What is the ‘grail watch' for watch collectors?
In watch collecting circles the term “grail watch” is thrown about to describe a particular rare and high value vintage piece that is hugely coveted by collectors.
Some buyers will loosely use the term for any watch which they would like to have, but just happens to be out of their price range. For others it means a watch they have coveted (more more likely obsessed over) often for years, yet hardly ever seen in real life, let alone put it on their wrist.
If they got their hands on such a watch, they would never sell it. It’s the kind of watch they would pass on to their children, or take with them to the grave.
For some it’s an A. Lange & Söhne in stainless steel (below) – preferably a vintage model, but even something as recent as 2006 might do for the uninitiated. For others it might be a Zenith El Primero A386 from the late 1960s, or even an early Rolex submariner with a patina dial. Personally, I can see why those would make good choices. But there are many more that fit the bill. You might argue that it’s simply a matter of personal taste.
But then there are the ultimate “ Holy Grail” watches – those that set world records at auctions, and would be the crowning piece in any collection, no matter what your taste in timepieces is.
If you’re looking for a description of what such a watch would look like, Aurel Bacs is probably the man to ask. With a peerless record in consigning and selling the most important watches, and for record prices, both at Christie's and now in association with Phillips, he has very high standards.
Speaking about just such a “Holy Grail” watch, Bacs recently told famed watch blog Hodinkee:
“It’s pretty much the perfect storm in terms of vintage watches. What really gets us watch nerds excited is rarity, size, condition, provenance, and even wearability – this watch is the absolute out-performer in every one of these disciplines. If there is such a thing as a “holy grail” in collecting, this has to be one of the top candidates, if not the very best.”
He was talking about the Patek Philippe Reference 1518 (above) in stainless steel that recently sold in Geneva for a record-breaking $11 million.
Perhaps a watch is only worthy of the title 'grail watch' if there is a quest to discover and obtain it. During the recent Geneva auctions, when the Patek Philippe 1518 came up for sale, eight bidders went all out to get it. It was war – and in the end, there could only be one victor.
Once the asking price exceeded CHF 7 million, only two bidders remained. In the end, a private collector took the prize. It was dramatic, and it was the climax and the thrill of the sale that got everyone talking – not to mention the record-breaking price.
It’s hard to argue with Mr. Bacs. If you think about the original Holy Grail stories, you will realize that the grail was the object of a quest. Remember the old Indiana Jones movies? The grail was what all the fuss was about. The hero had to overcome obstacles, and risk his very life in order to find the elusive grail.
There is always a thrill when I find a vintage timepiece that has eluded me for some time. After the hunt is over, and the deal is done, there is nothing like the feeling you get when you put that watch on the wrist.
Whether you agree that the Patek Philippe 1518 is the “Holy Grail” or not - This watch, for the new owner at least, is the end of that quest.