Buy Low or Buy High or Don’t Buy at All?When starting out as a watch collector it is easy to get bogged down in the decision making process. Should you wait for the best deals to come along on the items you want? Should you find a reputable retailer who can help you build a collection even if this is more expensive? Should you search the club marts of organizations like the Nat’l Association of Watch and Clock Collectors for reasonably priced models of watches you want? Or should you just buy every great deal you see and hope to trade your gems for watches you want at a later date? Every one of these strategies has an upside and downside and so maybe it is best to match your temperament to the buying style that will get you the watches you want.
Let’s begin by describing an imaginary collector of average means. We’ll call this Watch Collector. WC Doe. WC wants 2 or 3 nice watches for important business situations where he dresses in suits, at least one gold color watch (preferably solid gold so the color will not wear off), one silver color watch and one two tone watch that will be his spare watch in case one of the others is out being serviced. His dressy watches will need to be thin and elegant looking strap models but might be quartz, manual wind or automatic. The two colors will help WC match the watches to the clothes he wears. WC also wants an everyday watch that he doesn’t have to think about, sturdy, easy to read and low maintenance. On the weekends WC goes camping, hiking and fishing so he wants a rugged outdoor watch that is very water resistant. This is an example of a small collection but even buying reasonably priced vintage models, it might require an expenditure that WC cannot make all at once. So what path should he take to completing his collection?
Waiting for the right deals to come along is good for many reasons. If you only want to collect 5 or 10 watches, then by waiting you only get the ones you really want and at prices you can afford. Searching every flea market, vintage watch shop, watch auction and antiquities shop can be fun as exercise and education. Searching will also let you meet many people some knowledgeable and some not. So if you have lots of time to devote to this new hobby but not much money this would be the right strategy for you. Patience will be your helper. Often retail watches will be put up for sale at inflated prices and then over time the price will come down by what is known as the ‘reverse auction’ process. This means the price is lowered until someone buys it. Just be careful because the price will never come down to zero and so you need to know when the ‘deal’ on a particular watch is right for you or you might lose out. But I know some collectors who buy only used watches in shops because most retail businesses have rules about how long something can stay in inventory and after that amount of time, the watch is heavily discounted to sell it.
The fastest way to build up your watch collection is to work with a reputable retailer. Even this route may require patience. A little known collector in London passed an antiquities shop every day on his way to and from work. He became a customer of the manager and over a period of about 20 years he purchased 8 Breguet watches from this one retailer. His first Breguet watch was a simple model and as the years went by he purchased higher grade (and more expensive) models as his income increased. He paid about $75,000 total for his collection over the period from 1950 to the early 1970s. When his collection was auctioned off after his death it brought over 1 million dollars. So the advice and assistance of a retailer can be helpful to collect what you want and to buy the right items before their values skyrocket. It is also the case that working with a reputable retailer will give you peace of mind about service and the working order of your watches. Although I consider myself an experienced collector I have often bought watches from retailers. These reputable retailers have always been willing to service a watch that might have come out of adjustment within the first month or so after the purchase. This won’t be the case for ‘as is’ items. Also retailers are the only smart place to buy new watches. It is usually a good idea to buy a new watch from a reputable retailer so the warranty will be valid. Retailers can often be a good source for information and they often offer increasing discounts to regular customers.
Searching for watches at watch marts and conventions of the Nat’l Watch and Clock Collectors association is a special way to build a new collection. First of all everyone at these meetings and marts is as interested in watches as you are. Most of these events are very friendly and a great place to exchange information. Even the small monthly Marts at regular meetings can be great for shopping because often there will be ‘fresh’ watches the seller brought back from a major convention. Also the prices offered to club members is often much lower than the same watches would sell for to retail customers in the club member’s store. At my monthly mart/meeting retailers often offer big discounts on watches to club members, especially if it is old stock and that often includes new model close-outs. Marts are also a place to extend your ‘reach’ as a new collector. By discussing the watches you wish to collect many mart sellers can look for you at national conventions. Watch clubs are just fun in general and new collectors are always welcome. Check www.nawcc.org for the nearest watch club chapter to you.
For all the traders and dealmakers out there who become interested in watch collecting, there is a very active market for trading watches. By buying watches that are obviously underpriced, and then later trading them to collectors who want these models, new collectors can often get watches they might otherwise never be able to afford. The generic watch collector known as WC could possibly trade away an unusual altimeter watch or a large rare railroad pocket watch in a gold case to obtain many if not all of the items he actually wanted for his collection. The downside may be that a new collector with a limited budget might have a watch he didn’t really want to wear and not enough funds to buy any of the watches he really wanted for quite a while. This type of buying or investing for trading purposes takes patience and a wide generalist’s knowledge of the overall watch market. It also takes courage. Investing half of your budget determined for all the watches you want to collect, in hopes of later trading that one special watch for 5 or 6 of the watches you really want is a gamble.
You’ll also note that I almost always discuss trading as the exchange of one pricey watch for a number of less valuable watches. Watch collectors are often driven to ‘trade up’. That means, they will often desire to exchange a watch they already have with cash to a trader with large inventory, to get a better grade of watch of a type that they collect. Since traders with large inventories often have too many inexpensive watches, it is usually easier for a new collector to make a ‘deal’ to trade one high grade watch for a number of lower grade watches of the type they collect. Retailers and large inventory traders will often want a huge premium to trade a number of inexpensive watches for one high grade watch. The rationale is that it takes a retailer just as much time to sell an inexpensive watch as it does to sell an expensive watch. The retailer can usually make a much larger profit selling an expensive watch so that’s what they would usually prefer to sell. This makes it easier for a collector to trade one high grade watch to a seller for a number of less valuable watches than the other way around.
Finally let’s close with a word about ‘condition’. This is a magic word in the watch collecting arena. The two key words for any collector to know are ‘mint’ and ‘original’. A watch may be refurbished and the dial repainted but as nice as the watch could look, it might still be far less valuable than the same model of watch with a dial that is obviously aged but in original condition. Of course a 50 year old watch can look near perfect (mint) if it has been kept out of the sun and not worn much, but then this will make the watch much more valuable than other similar watches that have been used extensively. New Old Stock is another heavenly word for collectors. This means the watch may never have been worn even if it was sold, and might still be in the box. Collectors of all types need to be aware of all the tiny imperfections that other collectors will look for (usually with a magnifier or jewelers loupe) and become aware of how this affects the watch’s value. Seeing many watches of one type is the only way to really understand the meaning of ‘condition’ in a watch.
The patient collector who will wait for a great deal will by nature of the searching method, see many many watches before the one he can afford comes along. By that time he will usually know how condition affects price. The new collector who works with a dealer will get an education about ‘condition’ as soon as he starts to buy his first watch from the retailer. Often the retailer will be able to show a new collector a dozen watches of the same model so condition differences stand out. The same is true for shopping at club marts. There could be hundreds or thousands of watches on display at a watch club mart or collector’s convention. Paying attention to details can help a new collector to understand what condition means to the value of the watches he wants to collect. Finally the trader/collector absolutely must know what condition means when trying to buy an underpriced watch. Even a small error in judgment can mean the difference between a reasonable deal and a great deal.
Read as much as possible. Ask other collectors and retailers about ‘condition’ as it pertains to watches. Be careful. Once you know as much as you can about the watches you want to collect you will be prepared to make the kinds of quick decisions needed (especially at a club mart or collector’s convention) to get the watches you want for a price you can afford. Always realize too, that if a deal is too good to be true it probably is. You might someday find a classic gem at a super-low price while at an estate auction or browsing in an antique store, but when buying from a dealer or large inventory collector always ask why a price is so low if it looks like the item is unusually underpriced. It is always possible that the seller needs some cash for a better deal or for a problem car repair far from home. But it’s always better to ask because remember, Buyer Beware. All new collectors make a few mistakes starting out but patience, preparation and careful shopping can keep a new collector’s losses to a minimum. One last note! If you intend to buy current model watches to ‘collect’ them, remember to try to keep the condition at least ‘mint’ if not ‘as new’. 10 years after your purchase you may want to ‘trade up’ and that’s when your investment in maintenance will pay off. Keep the boxes and papers because they are worth money too. In other words start acting like a seasoned collector right from the beginning and you will enjoy your horological education because it won’t be too costly.
For further information check my two previous articles here at www.Watchuseek.com and for some basic background check other Watchking articles at www.time4watches.com. Make sure you learn as much as you can, pay attention and enjoy yourself as you appreciate the genius of watchmakers from Harrison to the present.
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