Since March 2009, the Bank of England base rate has been at or below 0.5%. Currently it sits at a paltry 0.25%. It is a similar story in the US although the rate has been creeping up more or less in line with the bottoming out of the UK interest rates. Currently, the US rate sits at 1.25%. What relevance does this have for those of us who find ourselves interested in vintage watches? Well, in the absence of conventional options likely to yield some sort of investment return, speculators appear to have turned their attention on all sorts of alternative areas for investment, amongst which, the vintage watch market. At the upper end of the market, vintage Rolex sports watches have shot through the ceiling in value, pricing out all but the deepest of pocket. But as we shall see below, it is not just the higher end that is seeing such spectacular inflationary growth.
The development of my interest in horology, watchmaking and in particular vintage Seiko watches dates from early 2008 and since then, it would not be unreasonable to expect values of sought-after watches to have risen. In 2008 you could buy a very nice Seiko 6105-8110 for about $500 to $600. Of course you could pay more than that for really mint examples, but $600 could buy you something really very nice. The less celebrated models were considerably cheaper: the automatic 6139 and 6138 chronographs very good value, not least because of the perceived difficulty in getting hold of replacement chronograph wheels – the Achilles heel of those models. I didn’t have a particularly good handle on the value of vintage Grand Seiko’s at the time because I was not in the market then, but they were still a well kept secret on the world market and difficult to source at the time because of the relatively closed off nature of the domestic auction site, Yahoo Japan.
Since then, a myriad of proxy buyer services have sprung up and it is much easier for outsiders to penetrate into the Japanese market. This additional competition coupled with the low world wide interest rates driving speculators to sniff out alternative opportunities, has driven up prices, with a noticeable acceleration in the past year or so.
So, let’s take a look at some recent completed auctions on Yahoo Japan, to get our eye in a little and see to what extent my impression is backed up by the reality of the market place. Let’s start with that perennial favourite, a mid-1970’s Seiko 6105-8110.
I can’t make out the date from the serial number on the case back but it looks like a mid-70’s example, possibly from 1975, and is in pretty good shape (as far as you can tell from the miserably small photos). The dial, hands and bezel are all original and importantly the dial is very clean indeed.
The exterior is not entirely free from wear but this looks like an excellent watch and the eventual closing price of the auction reflects that. 121 bids driving the final sale price to ¥142000. An international buyer will have to pay proxy service fees on top of that as well as both domestic and international postage. EU buyers will have to fork out an additional 20% in VAT. So for a UK buyer, that ¥142,000 purchase price will translate eventually to a total of about £1300. A US buyer won’t have to stump up the same sort of consumption tax as a European buyer and so, let’s say something like $1430. That’s comfortably more than double my 2008 reference point in Dollar terms for a US buyer. Let’s not forget though that at the beginning of 2008, the Pound could buy close to 2 US Dollars and so from the perspective of a UK buyer, the inflation is closer 400%. This all presumes of course that the watch is fit for purpose. I always assume when I buy from Yahoo (or indeed Ebay) that it will not be. For me, that’s no big deal because I can service it myself but most buyers won’t be in that position and will have to fork out at least another couple of hundred (£/$) for a service if they intend to use the watch.
Does all of this mean that 6105’s are no longer affordable? Well, no – it just means you have to work harder to find one that hasn’t attracted quite so much attention. The watch described above was correctly identified in the auction title, which means that searches for ‘6105’ will pick it up easily. It is not uncommon for watches to be poorly identified and these will tend not to attract so many bidders and can fetch much less. To illustrate that point in part, here is one from 1976 that sold in the same week for ¥60,888.
No mention of the model in the auction title but it does appear in the description. Admittedly, this is not as clean an example but it is all original and the dial looks good, marred only by a couple of spots on the lume of the 9 marker.
My interest in these classic Seiko 150m diver’s watches is mostly spent and I would never pay this much for one in this condition, but the market rules and there are plenty of folk out there who will.
Before moving on from the 6105, it is worth taking a look at the earlier version, made between 1968 and 1970 and to my mind, the nicer of the two (although I suspect I may be in a minority in that opinion). In shifting to the 6105-8000 we also consider an example whose dial shows the passing of time much more obviously than the two above but is otherwise in excellent original condition.
This one dates from 1968 and is well described in the accompanying text. Importantly, the bezel looks great and the dial, although infected with the dreaded fungal lurgy, would probably clean up very nicely.
64 bidders and a final price of ¥75,888 looks about right I guess, but still seems pricey given the additional expenses that would be required to sort out the dial and service the movement. Still, you pays your money and takes your choice.
Let’s move onto something a bit more interesting. How about a black dialed one-button chronograph from, I would guess, 1964.
Highly desirable, historically significant and, with the black dial, somewhat rarer than some of the other variants. The only slightly disturbing aspect of this auction is that there are no shots of the case back but two with the case back removed.
Still, 32 bidders and a final price of ¥62,555. This looks like a pretty keen price to me because the plastic bezel is worn and the pusher corroded, both of which, either nearly impossible to source (the bezel) or difficult (the pusher).
While we are on the subject of the one-button chronograph, how about this one?
Anyone fancy a vintage Grand Seiko? The good news is that there is plenty to choose from with prices ranging from around ¥30000 for below the radar auctions of high beat 56 or 61 series GS models, all the way up to ¥300000 plus for the first generation 3180 hand wind models. A representative sample might be something like this one: a well-described 6145-8000 from 1969.
This looks like a straightforward example, some softened case lines but probably from wear rather than polishing. The gold medallion is intact and in excellent shape and the dial looks very clean. The fact that it is on an awful stretchy mesh bracelet adds confidence that this is an honest watch.
Only 16 bids and yet it still makes ¥88,500. I would not pay anywhere near this for a watch in this condition but clearly at least two other individuals felt it worth battling out for at this price point. Before we move on, it is worth pausing to note another auction that completed the same week for a 6146-8000 – identical to the first watch but with the addition of a day complication.
This one did not have the model number in the auction title but did contain the important terms, ‘GS’ and ‘high beat’ and attracted 31 bids to limp to a final auction price of ¥31,100. The case on this one looks sharper than the previous example but the dial a little dirty at its periphery so maybe this put off potential buyers. I reckon this was a very good buy for someone.
61GS are fairly plentiful, considerably more so than the first generation 3180 hand wind Grand Seiko. There are all sorts of variations on the general theme here that can affect the value but this one provides some sort of representative example of an early watch with the carved Grand Seiko script on the dial. The case on this one is 80 micron 14 K gold filled and looks in decent shape, barring some signs of corrosion around the periphery of mating surface of the mid case.
The main cosmetic issue with this one is that it looks like someone may have tried to fill the carved GS script on the dial with black paint – not entirely successfully. That did not stop this one attracting 99 bids and a final price of ¥252,000 (translating to about £2300 landed in the UK with all fees paid).
Now for something a bit special. The Seiko Crown 5718-8000 Chronograph with counter function was produced as a special edition for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and is arguably the holiest of holies of rare vintage Seiko wrist watches.
200 bids and a final price of ¥2,221,000 or close to £21,000 landed, fees paid. I have to say that notwithstanding its rarity, I would baulk at investing so much (if I were ever in a position to consider doing so) given the pretty miserable photos accompanying the auction.
From the sublime to the ridiculous. Or rather, to my mind, a massively over-heated auction that reflects the times in which we live quite nicely. This one for a simple bezel. But not just any old bezel. A new old stock Seiko 62MAS bezel.
I can’t help feeling that the upper end of the market is in a bubble and sooner or later that bubble will pop. I do not rejoice in these inflationary times, in spite of the fact that it inflates the value of my modest collection. One clear effect is that there is a danger that many genuine enthusiasts are priced out of the game and these lovely old objects of fascination and beauty, rather than being cherished by a fringe of lunatic hobbyists, are reduced to mere commodities, there to be traded and traded until at some point someone is left holding the bag when at least part of that market collapses.