as the bellwether, and these 2021 limited edition watches meeting with success, we can see the market for TAG Heuer limited edition chronographs developing nicely.  More important than the success of these five watches is the fact that the team at TAG Heuer is making some beautiful chronographs, and engaging well with the community of collectors.

18 Karat Gold Automatic Carrera (Reference 1158) – The CHN Remains Dominant

The 18 karat gold, automatic Carrera, Reference 1158 is one of the vintage Heuer icons, with part of the mystique arising from the connection between these watches and the Ferrari Formula One racing team.  As part of this 1970s partnership between Heuer and Ferrari, Jack Heuer presented a Reference 1158 Carrera to each of the Ferrari drivers, including popular champions Niki Lauda and Mario Andretti.  Jack Heuer presented these gold Carreras to other ambassadors and friends of the Heuer brand, including Ronnie Peterson, who drove for the March and Lotus Formula One teams, and Mauro Forghieri, technical director for the Ferrari Formula One racing team.  (See our posting, The Definitive Guide to the 18 Karat Gold Carrera (Reference 1158) for additional information.)

The Carrera Reference 1158 was produced in three dial colors – silver (S), champagne (CH) and champagne with black registers (CHN) – and an 18 karat gold bracelet, constructed in Milanese mesh, was available as a special order.  In recent years, the Reference 1158 CHN has drawn a premium above the models with the solid champagne (CH) or silver (S) dials, with two likely explanations.  First, most of the Ferrari drivers seem to have received the CHN model, with Niki Lauda, Clay Regazzoni, Arturo Merzario on this list.  Mario Andretti is the only racer who we can identify with the CH model.  Second, “Panda” dials with their contrasting dark registers attract a premium among most Heuer chronographs, and the Reference 1158 CHN is the “Panda” of the 18 karat gold Carrera world.

The first-half 2021 auctions confirmed the Reference 1158 CHN’s position at the top of the Reference 1158 marquee.  Iconeek achieved a price of $56,000 for a CHN at its June 12 auction, consistent with the record of $57,500 realized by Bonhams for the same model in June 2018.  These results stand well above those achieved for other models in first-half 2021 auctions, with Phillips achieving $25,200 for a model with a silver dial and Bonhams finding $14,000 for a sample with a champagne dial.  Neither of these last two samples was in top condition, suggesting that better samples could have closed a bit of the gap to the CHN.

Keep Your Eyes Open for Those Milanese Mesh Bracelets!!

In the 1970s, as the price of gold fluctuated, there were times when the solid gold bracelet for the Reference 1158 Carrera sold for substantially more than the watch itself.  For example, in May 1976, the watch was selling for $1,280, with the bracelet alone selling for an additional $2,850.

The bracelets were very long, at least for average-sized wrists, and there is no way to adjust the length, other than cutting the gold mesh and then reattaching the clasp.  As a result, it seems that many of these expensive gold bracelets ended up being put away in drawers, with owners putting the watches on leather straps.  Today, the bracelets have become more scarce than the watches themselves, with only one or two of the bracelets coming onto the market most years.  As we look at the $56,000 achieved for the Iconeek Carrera, it would be fair to say that the bracelet probably accounted for over $15,000 of that price, with the remaining $40,000 allocated to the watch.

A Tale of Two (Chronomatic) Carreras

The very first automatic chronographs offered by Heuer in 1969 were distinctive in that they had the word “Chronomatic” across the top of the dial (above the Heuer shield), with the model name — Autavia, Carrera or Monaco — printed across the bottom of the dial.  However, the story goes that retailers and customers didn’t understand that “Chronomatic” meant “automatic chronograph”, so after a relatively brief production run, Heuer stopped using the “Chronomatic” name.  Instead, Heuer moved the model name to the top of the dial with the words “Automatic Chronograph” printed across the bottom.  With this, the limited batches of Heuer’s “Chronomatics” became highly collectible.

Among the three “Chronomatic” models, auction results over the last dozen years show that the Autavia and the Monaco fetch considerably higher prices than the Carrera, with nice samples of the Autavia and Monaco often commanding twice the price of the Carrera.  The “Chronomatic” Carrera is the rarest of the three models, however, suggesting that it is the design of the models and the connections of the Autavia and Monaco to racing that are prized by collectors.  This is likely confirmed by the fact that the standard automatic Carreras (Reference 1153) typically sell at a discount to many of the standard Autavias (Reference 1163) and Monacos (Reference 1133).

Given the scarcity of the Chronomatic Carrera, it was surprising to see two samples of the watch offered by Bonhams and Iconeek, only four days apart.  The results of the auctions were telling, demonstrating the value of a one-owner watch that is “new to the market” compared with a sample that has been passed from dealer to dealer, with parts being replaced all along the way.

We start with the Bonham’s sale, on June 16, 2021.  The Chronomatic Carrera up for sale (Lot 18, shown above) was coming from the family of the original owner and appeared to be an excellent sample, with all the key elements of the watch appearing to be original and correct for the model.  The final price of $24,400 was in line with previous results for the model.

If the Bonham’s sample demonstrates the attractiveness of a watch that is “new to the market”, the Chronomatic Carrera offered by Iconeek (shown below) represented the extreme opposite of such a watch.

Well described by the phrase “pass the trash”, this watch has made the rounds over the last couple of years.  In January 2019, it was offered by a Swiss auction site, having bright orange hands that were never used on a Carrera and with the needles on the chronograph recorders missing entirely from the watch.  Later in 2019, the watch was offered by a Swiss vintage watch dealer, with the bright orange hands now being “fat pencil” style hands, correct for later Carreras, but not this early model.  And miraculously, the chronographs needles had been found!

Finally, as offered by Iconeek in June 2021, the time-of-day hands were replaced with a pair that is correct for the watch (although clearly they were not original to the watch).  Somewhere along the way, the case had also been switched out, so that bidders were essentially vying for a Chronomatic dial, with all other significant components of the watch having been put together within the past two years.

While some years ago, this process of switching out parts on a watch as it moved from seller to buyer to seller to buyer to seller might have gone unnoticed, with the current state of social media, these shenanigans are more likely to be detected.  The watch offered by Iconeek had been discussed on the OnTheDash discussion forum in early 2019, and the unique “fingerprints” on the dial had been highlighted.  It came as no surprise that Iconeek failed in its effort to sell this well-travelled watch.

Mixed Reviews for Test Dials

The community of vintage Heuer collectors has seen a handful of what are described as “test dials”.  A test dial is a dial that a dial-maker produced, trying to get the brand to place an order for a new model or execution, or a dial that the brand ordered to see how it might look “in the metal”.  Whether creation of the test dial was initiated by the dial maker or the brand, the defining feature of a test dial is that watches using the dial never went into production.  Sometime later, however, someone – other than the brand itself – used the test dial to make a complete watch.  At least for Heuer, test dials tend to be dramatic, offering styles that are very different from the models that actually went into production.

Collectors have different views of watches made from test dials.  The enthusiasts see dramatic styles —  wild looking Monaco dials (as shown above), 1960s manual-winding Autavias with silver / white dials and black registers, and early 1970s automatic Autavias (Ref 1163) with bright orange dials.  By definition, they are scare, with no more than three or four dials known for any particular type of test dial.  The critics see it differently.  While some of the test dials may be interesting and attractive, the fact that Heuer made the decision not to put the model into production constitutes a strike against the watch that is ultimately made by the freelancer or off-duty watchmaker.

In May 2021, Antiquorum offered two Heuer chronographs that had been made from test dials.  A manual-winding Autavia in a compressor case, Reference 7763C, with a silver / white dial and black registers sold for $27,750 (25,000 CHF) and an automatic Autavia, Reference 1163, with a bright orange dial sold for $24,975 (22,500 CHF).

These results well represent the mixed views of test dials.  The prices represent a multiple of three or four times the prices of the standard production models, but they fall well short of the prices of the vintage Heuers generally considered to be “grails” by the community.

Advantage, Phillips

While it is difficult to rate the performance of an auction house based on a handful of watches sold in a single sale, results in the first half of 2021 for two particular auction houses, Phillips and Bonhams, accurately reflected their positions in recent years.  The ascendency of Phillips in recent years, in selling vintage Heuer chronographs and many other sport watches, has been nothing short of remarkable.  Looking at multiple auctions over the years, we conclude that prices typically realized by Phillips for vintage Heuer chronographs stand head and shoulders above prices usually achieved by the other auction houses, with Phillips regularly selling these watches at a full 50 to 100% premium over what we see in the market.  There are the exceptions, of course, with Sotheby’s and Iconeek joining the leader board for for the first half 2021 with particularly good watches.

First quarter sales evidencing Phillips’ position include an Orvis Solunagraph selling for $35,700 (June 5, 2021, Hong Komg) and a Heuer “Bund” selling for $13,287.  Both these prices are double what we have seen for comparable samples being sold by dealers or internet auction or dealer websites.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bonhams soldiers along, regularly offering vintage Heuer chronographs in its auctions, but the watches are often not of the best quality (although there are some exceptions) and the prices achieved lie on the spectrum from acceptable to poor.  We see Bonhams sell a nice Skipperrera for $60,487 and a Chronomatic Carrera for $24,400 and can only wonder what Phillips might have achieved for these same watches.  Bonhams had a “Rindt” Autavia that went unsold against an estimate of £15,000 to £20,000 (approx. $20,000 to $27,000), and Phillips achieved $21,000 for a far less valuable Autavia Reference 2446C.

Yes, in the current market there seems to be Phillips and “everyone else”, with everyone else rarely matching the Phillips prices.

The Newest Member of the Hundred-Thousand-Dollar-Heuer Club

In this posting, we have covered some highlights of the public auctions of vintage Heuer chronographs during the first half of 2021, with no attempt to cover sales taking place in private. There was one sale, however, by a dealer that regularly sells excellent vintage Heuer chronographs, that deserves to be mentioned. In early April 2021, German dealer WatchPool24 sold an Autavia reference 2446 GMT, with a screw-back case (listed HERE), for 127,000 euro (approximately $151,000). The watch appeared to be in exceptionally good condition, and came with the original box and hang-tag.  (We have added loads of photos of this watch to OnTheDash HERE.)

So we opened this posting discussing an exceptional Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer, in the Reference 2446 screw-back case, that Sotheby’s sold for $94,500 and close the posting with an Autavia GMT, also in a screw-back case, that topped $150,000. These are among the rarest of the rare and seem to suggest the range for the very top Heuer chronographs. In 2016 and 2017, there were five vintage Heuer chronographs that topped $100,000 in public sales.  Perhaps the health of the vintage Heuer market in 2021 is evidenced not so much by the reemergence of the six figure Heuer, but by a strong layer of “grail” watches changing hands in the range between $50,000 and $100,000. The first half of 2021 saw some excellent watches change hands within this range, in what has become a strong, stable market.  It will be interesting to see what the rest of the year 2021 might hold.

Jeff Stein
July 23, 2021