Curating The Collection – ‘Value’ As A Guiding Principle

“Presented by C.H. Reed to R.M. McCleary
Winner of 27th Anniversary
Sales Contest
Summer of 1928”

Earlier this year through sheer dumb luck I acquired a rare watch which I sold to a big collector. I met him shortly before the pandemic unfolded. In a later conversation I asked him what advice he had for a collector like myself who has only been collecting for a few years. He told me to focus on quality, originality, rarity but most of all to develop a focus.

I have observed in conversations with other guides at Beyond the Dial that there seems to be a hierarchy of collecting. After a certain point it is not adequate to “merely” collect what you like. Greg Bedrosian believes that collecting should be “vertical” rather than “horizontal” in that each watch should be a better version than the previous one rather than an equivalent. David Flett has a very clear focus on vintage Seiko. He has developed an encyclopedic knowledge base through extensive research including collecting old catalogues and repair tools. Allen Farmelo has focused on Cartier Tanks as the best expression of his interest in style and celebrity.

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I have felt that my collecting has remained unfocused, lacking a singular vision or direction. I have subgroups such as alarm watches, gold dress watches from the 1950’s and 1960’s, North American railroad pocket watches, funky 1970’s chronographs. I thought perhaps I should focus on excellent condition which brings props from other collectors. However that makes it hard to wear the pieces for fear of creating damage. Now after laying out condition as a critical criteria on BTD, I start to find myself drawn more and more to the imperfection of patina.

As I reflected on this dilemma I realized that what I prize specifically is value. I would define that further as I am interested in watches which were highly valued or sought after at the time they were made, but no longer attract as much interest due to changing tastes. I will give some examples.

One of my prize pieces is my minute repeater chronograph pocket watch from 1928. It has an inscription that it was presented to a winner of a sales contest one year before the stock market crash of 1929. It is a heavy, complicated, fragile solid 18K gold pocket watch. The inscription lends it more interest from my perspective. It shows that even during the period of great human suffering during the Great Depression and the upheaval of WWII someone valued this piece so highly that they kept it rather than melt it down for the gold. It has intrinsic value of a high complication housed in a precious metal case. Yet today, pocket watches are out of fashion. Recently a collector told me that “pocket watches are cool but I don’t wear a vest so I don’t see the point in collecting them.”

Attitudes have certainly shifted since 1928. Today the modern watch collector prizes a robust, sporty piece that matches their active lifestyle. A connection is sought to the heroes of our time such as sports figures, astronauts, or celebrities. A Paul Newman Daytona perhaps epitomizes the modern watch collector’s vintage grail piece. Yet at the time it was made it was difficult to sell. It was expensive relative to other chronographs. It housed an “out of date” Valjoux 72 movement that had to be wound by hand every day. It had a funny looking black and white dial. It was made in stainless steel, not precious metal. Some versions had inconvenient screw down pushers that made it hard to activate the chronograph function. It was big and bulky and sporty in a time when an elegant man’s watch was thin, small, flat, and gold. Of course today a Paul Newman Daytona worth a small fortune. The most prized modern watches like the Nautilus, Daytona, Submariner, Royal Oak are also big, sporty, and stainless steel. Vintage follows the same course with chronographs and dive watches for example being prized over dress watches, nevermind pocket watches.

I find value in vintage by shifting perspectives from today to yesterday. Perhaps it is because I am an Asian immigrant living in America, perpetually shifting between two cultures but never quite at home in either. When I hold Mr. C.H. Reed’s prize pocket watch from 1928, I don’t see something to wear to Redbar or build a following on social media. I see a man’s prize possession that survived the greatest challenges of the 20th century. Every day, I go to work with my fellow mask wearing doctors and walk the thinly populated streets. Yet it gives me some small comfort to hold this object in my hand and think that maybe we will find a way to get through this period of time as well.

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