Behind The Block
Brian Cheong 
Perazzi in action at the Hong Kong Watch Auction in November last year

When he joined the Phillips’ offices in Hong Kong in November last year, Thomas Perazzi literally hit the ground running as the auction house established by Harry Phillips in London in 1796 was about to hold the Hong Kong Watch Auction: Five.

That auction, featuring 167 timepieces, took in nearly HK$110 mil (about RM55 mil), the highest sale total for any watch auction held in Asia last year. It attracted collectors from 44 countries across six continents, including over 300 online bidders.

Patek Philippe Ref. 2523 fetched RM11 mil, a record for a wristwatch sold at an auction in Asia

The highest bid went to Patek Phillipe Ref. 2523, which sold for HK22.3 mil (RM11 mil), a new record for a wristwatch sold at an auction in Asia ever. (Last year in New York, Phillips also made headlines when it managed to acquire the Rolex Daytona that belonged to Paul Newman, and it sold for a record-breaking US$17.8 mil or RM69 mil, the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at an auction.)

Clearly, the appetite for collectible watches is great, and in Asia, it seems to be growing bigger. “The Asian market is due for another growth spurt,” Perazzi said in an email interview. “Buying in Asia now represents over a quarter of all the watch sales at Phillips.”

The former head of Christie’s European Watch Department in Geneva believes that the recent success of the Hong Kong auction is reflective of this optimism. “There has been a steady growth in spend from Asian buyers since our inaugural auction of watches in Hong Kong in 2015 (the same year that Phillips opened its Asian headquarters in Hong Kong.) We achieved the highest sale total for any watch auction in Asia for three consecutive years.”

Responsible for sourcing watches, strengthening Phillips’ active client base and nurturing new clients, Perazzi, 37, works closely with senior consultants Aurel Bacs and Livia Russo who established Phillips in Association with Bacs and Russo, the watch department of Phillips, in 2014.

In terms of consignments, he strives for a balance between contemporary and vintage watches. “Watches from smaller manufactures that are just as rare and important need to be better represented and supported in the region,” he said.

What qualifies a watch as important? “Each watch is unique and must be valued on its own merit. There are general considerations to determine the value of a watch such as brand recognition, rarity, provenance, condition and quality,” he explained.

As for Asians’ buying behaviour, Perazzi observed a good mix of brand loyalty and savvy. “There are those loyal to brands and there are collectors who look beyond brands. Asian watch collectors always go for the best of different categories of watches. We’ve already seen great enthusiasm for blue chip vintage and contemporary examples from Patek Philippe and Rolex as well as independent players like Greubel Forsey and Philippe Dufour.”

Considered one of the earliest independent watchmakers of the 20th century, Philippe Dufour’s ‘Duality’ with a double escapement was sold to an Asian private collector last year for US$915,000 (RM3.6 mil), the highest price ever achieved for the brand. Only nine were made, and the one that went on the block was the first to be created by the brand founder himself.

Perazzi believed that Phillips has a role to play in providing collectors access to scholarship and guidance on watches, especially those produced by independent watchmakers.

“There’s no substitute for first-hand exposure at auction previews, fairs and conferences to inform your eye and taste as well as develop your interest widely. Independent watchmakers like Richard Mille often produce ultra-modern watches that combine cutting-edge material with high-end traditional watchmaking,” he said. “Mille’s revolutionary designs, technical breakthroughs and exceptional hand-finishing excite even the most discriminating collectors.”

Phillips leveraged on years of experience to tailor and curate auctions for Asia. “For example, we were especially pleased to have been consigned a Patek Philippe five-minute repeater chronograph pocket watch that was gifted by Jamsetji N Tata to James Morris, the architect of Esplanade House in Mumbai. The watch attracted significant interest from collectors in India and sold for seven times its estimate. It was evident that with our massive network, we’re able to secure representative timepieces that truly resonate with the taste of collectors across Asia.”

This Patek Philippe pocket watch’s connection to the Esplanade House in Mumbai resonated with Indian collectors

According to Perazzi, Patek Philippe and Rolex often do well at auctions because their watches are always well made. “Their impeccable quality is drawing interest from Asian collectors at a rapid pace. Patek Phillipe, for instance, has been consistently surprising its clientele with superbly crafted timepieces fitted with the most prestigious complications.”

“Then there is Rolex that is coveted for its innovations such as the Oyster case, reputed for being the world’s first water-resistant and dustproof watch case, and the Perpetual model, the first reliable self-winding wristwatch.”

When he first joined the auction industry in his 20s, Perazzi was posted to Hong Kong for a few months. He said that he is happy to be back. “It’s a privilege to offer some of the rarest timepieces in the world. The discovery, the handling and the dealing of these watches continue to be a thrill. I also enjoy conversing with collectors about family heirlooms or the contemporary pieces that sparked their interest. The potential of discovery each day keeps the excitement and passion alive.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.