Interview: Phillip Toledano

By Louis Cheslaw for A Collected Man

Phillip Toledano’s collectors zeal is matched only by a classically British self-deprecation. “This fussy thing”, he’ll say about the exquisite dial on his 1950s Rolex. “All that shit”, about the chairs and lights he’s hoping to start acquiring. It’s a combination that makes spending an afternoon among his beloved possessions – of watches, cars, even spacesuits – so downright fun.

As family puppy Mr Frumples padded along behind us (“He’s a bit neurotic, but that works for New York”), A Collected Man had the honour on a wintry New York day to find out what’s on the mind of the man, also known as Mr. Enthusiast, who says he “just wants to know what's happening wherever I go.”


We’re here in your expansive Chinatown apartment. Why do you live here?

I’ve always liked it here. Especially because even though it's become fashionable, it's still a real area. It might be the only place in Manhattan where you can still get a good meal for five dollars. I travel a lot less than I used to, because I'm busy here working on all my strange ideas, and I like that I'm able to spend my time in an area that’s still semi-normal.


Are you travelling at all these days?

Well, I was meant to be on my way to the Philippines with the family, but we cancelled it because it feels unwise with the corona-extravaganza. No-one likes the Coronavirus.


And the family is?

My wife, and my urchin, Lulu Marmalade. We thought she might grow up to hate it, but she actually likes the name.


New York City kids need names like that.

Yes, exactly. 


So, to begin for those who don’t know you yet. What do you do?

I’m an artist. Currently, I’m working on two book projects. One series on the amazing helmets of Vietnam fighter pilots, who designed them all themselves in the popular styles of the era they were in – Pop Art, Sol Hewitt, etc.– but also using reflective tape so that if they ditched in the water at night, the helicopters could find them. Then the other project is a photographic creation of the idea of the "Deep State" as if it was a real place, a real American state, where all the paranoia and conspiracy theories of the right-wing are real. You’ve got Hillary Clinton's pizza parlour, a government centre for destroying people’s guns...


Where did that idea come from?

When I hear Trump speak, it feels like I live in a completely different world to him and his followers. I wanted to make their world real to feel what that's like. So this is going to be a road trip through their state. 

 

Phil in front of Lancia 'Bastarda'

 

You grew up in London. Did British photographers inspire your early work?

One. I loved Don McCullin. I always wanted to be a combat photographer and photojournalist.


How has Instagram, where you’re increasingly popular, changed your work?

For one thing, a lot of people know me there as Mister Enthusiast. I might legally change my name to it, including the @ sign. The biggest thing for me is I can use it to preview the dumb concepts on my mind and see if people like it, and if they can help. If you read the news all the time you think the world is utterly miserable but when you talk to people on Instagram there's always someone willing to help.  


We know you, of course, for your love of watches. Is there a collecting philosophy behind your trove?

Years ago, when I was working in advertising, I had a boss tell me I was a “pathological contrarian.” And he was so right! Sometimes it's to my detriment, but I have always looked in directions that others aren’t. For example, I collect quartz watches. Everyone else has fallen into a habit of not collecting them, and of course I understand the beauty of intricate movements, but I feel that people who collect tend to move in shoals, like fish. 


And you’re more of a lone ranger.

Well, what's the point of collecting things you see everyone wearing? When you go to the watch sausage parties, everyone’s got Daytonas and Submariners, and they’re pouring all over them. To me, collecting is an expression of creativity. If you're going to spend all that time working towards getting something, you should try and say something new... in my opinion.


You’ve also said that “keep moving forward” is another philosophy of yours.   You collect cars and watches – both things that rely on movement, too. Is that why you collect them?

I think that philosophy of mine is reflecting in my collecting, but more in the way I collect, not what. I go through phases. People make fun of me, they say “You’re enthusiastic now, but you’ll be selling in two weeks.” But it’s not that my enthusiasm is fake, it’s just that it burns very quickly in me. What I love about watches is there are endless new pockets of interest to discover.

 

Phil's white gold Patek Philippe Beta 21 from the '70s

 

And it’s nice that the value holds if you want to sell.

That's the theory, but not always the case with what I choose to collect! Sometimes I'm too ahead for my own good. I'd be surprised if my 1970s Patek collection goes anywhere. 


You’ve said you have an internal tuning fork about what you like. Is it purely visual or tactile too?

It has to be visual. The funny thing about collecting cars and watches is you don't get to see anything until you've bought it. It’s not like you’re out in the wild and shops and people have the item you have your eye on. So it's always design for me. 


And then you feel the satisfaction once it arrives?

Sometimes not! Sometimes you open the box and think “Fuck. This is a disaster.” You know immediately how you feel.


Where do you feel it in the body?

The gut. 


And the wallet. 

Definitely the wallet! You immediately think, "How will I sell this thing?"

 

"Years ago, when I was working in advertising, I had a boss tell me I was a 'pathological contrarian.' And he was so right!"


So let’s dig into your collection. How has your love of cars progressed?

The first car I bought of interest was a Volvo P1800. It was beautiful. Then I had a 1991 Porsche C1, silver, that was so much fun. Then after my Dad died, I bought my first serious car, a Ferrari 246 Dino GT in dark blue. 

Was his death related to your purchase?

Yes. I bought it the day after he died, actually. It was one of those cliché "life is short" things. I bought that, and suddenly I was like “Wait a minute, I can buy cars!”

 

Uh oh.

Ha. Listen, they always say “Buy the things you love, so if you get stuck with them, at least you love it.” 

 

You keep most of your cars in New Jersey. Which are here in Chinatown?

It's just the Bastarda, from Japan! [ Toledano’s name for his Lancia ] That's my daily. 

 

Why do you call it that?

Because it's a total hooligan car–and I did some stuff to make it extra hooligan-y. I stuck the name on the back, made keyrings. I changed the colour of it to a very contemporary colour too which caused a stir on my Instagram.

 

The dashboard of Phil's Lancia 'Bastarda'

"It's a total hooligan car–and I did some stuff to make it extra hooligan-y."

 

Did you go to Japan looking for it?

No, I bought it sight unseen. That's the idiot that I am. 


It must have been a fun day to go pick it up from the ship.

Semi-fun. The port is in Elizabeth, New York. They've got this amazing scam. You've got to go to this store and buy a $10 high-visibility vest, that costs 50 cents anywhere else, and you have to wear it while you're waiting in the office for your car to arrive. They say it's a Union Rule. When the car arrived it was all fucked up. Anyway, now, I only drive with that vest on… 


You've joked that you collect “ugly cars.”

Yeah. I used to collect beautiful cars from the 1960s and early 1970s. I had a Ferrari, a Lancia Flaminia, and one day I went to test drive this BMW M1 and it just blew me away. I started collecting Group B–rally cars from the 80s–because I really fell in love with the idea of driving cars that were designed for a reason other than just looking good.

 

"It has to be visual. The funny thing about collecting cars and watches is you don't get to see anything until you've bought it."

 

Do you have rival collectors in the ugly car space?

No. Generally speaking, the people who collect this stuff have way more money than me. I’m always the guy who's like “Oh shit, you got that. Well done!”

 

How did you add watch collecting to your car love?

I sold a car to Ben Clymer, and we became friendly. I’d always resisted watches because everyone who collects cars collects watches… but then there I was, hooked in. We just were talking a lot, and I guess because of his proximity to watches they became closer to me. 

 

Phil taking us through his collection of watches

A few of Phil's watches

 

What was the first you bought?

A Breitling Navitimer that was a crappy example. I knew nothing about watches being polished, etc. 


How would you summarize your collection now?

1940s and 50s Rolexes, 1930s and 1940s Italian watches, and then watches from the 1970s. 


What would you advise a new collector to look for?

Right now, I'd recommend–especially to anyone looking for a tank–to look at the brand Alpina Gruen. They use the same movement as the one in the Rolex Prince, but they're super rare and I think incredibly beautiful. They're hard to find, but they’re $3-4,000. 

 

"I started collecting Group B – rally cars from the 80s – because I really fell in love with the idea of driving cars that were designed for a reason other than just looking good."


And your favourite watch in your collection right now?

At the moment, it’s my 1970s Pateks. They stand upright, they're that hefty. But this Eberhard is probably the coolest thing I own, because of the inscription on the back.


What does it say?

In Italian, it says ‘The 527th Machine Gun Company gives this to their captain’, with the initials AO, May 1936. AO is Africa Orientale–East Africa. What was Italy doing in East Africa in 1936? It was invading Ethiopia. Then, there are the roman numerals 14 after it, because when Mussolini came to power he insisted everyone write how many years he'd been in power on every new thing.

An unusual Alpina Gruen from the 1930s

Two Seiko Quartz chronographs, designed by Giugiaro, who also designed the BMW M1 that Phil owns

 

That’s amazing. How long do you allow yourself to be seduced by something before you pull the trigger on a purchase?

It takes a matter of days! I do research, look at pictures, and then just start generally poking around. 


You talk about seeking cars or watches that are unique. Is anything in the collection more mainstream? 

I have this Rolex Sub, from the beginning of that era. But they were still figuring out the design language, so it's a thin case, the crown is exposed, and I love the fact that it's kind of fucked up. The dial's not perfect, and I like that. It’s a super mainstream watch, but I like that this was the trial period.


And the most surprising watch in your collection?

It might be this Ressence watch, which has an oil-filled dial for divers. There’s no parallax distortion at all. It’s an amazing thing. And I love the velcro straps.


And now, you’re designing your own Rolexes. 

The story is, I became very into the idea of how I could make my watches mine. I knew some people engrave Rolexes, the case and the band, and I was looking at that and thought well, I admire the engraving but I want there to be more of a concept behind the change I make.


So what came next?

I thought, what if you design a dial that is specifically a reference to the function of the watch? So if you have a Rolex Submariner, an underwater-themed dial. An Air-King, an aviation-themed dial. For two years I was trying to find an engraver, and nobody was interested. Finally, I found Johnny (@kingnerd) and he did this, inspired by comic books and ideas from Jules Verne covers. 


Now that you’re transgressing from collector to creator, can people purchase your work? 

Yes, but we're going to treat it like art. We’re going to release six of these dials and never repeat the design. 

 

Talking us through his collaboration with King Nerd

The Mister Enthusiast x King Nerd Rolex Submariner

 

Do any watches of the watches you own have personal memories involved?

Sadly no, they're not really connected to any memories other than my current obsessions. My watch love began after all the major events happened! Children, marriage...


And when it comes to your cameras. Are you as passionate about the differences between those?

Funnily enough, I have no interest in the technical aspect of photography. It’s about three things: the idea, the light, and how you frame it. Paying thousands for a Leica is not going to make you a better photographer.


If your daughter doesn’t want the watches, will your collection be donated?

That's very nice of you to say, but I don't think I have enough to donate the Toledano collection! There are a lot of collectors who have way more important, beautiful stuff than I do. The only dream is to retire to a beautiful village in Portugal with the family.

 

A few more watches from Phil's collection

Another treasured possession: a spacesuit

 

That’s a great one. And beyond watches and cars, what else might you start collecting?

Well, I've always loved furniture, lights, chairs…


You wouldn't be Mr Enthusiast if there wasn’t more to come.

It's true! When I picked that name it seemed haphazard but I'm so enthusiastic about everything, and there's nothing I won't be curious about. It sounds pompous, but I'm so interested in stuff. What I find really refreshing is how I'm always surprised. Two years ago I would never have thought I'd like what I’m currently looking for, and now I’m obsessed with it. I like being surprised by my earlier reluctance to like something. 


And before we go, it makes me anxious to think you’ve got a bunch of incredible cars sitting so far away in Jersey. How often do you go and check on them?

Never. I just assume everything's going to be ok. Really, that’s my general M.O. in everything.

 

Thank you to Phil for taking the time to sit down with us



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