Bacs can barely contain himself. “My first rush of adrenaline came when I finally held the watch in my hand.”
Phillips’ Zurich-born watch expert has handled countless multimillion dollar specimens, but Bacs is referring to the Rolex Daytona that once belonged to the late actor Paul Newman, which he is due to auction in New York on October 26.
Versions of the so-called Paul Newman model have resold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But this particular example is Newman’s very own, inscribed by his wife, actress Joanne Woodward and passed down via his daughter Nell.
When it is offered at Phillips, part of the proceeds will go to the Nell Newman Foundation and some to Newman's own foundation. It carries an estimate of $1m-plus.
The auction is the launch event for Phillips’ new watch division in New York – the latest location for the auction house’s watch business that already holds sales in Geneva, Hong Kong and London.
The unit has enjoyed steady growth since Bacs revived Phillips’ watch specialism in 2015, with turnover up 39% year-on-year to 2016, according to Phillips.
Bacs’ history with the firm starts in 2001, when he partnered with Simon de Pury and Daniella Luxembourg to become the international head of watches for the newly created auction house Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg.
He left in 2003 to join Christie’s before founding consulting firm Bacs & Russo with his wife and fellow watch expert, Livia Russo, in 2014.
The pair returned to Phillips in Geneva as consultants and held their first auction in May 2015.
Now this international watch division comprises 16 people and five consultants (including Bacs and Russo).
Although in awe of Newman’s Hollywood aura, Bacs is a bit of a celebrity himself in the luxury watch world as a charismatic gavel master.
A love of watches is an inherited trait, his father being a collector. But it was in the late 1990s at Sotheby’s Geneva that he took his first watch auction.
“I had admired the work of then chairman Simon de Pury for some time, and was fascinated by his energy and the captivating way in which he talked with the bidders.
“I soon realised that this was what I wanted to do myself one day. After training in London, I was eventually granted the privilege to hold the gavel myself. I remember I was so nervous that I could hardly speak.”
He soon overcame his shyness and now uses his linguistic skills to great effect, often switching with ease from English to French, German and Italian to speak to prospective bidders in the room.
This skill comes in handy because collectors of luxury watches are certainly international. “I remember, during my first auctions, that you could count the number of countries where buyers would come from on two hands.
“Today, thanks to the exponential growth of our market, we regularly welcome bidders from across five continents, representing between 40 and 50 countries.”
The rise of online sales has helped this global growth. “I can certainly see how online marketplaces will play a constantly more important role in our daily life and especially in our buying habits,” says Bacs. But he doesn’t believe it will completely replace the one-to-one experience of the physical sale.
“Buying a vintage collector’s watch is an extremely personal and exciting experience, connected to feelings that no software can yet transmit. Thankfully, you cannot taste a three-star Michelin menu online and the same applies to a unique collector’s watch.”
Items that last
Trends in fashion filter through into the luxury and vintage sector. Younger people are less likely to wear a watch, relying on their smartphones.
But Bacs is not expecting a change in demand for the watches he auctions.
“As we move towards a society that quickly disposes of consumer goods, the more society is longing for items of endurable value, representing long-term enjoyment.”
There has been concern that the sales growth enjoyed by the entire luxury watch sector is stagnating, but Bacs does not share this fear. “We have to draw a clear line between high-quality vintage watches and contemporary second-hand watches,” he says.
“Besides both being worn on the wrist and both telling the time they must be considered completely different.”
Certainly recent auction results suggest strength. Earlier in the summer Phillips sold a Rolex once owned by the last emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, which reached a record premium-inclusive price of £4m (Sfr5.06m).