The Watchman.

Aurel Bacs deals in rare watches, raking in millions in the process.

Unerring sense.

Blessed with an unerring sense of the value of his wares, the auctioneer has an even better sense for a good story. A conversation about soul – or lack thereof – in a digital world.

Aurel Bacs outgrew childhood a long time ago. Maybe that’s why he’s eyeing the newspaper on the table in front of him with such scepticism. It’s the current edition of the Financial Times and inside, the 43-year-old auctioneer is lauded as a “gavel-swinging wunderkind”. Clearly it’s a compliment. But Bacs just furrows his eyebrows and runs a dissatisfied finger back and forth across the newsprint. “Can’t we just buy up all of these?” he jokingly asks his assistant. He probably could. His return to the rare watch business has been a smashing success.

For a year and half he laid down the auctioneer’s hammer he had wielded on behalf of Sotheby’s and Christie’s for so long. His new firm, Bacs & Russo, is based in Geneva’s financial and fine watch district. Over two days at the beginning of May 2015, he auctioned off 220 watches for the Phillips auction house, earning 28.4 million euros – as much as all of his competitors combined.

A bona fide watch freak.

Mr. Bacs, we live in an age of high technology where we can read the exact time everywhere on smartphones and computers. Why do we even need mechanical watches anymore?

Exactly for that reason, because we live in this age. An example: we wear clothes so we don’t have to run around naked all the time. So why do we even need haute couture? Even though we don’t really need it, the big fashion houses are more successful now than ever before. We’ll throw a product out after a couple of months because it’s cheaper to buy a new one than repair the old. That’s why handcrafted items are becoming so valuable, because so many modern objects just lack soul.

But spending several hundred thousand euros on a vintage watch – isn’t that over the top?

Everybody has to decide what price he or she is comfortable with. Of course, we’re talking about connoisseur pricing here. And a lot of it naturally depends on what a particular bidder can afford. The central banks printed a lot of money in recent years, and as a result it’s worth a lot less than it used to be. 30 years ago, a millionaire could live really well just off his interest income. Today he’d be lucky to afford a row house. Within a single generation the proportions, the zeroes, the commas have all radically shifted. Look at the art market – vintage watches are cheap by comparison.

What does an expensive watch communicate?

Men are interested in mechanical things. Buying a wristwatch has one clear advantage over buying a plane or a boat – you don’t have to leave it in a hangar or in the harbour. Nobody tucks his Impressionist masterpiece under his arm and brings it to a meeting. But a watch can go everywhere – even into your bedroom.

What is it about antique watches that you find so interesting?

Their history. Their aesthetics. Their uniqueness. Many watches were only manufactured once, or else their 100-year lifespans made them oneof- a-kind. With a person, you can tell by their scars and wrinkles whether or not they’ve spent their lives tilling the fields or working in a law office. The same is true of a watch. And the technology inside is important as well. Are we talking about a cookie-cutter product? Or was this timepiece just as revolutionary as gullwing doors were to the supercar industry?

Do you still remember the very first watch that attracted your attention?

At 13 or 14, I discovered IWC pilot watches. The back side has engravings, air force insignias and serial numbers on it. It occurred to me that one of them might have actually belonged to someone who flew a Spitfire or a Junker, maybe got shot down and had to parachute out, and suddenly I found myself daydreaming. There’s no doubt that an antique watch has been through more than you have yourself. It’s like a time machine that sweeps you into another era.

On his wrist, Bacs wears a simple Patek Philippe from the 1940s, for which his parents loaned him the money when he was 14. They advanced him 1,600 Swiss francs under one condition – that the youngster pay it all back. For two solid years, Bacs turned over every penny he saved to his parents, until the coveted day arrived when he could finally wear the watch for the first time.

How did you first get involved with watches?

My father always appreciated a nice mechanical watch – and still does, for that matter. I’d go with him on trips to the watchmaker’s, to antique shops and to the goldsmith’s. Almost before I knew it, I had become a bona fide watch freak.

Did you have any idea then that you would be earning money with your hobby later in life?

No way. I started off studying economics and law at university, but to be honest, I only did that because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t study very hard – always just enough to get me through the next test. After three years of that, my mother showed me a Sotheby’s help wanted ad in a watch magazine: they were looking for an expert to work in their watch department. They probably thought my application was some kind of prank at first: a 23-year-old kid thinks he can head up the Geneva watch department!? I still got the job, but after the first month I thought it was so awful that I almost quit and went back to university. But in hindsight I’m very grateful to my first boss. She taught me the real meaning of hard work. I really had to buckle down those first six months though.

One of the smartest purchases.

You were just a lay person – didn’t people have trouble taking you seriously?

I certainly had my share of doubters. There was one interview where they showed me 20 watches from different eras and gave me two hours to give technological and historical descriptions of all of them. I also had to tell them which ones were originals and which fakes. Years later someone from human resources told me I passed that test.

Prices in the watch market have skyrocketed since then. At an auction in 2014, you bid 19.3 million euros on behalf of a collector for a single watch.

There’s one thing you ought to know about that watch – the Patek Philippe Henry Graves Supercomplication was sold just four times in the last 80 years. The first time, Patek Philippe sold it to Henry Graves Jr., who was an American banker. The second sale was in the 1960s. Then in 1999, it was sold to a private collector for 11 million dollars. Finally, in 2014 it sold for 19.3 million euros.

Shortly after starting his own company in November 2014, Bacs made this record-breaking bid at a Sotheby’s auction on behalf of an anonymous buyer. The Supercomplication pocket watch, built in 1932 exclusively for Henry Graves, was for decades considered the most technologically complex mechanical watch in the world. Since the 1999 auction it had also been the most expensive – and remains so to this day, at an even higher price.

Did you think it was an appropriate price?

Oh yes, without a doubt. I thought it was one of the smartest purchases anyone could possibly have made at a watch auction in the last few years.

Because of its value appreciation potential?

I personally prefer it when appreciation in value is not the deciding factor. I mean, hopefully you wouldn’t automatically go out and marry the woman with the biggest bank account. As far as watches are concerned, my hope would be – as was the case here – that a collector first asks himself whether or not he likes the watch. If someone is primarily interested in getting a 300% return on his investment in three years, he’d be better off speculating in the stock market.

Searching and hunting and tracking down.

Is there a model of watch that you haven’t yet held in your hands?

The famous Breguet “Marie Antoinette”. It’s been a myth-laden watch since its inception. No one knows who exactly commissioned it. Years later, a famous watch collector bequeathed it to a museum in Jerusalem. Decades ago it was stolen from that museum, then it was anonymously returned a few years ago. These days it is hermetically protected to such an extent that you can barely even see it.

Is that the perfect watch in your opinion?

Thankfully there’s no such thing as the perfect watch. Because if one day someone stumbled upon perfection, then all the searching and hunting and tracking down, all the negotiating and winning and losing that people go through would stop making sense. Perfection would destroy all of that.

“Are you sure you don’t want to make another bid?”

It’s just after an auction, and Bacs and his employees are busy readying watches for shipment. Watches like one Patek Philippe whose value was initially estimated at 474,000 euros, and ended up changing hands for 840,000 euros. Right now it is being fetched from the bank vault and packed up.

Do you think it’s conceivable that in 30 years they will start having bidding wars over the first Apple watches?

I doubt it. Still, the very first Apple computers with wooden cases are highly sought-after collector’s items these days. Steve Jobs supposedly put those first computers together with his own hands using a hammer and a screwdriver. Modern Apple products are mass-produced, I can’t really see them having any great value for collectors.

What are the qualities of a good auctioneer?

You need to have good verbal skills and a willingness to overcome any innate shyness you might have. Of course, it certainly helps when you’re in an auction hall with 300 collectors, 290 of whom you know personally. Then when Lot 86 is called, you know: now it’s Müller back there on the left against Dupont down here on the right. And Dupont has come all the way from Paris just for this watch, so I’ve got to shoot him a glance at just the right time. A good auctioneer also needs to know when to ask, “Are you sure you don’t want to make another bid?” But he also has to know the right time to accept the winning bid.

Did you miss auctions during your time off?

Totally. A legendary auctioneer once said, “Leading an auction is the most satisfying thing that you can do with your clothes on.” That’s what it really feels like when an auction goes well. When an auction doesn’t go well, you wish you could just vanish from the podium.

What makes a good auction?

The watches, above all. After that comes doing the proper research. A customer who is paying hundreds of thousands for a watch wants to have all the question marks in its past answered.

Haven’t you ever felt the need to get out of the watch business altogether?

No. I vacationed a lot last year – I’d be somewhere in the mountains, in the desert, or on the beach and I’d suddenly say to my wife, “You know what? I’m looking forward to going home. I need to hold a nice old watch in my hands again.”

Do you take one with you on your travels?

Just one. I’m a cautious person, and not one to travel around the world with a suitcase full of valuable watches. That wouldn’t be very wise, not to mention impossible from a customs standpoint. That said, after two weeks with just one watch I almost start breaking out in cold sweats: I feel like I’m quitting cold turkey.