Outside Geneva's five-star hotels Ferraris jostle with Bentleys while inside collectors and traders compete for rare Patek Philippe watches and vintage jewels.This content was published on May 13, 2008 - 14:16
This week Geneva's auction houses are holding their spring sales with jewellery, luxury watches and vintage wine valued at more than SFr140 million ($133.7 million) up for auction.
On Monday Christie's sold a pair of Patek Philippe wristwatches for a combined SFr7.3 million, each setting world records after doubling their lower initial estimates. In all, it sold 346 watches for a total of SFr25.8 million.
The soaring prices reflect collectors' strong demand for exceptional pieces, auction houses said.
"There's a sub-prime crisis and thousands of bankers have lost their jobs, but this market defies the laws of economics. Our sales are up six per cent this year amid record prices," said François Curiel, chairman of Christie's Europe.
One of the Patek Philippe watches - a 1949 steel timepiece that belonged to the late wealthy American businessman and sportsman Briggs Swift Cunningham II, went for SFr4.1 - making it the second most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction. The buyer was an unnamed Swiss private museum.
"With today's turbulent stock markets, it is an extraordinary price, demonstrating the strength of the market for fine watches," said Aurel Bacs, co-director of Christie's international watch department.
A second Patek Philippe, a 1954 platinum perpetual calendar wristwatch - which recently surfaced after more than half a century in a family safe - fetched SFr3.2 million.
"It never saw the light of day. The original owner's nephew didn't realise what he had," Bacs said.
On Sunday night a large gold Patek Philippe watch originally owned by Count Carlo Felice Trossi, president of Scuderia Ferrari, went for the highest price ever for a wristwatch sold at Sotheby's - SFr2.3 million ($2.2 million). The "Trossi Leggenda" was the star lot among 193 pieces, 159 of which sold for a total of SFr10.9 million, said Sotheby's.
Major auction centre
The luxury watch market is enjoying real growth, said Bacs.
"Ten years ago there were a handful of bidders for a watch worth SFr500,000; now there are 50 plus, and maybe a dozen competing for a watch starting at SFr1.5 million," he said.
Geneva is the most important venue for watch auctions for a number of reasons, said the Christie's watch expert.
"It enjoys that mythical status as the cradle of watchmaking. Just look out of the window at the boutiques, companies and museums – like the Patek Philippe Museum. And buyers love coming here to spend three or four days in spring in this pleasant environment," he said.
David Bennett, chairman of Sotheby's International Jewellery Department, felt Geneva's position and free-port status offered many benefits.
"Lots of Middle East buyers find it easier to come through Geneva," he said. "And there is a tradition of helping auctions; we wouldn't be able to put on sales of this level without the duty-free tax access (being able to temporarily import items for sale)".
The spring sales continue on Wednesday when Christie's auctions a 13.39 carat Fancy Intense Blue Diamond worth $6-8 million – the largest ever to be sold at auction – as part of a rare selection of large coloured diamonds.
On Thursday Sotheby's will also be selling rare coloured gemstones, together with "noble" jewellery belonging to collections of European aristocrats and 64 pieces from a collection of Lily Marinho, Brazil's first lady.
Senior jewellery experts are confident that collectors and traders remain hungry for unique items, especially coloured diamonds or historic gems, following world-record prices set for rare polished diamonds last year.
In November 2007, Sotheby's in Geneva sold a huge flawless brilliant-cut white diamond, weighing 84.37 carats, for SFr18.2 million ($16.21 million) to Guess Jeans founder Georges Marciano.
The diamond achieved a world record price per carat for a white diamond ($191,980), and was the second most expensive stone ever sold at auction, only eclipsed by the 100.10 carat "Star of the Season" diamond, which the same Geneva branch sold for $16.5 million in May 1995.
Surging global economic growth and a rapid fall in the dollar have pushed commodity prices - including those of the rarest polished diamonds - to all-time peaks in recent months.
A ten-carat "D" flawless diamond now sells wholesale for around $155,000 per carat, up from about $110,000 six months ago.
According to Curiel, a shortage of good diamonds and the rush of new buyers from Russia, China and India are driving up prices.
"There are many new rich people – 1,125 billionaires in the world - who didn't exist five years ago. These people feel it's not bad to own a few diamonds in your portfolio just in case you have to move abroad or to put money aside in another country. They're easier than stocks or bonds, houses or commodities – diamonds are an international currency," he explained.
swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva
Geneva has been a major centre for auctions since 1968, especially for jewellery and watches.
Jewellery, luxury watches and vintage wine valued at more than SFr140 million ($132.9 million) are up for auction in the 2008 spring sales.
Antiquorum, which specialises in horology, auctioned 705 watches from the "collection of a European nobleman", which brought in SFr10.25 million.
Sotheby's is selling watches and other timepieces, as well as 514 lots of diamonds and jewellery, with an estimated value of up to SFr58.6 million.
Phillips de Pury and Company has 430 lots of jewellery on sale worth SFr17.5-22 million.
Christie's is gearing up for three sales – with watches, fine wine and jewellery on offer.
In spring 2007, sales of watches, jewellery and fine wines in Geneva brought in more than SFr140 million.
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