He’s built a career out of tracking down rare watches, then inspiring frenzied bidding wars that shatter all records at auction. It’s a game Aurel Bacs excels at.
By Nicolas Salomon.
Translation from French by Helene Tammik.
Article originally published in L'Etiquette issue 8.
Juggling endless phone calls, he shifts between French, English, German and Italian. Then his photographer e-mails through some pictures for the upcoming auction. It’s urgent. He hesitates. “The photos have to give an accurate representation, or we redo them,” he says. “If the dial on a watch is salmon-colored, it’s not pink and it’s not orange. I’ve been known to nitpick about the exact shade of flesh color. The client must never be disappointed, especially if they’re buying long-distance.”
His office walls are adorned with a Maximilian Büsser clock, one of his father’s old racing helmets, a well-stocked library and some photos, among them shots of Steve McQueen and of Picasso, shirtless with an unidentified watch on his wrist: “We’re still trying to establish exactly what he was wear- ing. I think it’s a Jaeger. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it!” Another phone call. This time, I am asked to step out of the room. Here at Bacs & Russo’s modest Geneva headquarters in the Phillips auction house near the lake, discretion reigns. So does Emperor Aurel.
In 25 years, this man has carved out a curious place for himself within the watchmaking industry. He’s responsible for sending prices soaring. His public role consists of gathering together the keenest buyers in one room, wav- ing incredible watches in front of their eyes and egging them on to keep bidding higher, before bringing down his gavel with a resounding thump to signal that the lot is sold. As an auctioneer, Bacs is flamboyant, playful, charming, teasing, provocative. “I have some fun,” he concedes grudgingly.
Behind the scenes, he is tough, efficient and well organized. There’s more to the job than simply conducting the auction; the essence of Bacs’ job is to find those watches that every- one’s looking for. A Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711 with a green dial? The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 16202? A Rolex Daytona Rainbow? The Vacheron Constantin 222 of the future? “Price is never the issue,” he says. “People ask me to find the unfindable, and that’s what I do. I’ll search everywhere.” Today he’s wearing a watch that he came across secondhand in Zurich, “in a really ordinary shop.” “It’s a 1986 IWC Da Vinci – the first white ceramic watch case, as far as I know.” On this rainy day, with its white case and white calfskin strap, the watch is anything but understated. “My wife hates it,” he says with a laugh. His phone rings again.
WASHING MACHINE AND ADDRESS BOOK
Bacs had a happy middle-class childhood in Zurich. His father was an architect who loved vintage watches, and on Sundays the teenaged Aurel would join him in browsing for watches and clocks in the flea markets across the Saane River. Bacs’ first watch was an analog-display plastic G-Shock, which perished during a washing-machine cycle. He was soon given his first real watch, a stainless-steel automatic IWC. His passion took root. “When I was 15, I was fanatical about watches the way other people are about soccer. I even asked if I could do a summer internship at Patek Philippe.” He ended up at the University of St. Gallen, then studied law at the University of Zurich. Even then, he was spending most of his time traveling the breadth and width of Switzerland searching for rare watches. “By that time, I was already acting as a middleman, linking up buyers and sellers. That’s how I financed my life as a student.”
It got to the point where Bacs realized that he wanted to make a career of his all-consuming passion. His father gave him a year to find a job, and his mother handed him an advertisement: an auction house was looking for a watch expert. “I didn’t even want to apply. I assumed they’d be looking for some old guy with gray hair,” says Bacs, but he went along to be interviewed anyway. He told them about the flea markets, his family’s watches, the books in his father’s library.
They gave him a little test. “They put me in a room for two hours with a dozen watches. Some were counterfeits. I had to identify the fakes and value the genuine ones. I think I did pretty well.” A few days later, the phone rang at home. On the other end of the line, the head of the watch department said, “Welcome to Sotheby’s.” Aged 23, Bacs gave up his studies and joined the prestigious auction house as a junior watch expert. He was the first filter between clients and Sotheby’s and was spending entire days painstakingly examining the watches that passed through his department for valuation. His “dream job” lasted three years, then it was time to step up to the podium.
Bacs had just turned 27 when he conducted his first auction. Despite having sweaty hands and a dry throat, he was soon caught up in the feverish atmosphere of the room. He coaxed, questioned and playfully chided the audience, driving up the bids like no one else could. He’d already found his style. The young man was disrupting established conventions, first laid down in the 1980s by an early kingpin of watch auctions, Osvaldo Patrizzi. For Bacs, the year 2000 was memorable for his first €1 million sale. No one in the industry could believe their eyes.
“You have to understand that in those days, watch auctions weren’t even one-hundredth the size they are nowadays – neither by volume nor by value. There were maybe a hundred serious clients worldwide. Broadly speaking, there were 40 Italians, 20 Germans, a handful of French people and a few Americans. You could count the number of Asian buyers on one hand. Buyers who would spend a mil- lion dollars were few and far between.”
According to Laurent Picciotto, a leading industry figure and founder of high-end retailer Chronopassion in Paris, “He makes it look easy, but his talent is backed up by relentless method and a staggering amount of work.” Bacs visits trade fairs, browses private collections and attends dinners. He builds up a file, checks in with clients regularly, answers their questions and advises them. “What’s great about Aurel is that he guarantees you the clients,” says Picciotto. “That’s always been true. If he doesn’t have the client for a timepiece, he’ll turn it down, even if it’s really valuable. There are others who don’t have such scruples.”
Bacs reckons that of the 10,000 watches he was shown in 2020, “barely 1,500” went under his gavel. Obviously the significance of individual models has a bearing on which ones make the cut. Provenance is also import- ant. “If we’re not convinced, we’ll politely decline. People do get offended, of course. It’s pretty common – we turn down 80 percent of what people show us.”
BEACH TOWEL AND EX-BOYFRIEND
Buoyed by his early successes and big sales, Bacs joined Simon de Pury’s art consultancy in 2001. When that business merged with Phillips, Bacs and his wife Livia Russo, whom he had met at Sotheby’s, set up the watch department from scratch. Bacs’ methods immediately bore fruit. In 2002, the year he turned 30, he shot into the limelight after achieving a record auction price of $1.9 million for Marshal Tito’s gold Patek Philippe 1591. On that occasion, it was François Curiel, the distinguished chairman of Christie’s, who poached him to helm the watch department, which was just ticking over. Under Bacs’ dynamic leadership, revenues rocketed from €8 million to €130 million.
Fine watches were taking off, and Bacs laid down the rules. “As far as I’m concerned, the cutoff date is 1985. Everything prior to that is vintage, including the first decade of quartz and the Beta 21 movement. Why 1985? Because that’s the year when the nature of watch design began to change, with the advent of comput- er-aided design and manufacturing. Before that you’d design the movement on paper, and it only worked once you’d made your first prototype. Nowadays everything works on your computer.”
Business was good for Bacs, but he was getting restless. “At that point, 2013, my wife and I wanted to spend more time with our family and be able to schedule our time more independently. Also, the auctions were making the market utterly insane. We were selling absolutely anything, to anyone who’d buy it. We couldn’t carry on like that. I wanted my clients to be cultured enough to appreciate a great complication at its true value.”
The couple set up as independent consultants. When Phillips approached them again, they dictated their terms and set about recruiting their own team. CVs came flooding in. But Bacs didn’t intend to repeat the same old formulas. As a connoisseur of the online press, he’d been following the success of new opera- tors like Hodinkee and Watchonista, run by real, levelheaded aficionados rather than by industry insiders. Bacs’ unorthodox recruitment drive assembled a strategy consultant, a lawyer, a trader and an aerospace engineer – his dream team could have passed as an all-risks insurance agency. Says Picciotto: “One of my big clients was a hotshot in finance, but he’d spend all day in my store, bombarding me with technical questions. One day, he gave up the struggle. After some brief training at Vacheron, he went to work for Aurel.”
These watch fanatics, worn to a frazzle in their previous careers, left it all behind for Bacs and an uncertain adventure. It was up to them to scope out their networks and track down the right watches and the clients to go with them. The hunt for unicorns was on, with all the irrationality that entails.
“One thing that’s very hard to gauge,” says Bacs, “is how the popularity of a watch can just exponentially take off – or nosedive. It’s a bit like being at the beach and noticing storm clouds on the horizon. At first you think, ‘It’s okay, I’ve got time,’ then 10 minutes later, you haven’t even had time to fold up your towel when the skies open, and it’s like standing under the shower. For the Daytonas, the Royal Oaks and the Nautiluses, I was still lying on my beach towel.”
To cushion themselves from the vagaries of shift- ing fashions, Bacs and his team also set their sights on legendary watches worn by legend- ary figures, such as the Rolex Daytona 6263 that had belonged to Paul Newman. “We all knew the story of Newman’s Daytonas. We talked about them all the time, at all the collectors’ dinners. He’d had several, but the one that stood out was the one his wife Joanne Woodward gave him, with “Drive Carefully / Me” engraved on it. He would wear it during races – he had sweated on that watch. It was our Holy Grail.” The miracle occurred in 2017. Bacs was contacted by an American collector he knew well, who told him what at first seemed rather a tall tale: the Newman watch had resurfaced. Better still, its seller, James Cox – who’d owned the watch since 1984 and was a former boy- friend of Paul Newman’s daughter – wanted the sale proceeds to go to charity. He wasn’t some soulless speculator. Bacs jumped on a plane and sealed the deal over dinner. The auction was held a few weeks later in New York. “What might this carefully preserved model fetch? A lot, certainly. Very likely several million. The auction began, and the first bid came in. Ten million. In a matter of seconds. I was staggered. It kept going up and up and up until it finally stopped at $15.5 million.” It was the highest price ever achieved for a watch at auction. In just 12 minutes, on October 26, 2017, Bacs was crowned emperor.
SELFIES AND CAR REGISTRATION CERTIFICATES
A few days later, I ran into Bacs in the aisles of the Watches and Wonders trade show in Geneva. Every few steps, someone came up to him: “Can I have a selfie, Aurel?” “What do you think of my watch?” “I’m going to call you. I have an amazing watch for you!” What’s Bacs doing at an event entirely devoted to new products? “I’ve come to see the latest models from Patek and Rolex. Then I’ll take a look at Lange, Vacheron and Zenith. And after that, I’ll go check out the independent brands; they often have lots of innovations.” Says Picciotto, “Because of his supposedly ‘classic’ training at the big institutions, there’s this misconception that Aurel’s only interested in vintage watches. That’s not true. I sold an entire collection of post-2000 modern watches jointly with him in 2017. And there wasn’t much I knew that he didn’t. He’s a living encyclopedia.” This view is seconded by Christian Selmoni, director of heritage for Vacheron Constantin: “Aurel’s the only person who can call me and say, ‘I have a Vacheron here that you didn’t know about.’ He has such a depth of knowledge that what he tells us helps build up our own archives!”
The great watch houses’ relations with Bacs have gradually thawed over time and are now very close. “Twenty years ago,” he says, “when we called a manufacture for some information, we didn’t get a very warm reception. Nowadays, the reaction is totally different. Straightaway, they’ll say, ‘Mr. Bacs, how can we help you? Do you need access to the archives, stock photos, an opinion, some advice?’ It didn’t make sense for the manufactures to be proud of the Omega Speedmaster, the IWC Aquatimer or the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox while also saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t try and talk to us about our past.’ The dialogue between old and new also appeals to them; you can see it in their collections. They come and ask us to explain the market to them. They might say, ‘We’ve launched a new watch that’s waterproof to a hundred meters, accurate, reliable, with Super-Luminova and a two-year guarantee, yet a collector will go to you and pay three times more for the same model from the 1950s, which is out of warranty, smaller and maybe even slightly damaged. Please explain why!’”
Bacs is unarguably in pole position when it comes to grasping the underlying currents and emerging trends that shape the watch market. As if thinking aloud, he speculates: “I think that, as far as vintage goes, people should be looking at quartz watches from the big manufactures. The mechanical storm has passed. I recently bought a Patek Philippe with the Beta 21 movement, the first quartz movement ever manufactured in Switzerland, and I love it. If you’re desperate for a manufacture movement, you can still find some under-the-radar gems at Zenith or at Longines, where they invented many of the modern complications in the 1920s and ’30s. In the field of new watches, independent watchmakers are really flourishing. I’m thinking of Journe, Voutilainen and Dufour. These independent brands are producing watches of exceptional quality in small quantities. People are better informed, so word is getting round. And above all, there’s never been so much cash sloshing around on this Earth.”
When you ask him to put a figure on the pre-owned watch market, though, Bacs hesitates. “It’s billions – maybe more than Switzerland’s watch industry revenues, maybe less. But I can’t quantify it, because if you sell your Nautilus to a friend, how could I count that transaction? Between them, the big auction houses make nearly half a billion. They’re the only ones that officially publish their financial results. But go to Parma, Miami, Las Vegas, New York, Hong Kong, the watch fairs, and then add on the big watch dealers. There are tens of thousands of collectors selling tens of thousands of watches, and we don’t know anything about it. In real estate, it’s much easier because there’s the land register. For cars, you can calculate the market based on changes to car registration certificates. In the watchmaking industry, we don’t have any precise documentation.”
That leaves room for dreaming. It turns out that Bacs’ dream takes the form of a perpetual calendar chronograph in yellow gold, the Patek 2499. “John Lennon’s watch. To this day, no one knows what happened to it. Imagine all the people!”