New York - If you inherit a watch these days, one that's been passed down through one or more generations, you probably know you have reason to be excited. It might be something with an important family story, something you can keep and treasure and pass along. Or it could be something valuable to sell.
But if you're not already a watch enthusiast or collector, you might not recognise the name of its manufacturer - let alone understand how much the thing is worth. And just because you don’t see a name like Rolex, Omega, or Patek Philippe on it doesn’t mean you haven’t hit the jackpot. The vintage watch collecting market is now hotter than it’s ever been, and a lot of lesser-known brands - Universal Geneve, Enicar, and even vintage Movado watches - are starting to be worth some serious cash. If a vintage heirloom has landed in your hands, here’s a quick guide to where to look and what to look for to decipher the value of your new timepiece.
Start with Google
Sure, this sounds like a no-brainer, but to narrow the search, Google Images is always your first step. Search any combination of words that appears on the dial, and if you have any other pertinent details (approximate era your elder may have acquired it), this can be equally helpful. Say you inherited this Wittnauer watch, for example. Searching “Wittnauer watch” on its own sends you down a rather deep rabbit hole. Adding the word chronograph to the mix brings you much closer, and guessing a ballpark date (1960s) to the keywords leads you to a random website that shows you a few more photos and names its manual-wind movement, and also to an EBay landing page with a few comparable listings on it (more on the dreaded EBay later…). Not all these sites are necessarily totally accurate, but lots of little facts can help point you in the right direction. Now that you’ve narrowed things down to make and model, it’s time to dig a little deeper.
The online marketplace
There are a ton of online watch retailers these days, making it easier than ever to get at least a loose ballpark value of your new-to-you vintage watch. Be warned, just because you see one obscure site with a watch similar to yours listed for more than $10 000 doesn’t mean yours will earn anywhere near that. At this stage of the game, there are a few key places you should be looking.
Chrono24.com is one of the best aggregator sites for watch retailers around the planet, and if anywhere will give you a relatively accurate high-low ballpark, it’s this site. Using the vintage Wittnauer chronograph as our example yet again, a skim of the site shows a few similar examples ranging from less than $1 000 to more than $2 000. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but this at least puts you in the ballpark. Watchrecon is also a great tool in some cases, as it aggregates all listings from such online sales forums as Watchuseek, Timezone, and others. The difference here is that the majority of users are collectors instead of retailers, so some examples might be priced a little higher than they should be. As mentioned above, your best bet is to ignore anything that seems higher or lower than average.
In cases where the piece in question has been tenderly cared for and is in immaculate condition, pricing can be found at a few other places. The top-tier of the online vintage watch retailers - specifically, such folks as analog/shift, HQ Milton, and Hodinkee’s online shop—tend to offer the best of the best in the vintage realm, and their prices reflect it. If your watch has some wear and tear, don’t expect to reach their sticker prices, but if gramps was a little obsessive-compulsive about caring for his belongings, you might be in the same range.
Having bought, sold, and traded countless times over the years, I've found the most obnoxious line to be: “Well, I saw one for sale on EBay recently for $XX XXX.” Consider eBay the armpit of online watch sales. Any watch bought or sold on eBay is effectively a gamble, you need to do a ton of research on any seller, most watches sitting on eBay with a “Buy It Now” button end up selling for significantly less than the listed price, and most importantly, a lot of sellers are throwing astronomical sticker prices on things with the mantra, “Maybe some sucker out there will pay this much for it.” (For a great example, have a look at this absurdly overpriced tropical-dial gold Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 listed for $95 000.) Do yourself a favour and focus more on trusted watch-specific marketplaces instead.
Condition is key
Evaluating a watch accurately is, in many ways, the same as evaluating a car. How well it runs, how dinged and scratched it is, how well it’s been maintained, and whether it has all its original parts are all key questions. With watches, condition and documentation are key, so if your father or grandfather has any records of the watch being serviced or repaired, you’re going to want them. Even if the piece runs fine now, not knowing its service history means you’re handling a ticking time bomb - depending on the piece, a full service can run you anywhere from around $100 to well over a grand. No matter if your intent is to hang on to the watch for decades, or you’re looking to make a quick buck, it’ll most often be worth it to get it serviced unless you have it's history already on record.
When talking about original parts, this is where our old pal Google Images comes back into play. Especially in the 1960s and ’70s, many watches went through variations in which the hands could sometimes vary on the same model. Still, if all the images you find of your watch show different hands, a differently shaped crown, a flat crystal instead of the domed one on yours, you may have a watch that has nonoriginal parts on it. The bad news is it won’t fetch the top dollar of the range you saw earlier. But don't worry, that also doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless - it's just the kind of watch that someone will buy to actually wear, not to keep in a glass box somewhere. Think of it as a '69 Mustang someone buys because they actually want to drive it.
Ask a real professional
Once you’ve done your background research and gathered any pertinent information, you may be satisfied with the approximate value range you’ve uncovered and can stop here. You can try taking it to a retailer, such as analog/shift, and many of the auction houses also do consignment sales for the right piece (though in some cases, be prepared to part with a percentage of the final sale price on commission). Still, if you’ve now become more curious than ever about getting a definitive answer to “What’s this thing worth?” It’s time to reach out to the pros. I’m not talking about the old man at the watch bench of your local jewellry store. That guy, nine times out of 10, either won’t have a clue about the actual market, or he’ll throw you a lowball offer in hopes of getting it from you for a song and flipping it himself.
The folks who’ll give you the straight goods are those who have too much at stake to risk their reputations on giving you a number that’s anything but accurate. All the big-gun auction houses - Christie’s, Philips, Sotheby’s, and Auctionata - all have in-house watch specialists who spend their time evaluating all sorts of vintage watches. Either through e-mail communication or by booking an appointment in person with one of their team, they will be able to give you a clearer picture of what your watch is worth either for retail or for insurance purposes. We wouldn’t recommend going knocking on their doors if you think the watch in question might be worth $300 to $500, but once you’ve crept up into the thousands or tens of thousands, they’ll be happy to give you the definitive answer you’ve been chasing all along.