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Aurel Bacs: “You can’t sell watches like you sell art”

Alex Stoian
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In an exclusive interview, the legendary auctioneer, Aurel Bacs explains what it takes to become a successful auctioneer and some of the secrets of the industry. Watch the interview below. You can also find it on our YouTube channel.

Dan Vardie
Aurel, it is such a pleasure to meet you finally. Such a busy guy, but you are doing so many extraordinary things for the industry and for the consumers. Because what you do it’s in the middle and we are eager to learn more about how you do this wonders. So first of all, how was your professional life? How did you start it?

Aurel Bacs
So truth is, I never planned to go professionally into watches. Truth is that I thought I might become a lawyer. So I studied law and business in Saint Gallen and then later in Zurich. However, since my teenage years I was drawn into vintage watches, mechanical watches by my father who loved all mechanical things, also motor cars and steam trains, steam machines, anything that would move and and have wheels and gears and levers. And when I was 23 I was still at the university, I’m stumbling across an advertising in a watch magazine where they are looking for a specialist to run the Geneva Department and more out of curiosity than really wanting to take that career direction, I submitted my letter of motivation and short CV. There wasn’t much to say about my life back then and quite to my surprise, after six months of interviews I was accepted. So no working experience, no qualifications as a watchmaker. And eventually, 27 years later, you and I are talking here in Geneva.

D.V.: How did how did you train yourself to become an auctioneer, someone which is doing by the end of the day such a huge work? Because it’s not just going in on stage and selling, it’s much more than that.

A.B.: Auctioneering is something that is maybe similar to moderating what you do now. You have an audience of maybe 2-3, four, 500 people. You need to know what you’re selling. I’ve also auctioned other objects: jewelry, furniture, rugs and I can tell you, if you don’t know what you’re selling, you’re half as good to begin with. On the other hand, you need to know who is the audience, who are the sellers, who are the bidders, who are the exactly press, who may not bid but only observe. And then it’s a dialogue between the audience and the auctioneer. Everyone wants to have a good time, of course. The auctioneer also wants, on behalf of the seller, to achieve the best possible results. And you either love it or you hate it. And if you love it and you have a little bit of talent, you’re probably going to do quite well. Ff you don’t like it and don’t have any talent. You might struggle.

D.V.: So which are the natural skills necessary for this kind of job, actually very unique. It’s something that you don’t find it every time, every year, everywhere.

A.B.: I think you need to have some degree of showmanship. You can’t be introverted, I’m afraid. You need to be at ease to speak in front of a public without a script, there is no script. An actor can rehearse and rehearse, rehearse,  at TV you have the prompter and you read it, here there is no prompter and you cannot do a second take. You need to be at ease with the audience. So it’s obviously a good blessing I have that I know 80 or 90% of the audience for 20 or so years. Therefore, we’re quite in in a comfortable language with each other. It helps to speak several languages. I think you need to be good in improvisation because nothing goes by plan that I can tell you, because there cannot be a plan. How do you know that? The opening bid on a Paul Newman is $10 million. And I’ll tell you, I was, as you can see on the video, I was just silent for a couple of seconds, not knowing what to say or what to do. You need to be good with numbers. You need to know the increments 10, 11, 12 and 20, 22, 24, 26 and you need to be on the right foot. The wrong foot is something in the auctioneers language that if I have a commission bid of 20,000, I need to be with my bid at 16 so I can do 17-18,19-20 and not that you have 20. My absentee that 20 goes lost. It’s a combination of skills. Everybody I think can do it. It’s just do you like it and rehearse a little bit.

D.V.: How important is to know deeply the watches, the history of watches, all the pieces you are selling, because I imagine being on stage that’s extremely important for you to give to your audience, the confidence. It is the real thing. You buy it and it’s the real thing. It’s not just an ordinary watch.

A.B.: I think you’re absolutely right. It is very important that the auctioneer is a credible specialist in the field. There are auction houses where a generalist auctioneer is selling art and jewelry and wine and when I see them start in the auction and say ladies and gentlemen, we’re now getting to lot #8. Lot #8 is a…unique…gold watch. You clearly see they are from a different area. They may be geniuses when it comes to selling art or jewelry or wine, but the audience makes immediately difference. And when you know that this is the only example with a salmon dial ever made, for example, and you know that there is this gentleman over there who came from Detroit for that watch. And there’s a gentleman from Dubai who came for this watch. You know where to look, so knowing the property and knowing the audience.

D.V.: You can bind them.

A.B.: You can connect them, yeah.

D.V.: Which is amazing. How is it possible all your records, because if we go back together 10 years ago discussing about this, you might tell probably Dan, that would be a nice thing to do. Now it’s done and you are just going away along again. Again, how is it possible? Because it looks like a miracle. Paying millions and more and more millions. It’s amazing! How do you see it from the inside?

A.B.: The first time in my life, I think I was 29, it was in 2001. Two months after 911, we were pretty concerned about the future of all markets, not just a collectors market, I had the privilege to sell a Patek Phillip wristwatch that eventually achieved the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch. I think it was around 2.8 million francs. At 29, obviously tennis players retire at age of 29. Auctioneers maybe start at 29 and I have to say yes, it felt good to be in that privileged position to achieve such a remarkable result of an important watch, going to a museum and being protected and preserved for future generations . Later, I had the pleasure here at Phillips to sell the stainless steel 1518 at 11 million and literally there were friends coming to me and saying 11 million, this is never, ever gonna be broken again. Why don’t you just retire? It was an interesting psychological discussion that I had to have with myself. Why am I doing it? Am I doing it because I want to break world record season after season? Or am I doing it because I love it? And I know there are some tennis players who may have been, at one point, number one in their career, maybe later, #2, #3, #4 a young generation comes up and it is better, but they still play. And there’s the question, do they play because they enjoy it or do they play because they want to be #1? And to be honest, I think today I play because I enjoy it. Now. If a world record happens in between, I’m not against it, of course. But it’s not a must. It’s not. No, it’s not. Because after the 1518, the Paul Newman made 17 million and again people said, well now you can just pack your things and go home. And yet, I absolutely find that I have not broken a new world record, an absolute world record for another race to watch. We’ve had a world record not so long ago for the highest auction total at 60 + 1,000,000 francs for a watch auction. Well, there’s always something that excites you. It can be a George Daniels, like the Tripic we have here. It can be a rare discovery. We’ve had Omega World records, Jordan world records. We’ve had Phillip Dufour world records. There’s so many interesting things you can still do.

D.V.: I have this question since long time what and you are the only one who can answer. And I really ask for your perspective, please. What do you think is really important in auctioning a watch? Is it the case material, is the caliber inside, is it the unicity of that piece, is it the brand? What is really the mix you think is going to bang the best price?

A.B.: It can be all of them. It can be only one of them. I’ll ask a rhetorical question back. A painting? What is making a painting make world records the signature of the artist, the size, the color, the medium. You can buy Picassos for such humble prices, as much as four 10s and 10s of 1,000,000, every brand had their good days, every brand had their not so good days. Every brand had their unique pieces. Unique pieces might be in really poor condition. It’s a mixture of everything. The so-called perfect storm when the best name made the best piece that is preserved in the best condition, aesthetically, in the most pleasing size and shape and proportions, the provenance plays an important role, as we have seen. So it’s a mixture. It’s sort of like when you make a menu, what makes the menu good. And it’s not just the size of the steak, it’s the sauce, the preparation, the cooking, the presentation. It’s everything that pleases all your senses.

D.V.: By the way, you mentioned George Daniels, which is here. You have one unique piece and I wonder what do we expect from this piece, because myself, I believe, that space It should hit the record because it’s really like a treasure of this civilization. It is not at all like another important brand because this is really unique. If the people would know they for sure will say, hey, I have to be there to buy it because this is again a piece of our history. What do you think?

A.B.: Well, first of all, I couldn’t have said it nicer than how you just did. It’s a masterpiece of our civilization because it’s not a watch that was made as one of many. Every piece was made specifically and only for this watch, it was George Daniels himself who wanted for his own wrist to make a wristwatch that pleases him. So it’s like a Picasso that Picasso said, I’m gonna now make my best piece for my own living room wall.” How much will it make? I give you 2 answers. One, A reasonably intelligent auctioneer will not jinx it and say, oh, it will make a world record. It will make 1020 fifty 100,000,000. No, no. We are always staying on the conservative side, maybe to manage not only our clients expectations, but even our own expectations. But it is priceless. And by priceless I mean, if it makes X or double X, can I say that either it is a good result or a bad result that the buyer’s overpaid or underpaid? What’s the price tag for it? For many watches I can say the price tag is X because another one just sold last week for X. Here we have nothing.

D.V.: No reference at all.

A.B.: So I will probably refrain from sharing a number until very close to the sale, when potential bidders come towards us and say, can we please have a discussion. I’m planning to spend X on the watch. Do you think I stand a chance? But if we already hear that somebody else wants to pay double X, we may need to tell this gentleman that maybe not. There is fierce competition.

D.V.: By the way, Aurel, I really have another question which is bothering me too much, but you’ll understand. So many people are coming to me and saying this is a limited edition. Do you think it’s worth it? What do you think about so many limited editions? Is there any guarantee that being a limited edition means something in value in time?

A.B.: I think the definition if limited edition, but of course is that the brand says we do no more than X pieces and they stick to that world. An honorable brand. Now X can be 5 pieces, 50 pieces, 500 pieces, 5000 pieces. I think I’ve seen limited editions of 10,000 watches.

D.V.: I will recall your memory: 14,007 of Omega James Bond so 14,000.

A.B.: The true sense of limited, if something is limited, like the fossil energy on the planet is, that one day there will be more demand than supply. I can tell you there are limited editions of 20 watches that have not been sold out because only 10 people wanted it, because it was such an ugly beast. And I’m sure there are limited editions of five or 10,000 watches that will be sold in one minute because maybe 100,000 people want it. Then there are watches that are limited without even being labeled limited.

D.V.: The entire production of Philippe Dufour and George Daniels is limited. Come on. But they never said we do a limited edition of Grand Summaries while they made eight pieces.  So it is a little meaningless if you don’t look at the global context, supply and demand for that watch. Needless to say, I don’t feel really, I have something exclusive on my wrist if 10 or more 1000 people wear the same watch and you can still buy it at the airport boutique tax free. But everyone is allowed to think what they want. Sometimes we look for watches for clients, not limited editions, and we can’t find one for one year. And that’s when I think it’s a really limited edition.

D.V.: Thank you. One last question. Have you ever thought to train, let’s say a young Padawan for the future, to give your expertise to someone to continue what you what you started, to train someone?

A.B.: In terms of the auctioneering during the pandemic, we realized that as my colleagues from Hong Kong and New York could not even travel to Geneva, that it was all down to the Geneva team to handle the auction, including the phone bidding and the auctioneering and at that point I thought to myself, well, what if something now happens to me, the only auctioneer we had in Geneva, and since then we’ve trained a new generation of superstars. Well, I invite you and your readers to tune in and see when Marcello de Marco, Clara, Cassie and Tiffany Toe are going on the Rostrum. The world doesn’t need me anymore. They’re so good, they’re so amazing. So we’ve made good use of the time from the Home Office in 2020 and 2021, and they’ve had their auction debut with Standing Ovation. And since then, it is my even greater pleasure to share everything I know with my team and the next generation.

D.V.: Thank you very much, Aurel. It was a pleasure. Good to have you.

A.B.: Thank you for having me.

D.V.: Thank you for accepting this interview and hopefully we can do more in the future. 



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