Interview: Aurel Bacs

By A Collected Man

The term ‘influential’ is something that gets thrown around a lot these days, largely due to the birth of the ‘internet influencer’, with disproportionately large collections of followers being the reason for the attributed ‘influence’, however, there are very few people around that truly deserve such a term to be associated with their name. One individual who has earned his stripes in the real world, who will be familiar to many of our readers, is Aurel Bacs. Bacs, who began his career as a watch specialist with Sotheby’s, has worked up the ranks to become the single most important player in the watch-auction industry, breaking record after record, including having sold the most expensive wristwatch ever at auction. The charm and the enthusiasm of Mr. Bacs during a sale makes the auction an event, not entirely dissimilar to how Steve Jobs transformed the traditionally dreary tech presentation into something to be excited about attending. We flew to Geneva, to chat with Mr. Bacs about growing up in Zürich, his introductions to watch collecting, and the very special watch he will be selling next week in New York City.

 

Do you remember any of your earliest interactions with watches?

There are probably two or three that I can barely separate from each other. I believe it was in and around 1980, maybe the late 1970s, that I had a black watch which had been given to me by my parents. It was a sort of G-Shock looking, plastic thing, but it was an analogue display, rather than digital. It looked like some sort of Rambo-esque tool and it made me feel twice as strong when I was wearing it.

 

[laughs] What ever happened to it?

Well, after just a few days of wearing it, the buckle broke; well done plastic. So I put it in my pocket, and the next morning I was searching around for it, but couldn’t seem to find it anywhere. I realised that it was maybe still in the trouser pocket I left it in, but I couldn’t find those either. I asked my mother if she had seen it, to which she replied that she hadn’t. I continued to ask if she had maybe seen my trousers, to which she said, “yes, those dirty trousers are in the washing machine”.

 

Oh no…

I rushed to the washing machine only to discover a horrifying clacking sound, and that was the end of that watch. Not long after this, my father, who was already way into mechanical and vintage watches, approached me and said, “son…” in a sort of Sean Connery talking to his son Dr Jones tone, “son, it’s now the moment that you get a proper watch.”

 

A proper watch meaning mechanical?

Yes, a ‘proper’ watch, which he and my mother had decided to bestow upon me. In his mind, a ‘proper’ watch was an Omega or an IWC, a Jaeger LeCoultre, that type of thing, a round mechanical watch. We went to look in the windows of watch boutiques on Banhofstrasse in Zürich, and I remember thinking that everything looked old-fashioned.


 "The Casio Calculator watch was the height of fashion, so that was the dream. That’s what I wanted to own, because if you wore that, you were the coolest kid in school. Not to mention my plans for it to be the solution to my struggles in mathematics exams."


Nothing like your black Rambo watch…

Right, they were all round cased, three handed watches that I thought an old man would wear. At the time, the Casio Calculator watch was the height of fashion, so that was the dream. That’s what I wanted to own, because if you wore that, you were the coolest kid in school. Not to mention my plans for it to be the solution to my struggles in mathematics exams.

 

What did your parents have to say about that? 

They told me that they were offering me a real watch, and that this just wasn’t a real watch. They said it was cheap and that it wouldn’t last, that it would be outdated in six months and that there would be a cheaper, more powerful model in no time. It was a long discussion, borderline fight, in which I claimed that it was, in fact, a real watch, and that I must have it.

 

So…

I won the discussion. I got the watch. It broke within three weeks of the purchase, and a new model was released which was cheaper, better and faster. My thirst for digital and quartz watches was immediately cured forever, and I was fortunate in that my parents didn’t sanction me for the ill-made teenage decision. Later down the line, aged thirteen, they once again offered me a ‘proper’ watch and that was an automatic, stainless steel IWC.

 

Was it immediately clear to you, the difference between that and what you had previously thought was a real watch?

Absolutely, but between the toy and the IWC, I discovered mechanical watches by myself through a slightly different avenue. When I was a child, in Zürich, I wasn’t one of those kids who were blessed with, what we call, pocket-money, or a weekly allowance like many of my friends had. I would see them getting 30, 40, 50 Francs a week, which could afford you as many chocolates and gummi bears as your stomach could handle. My parents were fairly strict, not in an old-fashioned kind of way, but a more modern approach. They said, that if I wanted to buy gummi bears, I had to sweat for it through completing a set-menu of chores around the house. It was an important lesson, but I hated it at the time, because I would have to clean vast mirrors and windows, mow the lawn or clean the car for two or three Francs. When you sat down to figure-out exactly what it took to earn enough to buy gummi bears, suddenly they didn’t taste so sweet.

 

So in learning the true value of money and hard work, where did watches fit into the picture?

Well, my father’s passion for vintage watches had really accelerated by this point. On a weekly basis, he would scour antique markets, auctions, pawnbrokers… you name it. He would buy virtually whatever mechanical or vintage watch he could get his hands on, and would then meet up with a group of like-minded collectors to discuss what they had all bought.

 

Life before online…

Exactly, there was no community as there is today, no online, no literature, there was nothing. So they would meet, have a coffee and learn by doing, discovering models that they had never seen before. It was around this time that I had gone-along with my father to a pawnbroker, where he had picked up a watch for 250 Francs, to then sell it at one of the collectors' meetings for 350 Francs. I remember thinking, hang on, how can he have bought that for 250 to it then being offered at a collectors' meeting at 350 , making a profit of 100? No mowing the lawn, no cleaning the car, no polishing windows. A lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, well, if daddy can do it, so can I. 

 

 

[laughs] And what was the next step?

I went immediately to my piggy-bank, taking out around 30 Francs of hard-earned cash, followed my father along on one of his trips to the antiques store with the intention of buying a watch, to later sell at a profit.

 

Did you find anything worth buying?

I found a nice looking Tissot from the 1940s. Clean, attractive, value-for-money. I put it on my wrist and off we went to the collectors' meeting. Upon arrival, I casually rolled-up my sleeve, so that a collector might spot it on my wrist. I had already learned some of the tricks of the trade, so when a collector asked me if I would sell it, I told them that it wasn’t for sale; leading them to want it even more.

 
"I had already learned some of the tricks of the trade, so when a collector asked me if I would sell it, I told them that it wasn’t for sale; leading them to want it even more."


[laughs] Stellar tactic…

After a while, the guy said, “you know kid, I’d give you 45 Francs for it…” to which I would pretend to consider with anguish, only to enthusiastically say, “DONE”. My 30 Francs became 45 and I returned to the shop to buy a Seamaster or something a little higher up the ranks.

 

So the interest in trading and collecting watches started extremely early, did it diminish at any point?

No, I think it’s the one and only addiction that I have, to the full extent, in my life. The main reason I get anxious to return home from a holiday is because I get tired of looking at the same watch for three of four weeks. I need it. That’s why the Maldives is a nightmare for me, because there isn’t even a watch shop there to satisfy me. No collectors, nothing.

 

Do you think you were heavily influenced by your father's tastes?

I think everyone influences everyone, on some level. I’m sure my father was influenced by other collectors in turn. I think in society, we all influence one another without realising it, probably even watch companies amongst themselves are even influencing each other. We cannot escape the taste of the moment, but what I do know, is that with age I have grown more self-confident with my tastes. When I was a teenager, the measure was if the kids at school would think it was cool.

 

What was the first major purchase you made?

The first expensive acquisition was a stainless steel and gold Rolex Submariner with a blue dial, now, how posh is that today!

 

Did you buy it for any particular reason?

I don’t need an occasion to buy a watch. Waking up is an occasion to buy a watch. Just to see a watch for sale is an occasion to buy one. It’s really terrible, like the drug addict that needs a smoke, I need a new watch to get my fix. Fortunately that can be as simple as a new watch coming into Phillips for auction. It’s not necessarily about me owning it or wearing it, but more about me bringing it into my circle.


So, in a sense, your career was entirely shaped around your ‘addiction’…

[laughs] I think the more politically correct term would be to refer to it as a passion, otherwise people might start checking my arms for marks.

 

 

[laughs] And how did that then develop from a hobby into a career?

Well that’s a very good question, because at what point does a hobby become a profession? There are two responses that I find usually come-up. To some people, the thing you do most, per 24-hours, is your profession and the thing you do less is your hobby. In that instance, I have been in my profession since I was a teenager, because I spent more time on watches than I ever did studying or attending classes. Other people suggest that a profession is what pays the bills, and the hobby is for surplus, but I’ve always earned more with watches than I’ve spent on them.

 

That’s certainly a good thing then…

Whether it was paying for a ticket to a movie theatre, buying a girl a glass of champagne or buying a car, these things were always paid for with those benefits. But, when you’re only turning around 30 Francs or so in a week, it’s not really a business.

 

Had you always intended on building a career in the watch industry?

No, I studied law at university, with grandiose visions of myself making a case in front of a jury. But, one day, when thumbing through a copy of "Classic Uhren" magazine, remember print media? [laughs] I saw an advert from an auction house who were looking to hire a specialist for their European division. I had absolutely zero experience, in terms of what we call professional experience, so I hadn’t planned on applying. My mother was the one who convinced me, by saying that the worst-case scenario is that they say, “get lost boy, we can’t take you”. I prepared a resume which was the length of half-a-page, with one or two references from my trades and distinguished collectors, and amazingly, I got invited for an interview.

 

Wow…

I think it was the first time I had worn a suit and tie, when I attended that interview.

 

And how did it go?

It went well, and so I get invited for a second, a third, a fourth interview in Geneva, Zürich and London. In fact, that was the first time I had been to London, imagine how cool that was, aged 23 riding a double decker bus in a suit, feeling like some sort of businessman. And then in 1995 I get a call saying, “you’ve got the job”. I was dumbfounded, almost like becoming pregnant from kissing; not quite the way I had imagined it.

 
"That was the first time I had been to London, imagine how cool that was, aged 23 riding a double decker bus in a suit, feeling like some sort of businessman."


Presumably you accepted right away?

Well, no, because I had this huge dilemma about whether I wanted the job or not, as I hadn’t finished my studies. My friends would finally convince me, telling me that I would be a fool not to accept the offer and that I wouldn’t be able to get the job when I wanted it, and they were right. I still kind of thought that I would only accept it for six months, have a sniff around it, see what it was all about and then leave. But, life is what happens to you, while you make other plans.

 

How did you find the job?

I hated it.

 

[laughs] Really?

Yes, the corporate environment was something that I was not at all used to, with a boss who would boss you around and colleagues who would use their elbows to look better to superiors. It got to the point that I was thinking about quitting because of it, but a friend smartly challenged me by saying, “you’re not a quitter, are you?”, to which I of course replied, “no”. I was told that I was absolutely useless at that job.

 

That seems a little harsh on a 23 year old…

I thank them for it today, because they taught me how to work. They taught me discipline and the importance of deadlines, probably for the first time in my life. On balance, I think it had a very positive impact on my life.

 

Which auction house was this?

This was Sotheby’s. I worked there from 1995 until 2000.

 

Isn’t that when you began working with Phillips for the first time?

Well, ish, I actually joined Simon De Pury in Luxembourg at a brokerage firm. I was done with auctions, done with the crazy deadlines, done with photographing 250 watches, I was done, done, done. I was thrilled, because at this firm, it would  just be five great watches per month, rather than fifty average ones. Little did I know, without any prompt, Simon De Pury merged with Phillips, and I found myself, once again, back into the auction world.

 

 

For how long did you remain with Phillips the first time?

Livia and I left in early 2003.

 

And what was the reason for departing so soon?

It was an interesting period of turmoil for the industry back then, and some people were not quite realising the potential value of the watch department. I suddenly had new people that I hadn’t met before, telling me how it was going to be done, and that I needed to let certain people go, as part of their plan to re-structure. I told them that if they wanted to do that, they should, but not with me.

 

We heard that the department was close to ceasing to exist at that point in time…

Well, that was the consequence of our departure [laughs].

 

What was the first auction under the Phillips banner like?

The first auction was in November, 2001, and it was set to be a blockbuster sale with incredible watches. Livia and I were in the office in September, in the lead-up to the auction, and then the 9/11 attack occurred. I remember just looking at Livia and saying, “this is the end of the world, as we know it, and this is the end of watch collecting, as we know it”. That million dollar Patek Philippe, amidst serious global concerns suddenly just becomes another gold watch.


"I remember just looking at Livia and saying, “this is the end of the world, as we know it, and this is the end of watch collecting, as we know it”."


Did it have a dramatic impact on the sale?

Well, little did I anticipate the resilience of society and the watch-market because, just two months later, we achieved a world-record with the sale of that watch, becoming the most expensive wristwatch ever auctioned, at the tender age of 30.

 

Wow, which reference was it?

It was a unique reference 1591 perpetual calendar which belonged to Marshal Tito, and today it can be seen in a private museum not far from here in Geneva. 

 

So you and Livia depart Phillips in 2003, how did that result in you both working for Christies?

After we tendered our resignations to Simon De Pury, with whom we remain good friends to this day, we walked out of the office and almost immediately bumped into an acquaintance of ours, who asked why we were both looking so stressed. After we told him that we had resigned, he just said, “Oh really, that’s interesting.”

 

What did he mean by that?

Well, half an hour later, François Curiel of Christies calls me and says, [affecting a heavy French accent} “Aurel, if you are available, maybe we should meet for a coffee”. So we meet at his house for a coffee and I think within about half-an-hour, we had drawn the pillars of our understanding on a napkin. He realised very quickly that I wasn’t going to be a nine-to-five chap who could be squeezed into the corporate box. I told him that I would not accept, unless there were certain freedoms that would allow me to be innovative. I asked him for as much freedom as he could possibly allow me, within the structure, and he said. “deal”.

 

 

How big of a challenge was turning it around?

Well, their turnover was around $7,000,000 annually, which, when you put it into today’s perspective, there are single watches selling for that amount. The business was about to fall into a coma. We proceeded to grow that business, over the course of a decade, to an annual turnover of $130,000,000.

 

Wow, and how was working with François Curiel during those years?

I must say, I was very fortunate with the bosses I had over the years, because each of them shaped me positively at just the right moment. My first boss, Daryn Schnipper taught me how to work. My second boss, Simon De Pury, taught me how to be an artist or how to be innovative. My third, François Curiel, taught me that things can always be done better; even if they are already very good. I’m now working along-side Ed Dolman, which has taught me a lot about leadership, about vision and trust. I’m so deeply grateful to each of them.

 

What do you think is different about your approach that turns these businesses around? Were they all missing something?

I don’t think they personally were missing anything, but they are big companies with thousands of staff, CEOs, chairmen, presidents, where certain structures are necessary. I’m not an outlaw, you don’t see me putting my feet up on the table, drinking a whisky in the office. I just cannot have an idea and not immediately implement it, so when I’m faced with the response of, “it can’t be done”, mainly because they’re too lazy to try, or “lets schedule a meeting in 6 weeks to discuss it”, I can’t have that. In a nutshell, if I have an idea, I have to implement it within the hour.

 
"I'm not an outlaw, you don’t see me putting my feet up on the table, drinking a whisky in the office."


So your biggest gripe with the corporate environment would be bureaucracy?

Oh yes, protocol, bureaucracy, memos…

 

To what degree do you think the successes of these businesses after your involvement can be attributed to you personally?

I’d really prefer you posed that question to anyone but me. We’ve taken on our fourth department and in every instance, we have taken that business from being number three, number four, to market leader after a couple of years. That seems a funny pattern. I don’t know, I think it’s because of Livia.

 

How so?

Well, didn’t everyone say that Hillary Clinton was the one who made Bill become president?

 

[laughs] Interesting…

But in all seriousness, the passion and the appetite, mixed with the true love of watches and watch collectors alike, teamed with some competitiveness can make for quite a fascinating mix.

 

 

Your time with Christies comes to an end after how long?

A decade, we resigned in the summer of 2013.

 

And what was the plan?

We had absolutely no plan. All we knew was that ten years was enough. We had achieved every possible record and we were satisfied, so we felt that it was time for someone else to take the reins.

 

So, how did discussions about your return to Phillips begin?

It was the 1st of January 2014, and we had absolutely nothing to do. We were two jobless watch specialists with a mortgage and a seven-year-old at school. We were reading, playing tennis, not much. But here and there we would receive phone calls from collectors asking if we could sell this, check this, check that, and they wanted to pay us for our time. In some cases, this just wasn’t possible, I mean, imagine what my tax accountant would have said if I accepted $1M into my family bank account for selling a 2499, and then the day after $950,000 is wired out again; they would have thought I was part of the Cali Cartel or something.

 

What did you do?

This lead to us incorporating a company, to deal with these requests; so we could send an invoice out here and there. In June of the same year, myself and Livia went to incorporate the company and we were asked what the business name was. We said, “oh shoot, we didn’t think of that, a name, right.” We more or less thought of it on the spot, and the rest is history.

 

So then you’re fulfilling requests here and there, and this got the attention of Phillips?

Well, one day in 2014 I get a phone call from Ed Dolman, who was previously the CEO and Chairman of Christies, and he told me that he would be taking the CEO and Chairman role at Phillips, and that he wanted me to join him there. My immediate reaction was “forget about it”. I was done with corporate. I had done it three times and do you really need to do the fourth? It’s sort of like, you’ve done three Indiana Jones’, do you really need the fourth? It’s bound to fail, and then everyone remembers you for having failed the last time, forgetting all about the first few which were good.

 

So you had some serious hesitation about accepting the role?

A very serious hesitation. The market has become more and more competitive over the years, and the last thing we wanted, was to be back into the corporate rhythm. Ed came back to us, saying that he had the solution. He told us that we could remain as Bacs & Russo, and that we could show up to the office wearing a t-shirt and shorts for all he cared...obviously not literally. We didn’t have to report to anyone, and we should operate as if it were our own company, it was the spirit of a partnership based on trust and mutual respect but obviously I speak to Ed before taking an important decision.

 

Wow, that’s an amazing offer…

He continued, by saying that all they ask is to grow the department from scratch, by suggesting who to hire, where to hold auction, what consignments to accept and to make a catalogue look the way it should in this day and age. I thought, wow, you’ve got independence, you’ve got the backing of an auction house with accounts, legal, finance, marketing. It was the best of both worlds.

 

The hesitation must have faded rather quickly after that?

Well, no, you can ask Ed Dolman about that; we were quite tough on one another in our negotiations.

 

In that first sale with Phillips, were there any records broken?

Oh yes, I don’t think there has been a single Phillips sale anywhere since 2014 where we haven’t broken records.

 
"With these watches that we consign, a truly great watch sort of sings to me, and I say, what are you saying, put it to my ear and it says. “Take me, I’m going to do well at auction” [laughs]."


To what degree is that planned for, is it part of the marketing strategy? It just seems like there is such consistency…

So consistent and yet so inconsistent elsewhere. This year and last, there were about elven or twelve watches selling at auction around the globe for over a million dollars. Funnily enough, all of them were at Phillips - wow. I don’t mind if happening, of course, quite the contrary, but the market is strong and the soil is there to make great auctions. The real challenge is finding suitable property to sell, because if you could have a 50ct vivid fancy blue diamond, it would naturally achieve a world record. With these watches that we consign, a truly great watch sort of sings to me, and I say, what are you saying, put it to my ear and it says. “take me, I’m going to do well at auction” [laughs].

 

We’re getting the sense that records are an inevitability because of the level of pieces that you have access to, so it’s less of a consideration and more a consequence of you demanding the best of the best…

Correct. I’ve learned to divide the crop, and in doing so, you develop a sense for quality. If you mean well by your clients, by only offering and advising the very best, they will probably come back to you when they want to sell, and most of the world-record holding watches are not watches I have sold for the first time. If you have done a good job selling the piece before, they will more than likely use the same channel.

 

Do you feel a sense of pressure around records?

No. Having sold the most expensive wristwatch in the world, the most expensive Rolex and countless others, I’m very fine. You read online, for example, all these bloggers talking about what the Paul Newman Daytona might achieve, $5M, $6M, $10M, and the most valuable watch any of them have held in their hands is two thousand dollars; I don’t think these are the people who put pressure on me. I’m not the market, I’m just the auctioneer, so the only pressure that exists, is the pressure I put on myself. I put a value on each piece, and it bothers me if it sells below what I think it should, regardless of the sum of money we’re talking about. Anything that is sold under value itches me.

 

What is it that bothers you?

Well, it’s my job to sell things for the right value. I’m not very forgiving with myself.

 

 

Let’s talk about Paul Newman’s ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona.

Let’s.

 

How did this happen?

A friend of a friend of a friend of the owner called me and said, “Hey, I know someone who has Paul Newman’s ‘Paul Newman.” I said, “do you mean you know someone who has a ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona?”, they said, “No, THE ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona”.

 

What was your reaction?

Well, I’m thinking, really? How many times did the world think they had found the Amber Room, which vanished at the end of WW II. Everyone is looking for this watch, so why should it just fall into my lap so easily. My instinct to tell the guy to sod-off was curbed, as the thought of seeing this watch on the cover of another auction house’s catalogue would have been all too much. I was forced to immediately pay this piece 150% of my attention. I flew out to meet them, and I discover that it really is the Amber Room of Horology. THE ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona.


"I was forced to immediately pay this piece 150% of my attention. I flew out to meet them, and I discover that it really is the Amber Room of Horology. THE ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona."


Were any other auction houses in consideration?

Not to my knowledge. It was incredibly humbling to discover that a collector had told the owners that there was only one person, and one auction house that could do the job properly, and that person says your name. How humbling is that.

 

Crazy…

It’s crazy.

 

What is it about this watch that you think connects with people so emotionally?

What I’ve learned over the past months is that Paul Newman is something different to each person you ask. And by the way, there are people out there who just don’t understand the hype at all. To some, Paul Newman was the best looking man of the 20th Century, to others he was the most wonderful actor, to others, the coolest racing-driver, the most generous philanthropist. I mean, the man has donated over a billion dollars with Newman’s Own. To some, he’s one of these things, to others, he’s all of it. Then comes the watch.

 

Yes, the watch…

Rolex back in the day, was just another steel sports watch manufacturer. Along with Certina, Longines, IWC, Universal Geneve, Zenith, Movado, Eterna. In 1984, when he gave the watch to his daughters long-term boyfriend, James Cox, the watch would have had a value of around 300-400 USD. It’s the type of thing that would have appeared in the back of a Christies catalogue with a black and white picture; nothing special.

 

Right…

Then, Paul Newman is seen wearing this configuration in the famous picture that we’ve all seen. Collectors were suddenly requesting in boutiques for the one Paul Newman wears, with the exotic dial and the different numbers. The collectors community bestowed the name upon the piece, because there was never any involvement from Rolex, no contracts, no payments, no nothing. Suddenly, the Daytona is cool. When the new automatic version is released, there are waiting lists and it’s unavailable to buy right away. The previous model, the 6263 or 6265 in the mid to late 1980s, I remember buying those at a 15% discount, because they couldn’t give them away.

 

Wow…

Then, because suddenly this steel Rolex sports watch is cool, all things Rolex becomes cool, then anything sports or tool watch is cool, with collectors for Blancpain 50 Fathoms or IWC Ingenieur appearing. It was the Adam and Eve moment of wristwatch collecting, beyond haute horology de Geneve - Patek Philippe perpetual, AP jump-hour, they were the flavour of the 80s previously.

 

There has been some discussion about where the watch might end-up. Be it with a watch collector we know, or someone entirely different. What’s your take on that?

It’s absolutely possible that the final buyer is someone whom, we in the watch industry, have never met before. In the recent case of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ Cartier Tank, I read that it had gone to a lady by the name of Kim Kardashian. I’m fairly certain Miss Kardashian wasn’t a collector of Cartier before that day. [laughs] But Jacqueline was possibly the style-icon of the 20th Century, so it’s understandable. In the case of Paul Newman, he’s a friend of Hollywood, a friend of racing, so anything can happen.

 

On a separate, and final note. We wondered, more broadly speaking, what you think it is about watches that people connect with so emotionally. There seems to be more of a deeply-rooted connection between watch collectors and their watches, by comparison to any other typically collected item…

Watches are hugely emotional. Vintage watches, even more so. They tell a story, and they’re unique. They’re like human beings, you may dislike someone, but they tell a story. You may have a scar on your forehead, which will be there forever, and it tells a part of your story. The watch is something incredibly intimate, I mean, if you think, how many things are touching your skin right now? Your socks, your underwear, your shirt…

Right…

It’s as close as it can be to you. It goes with you into the most intimate of moments, your meetings, your dates, your bedroom. It sleeps next to you, it travels with you. It’s an extraordinary companion. It’s everything, it’s aesthetics, it’s emotion, it’s design, it’s life.

 

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