The Internet appears to have had three major effects on the vintage watch market: firstly, in terms of supply; secondly, in relation to price, and thirdly, it has given parasites and con artists a global platform in which to practise their deceit.
In pre-internet days, the collector’s lot was that of a somewhat nomadic search for elusive timepieces, of countless visits to auction houses and dealerships, of infrequent but heartening ‘finds’ and of time lines extending to many years, or even lifetimes, to build up substantial collections.
These days the legwork has to a large degree been replaced with an ever-changing marketplace of thousands of watches on Ebay alone. The collector’s experience and understanding of supply has been turned upside-down and watches hitherto thought of as rare or hard to find turn up regularly on various Internet auction sites.
It is now possible to assemble large collections in shorter periods of time if your passion is aflame and your coffers are deep. While this may satisfy in the short term the irrepressible obsessions and impulses of avid collectors, I wonder whether it will also gratify prematurely the collector’s appetite for a lifetime of interest and acquisition.
The Internet has also had a significant impact on price. No longer can a few bricks and mortar vintage watches dealers monopolise price structures and quarantine specialist knowledge. The downside of this is that fewer people strike up a relationship with their dealer or watchmaker and instead fly solo on the Internet. However, if newbies land in one of the more respected brand or vintage forums, they will encounter many generous people willing to share their knowledge.
While the on-line auction scene and specialist trading pages of watch forums started off as a platform for connecting wholesalers to retailers, it has ‘matured’ into marketplace where collectors source vintage watches from a pool of suppliers, becoming almost, but not completely, a retail market. Prices are, to a larger extent, determined globally these days.
BLOODSUCKERS GO GLOBAL
The growth of the Internet vintage watch marketplace through on-line auctions and cyber-dealerships has also created a new group of consumers for vintage timepieces. And wherever there are neophytes with money, the slimy underbelly of commerce soon reveals itself.
In on-line watch forums the dissent over shady and dishonest seller practices has risen in concert with a creeping fatalism expressed by seasoned contributors who lament that the villains and shonks of the horological universe will ultimately push the good guys out.
Another common theme to run through many threads in on-line forums is ‘Caveat Emptor’. This is often accompanied with somewhat merciless sentiments like it’s “tough titties” and maybe a useful and salutary experience for newbies to buy a lemon or get ripped off. At least they walk away with a bit more experience - so goes the logic.
Too much emphasis, however, on Caveat Emptor and too little emphasis on blaming, naming and shaming the bloodsuckers who feed off the naiveté of new and often enthusiastic bidders sends the wrong message. When we place a disproportionate onus on buyers, the message we send to the parasites and rip-off merchants is that buyer naivety is a type of crime in itself. In the crooked mind of your average Internet parasite, that may mitigate his or her deceitful and underhanded practices.
Blaming the innocent makes it morally easier for the shonks to go into denial and avoid facing the full import of their deeds. It allows them to escape introspection and get out of facing the fact that they’re navel lint, that they hurt people, and that they’re a blight on the horological landscape.
If you’re new to the game and want to avoid becoming a victim of the swarm of internet parasites that are buzzing around looking for fresh blood, observe the following cautions:
THE NEOPHYTES LIST OF ON-LINE VINTAGE WATCH AUCTION DOS AND DON’TS
- Be unafraid to place the onus back on a seller to accurately and precisely describe the goods they have on offer. Ignorance on the part of a seller is no defence against a seller's legal obligation in most countries to accurately present the merchandise they sell.
- Take the Caveat Emptor apologists at their word. Beware of all on-line sellers. Assume they are all crooks until you have proven conclusively to yourself that they are not. Feedback scores alone are not enough to determine legitimacy. Until you build your knowledge, assume that a seller is only as reliable and honest as the integrity of the watch they're selling now.
- There are indeed good on-line sellers who describe in detail the features of a watch and who also detail accurately what they have done to bring a watch up to standard. Keep them in your 'favourites' list and follow their auctions to gain an idea of reasonable value.
- Hazy, unfocussed pictures can hide a multitude of sins – only bid or buy from sellers who agree to provide you with quality close-ups. Match those close-ups with what you know are pictures of the genuine article.
- Never buy a watch from someone who can’t or wont provide you with close-ups of the movement, caseback and dial.
- Before you bid, check serial, caliber and caseback numbers to ensure they match to satisfy yourself that you are bidding on an authentic watch. Make sure the right 'stampings' appear on the movement and case.
- Never buy a watch from someone who can’t or won’t provide relevant serial numbers and caseback numbers. If you haven’t got numbers how can you do an authenticity check?
- Make sure that critical information about the watch is in writing. Often shonksters say "Look at the pics". This is often a tactic to escape legal responsibility, or in the case of eBay, the pitiful 'rules of engagement' it has established to regulate seller behaviour and protect buyers.
- Make it a practice to email vendors and ask specific questions about the 'authenticity' of the watch. One practice worth following is to email the seller the following question (particularly if you have doubts about the watch), "Can you please confirm that this watch meets fully the factory specifications for case, dial and movement for this specific model and that the dial, movement and case left the factory together as one unit?" For authentic Constellations, the seller will have no difficulty is answering in the affirmative.
- Ask for the service history of the watch. Unless the seller or dealer expressly says the watch has been serviced, assume that you will have to service the watch as soon as you receive it. Factor that into your bid.
- If you want a vintage watch to look and perform as new, you’re in the wrong market.
- Initially, until you have built up knowledge and expertise, go for quality and authenticity over a 'bargain'. Often a bargain is simply a 'dog' that experienced collectors won't touch.
- If a vintage watch does look brand shiny new, chances are it’s been seriously re-furbished. Ask the seller to detail exactly what was done. If it’s not to specifications its value will be seriously compromised.
- Never buy a watch that has been offered under a twenty-four hour listing. This is a favourite ploy of scam artists who purloin genuine pics and set up bogus listings.
- Never buy a vintage watch from a Chinese seller who has minimal or no feedback. More fraudulent listings come out of China, than Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian countries combined. Be very skeptical when considering offerings from any of the countries listed in this pointer.
- Unless you really know what you’re doing, avoid sellers who have little experience in vintage watches. Bid from sellers who have excellent feedback and a strong history of selling watches.
- With vintage watches, be very wary of descriptions like: mint, minty, new-old-stock, brand new-in-box, keeps perfect time, like new, never worn, etc. Instead, go with sellers who detail in their listings specific condition reports and who use clear language to describe the watch.
- Look for ambiguity in listings. If the description can be taken more than one way, assume that the most negative connotation is correct
- Ask plenty of questions of the seller. Clarify any issues before you bid. Good sellers welcome questions and respond fully to queries. Shonks avoid being tied down and will often be cagey in their replies.
- Avoid sellers who have 'private' feedback or who have opted for private bidding. While some sellers do this to avoid fraudulent second chance offers being sent to unsuccessful bidders, it is also a favourite ploy of sellers who set up what is termed 'shill bidding' - registering another name on on-line auctions and bidding against genuine bidders to inflate the price of the watch.
- Never, repeat, never, bid in the early phases of on-line auctions. This can often have the effect of starting a bidding war. Follow the auction to see bid movement. Don't use the bidding mechanism on any of the on-line auction sites at all unless you wish to activate a 'Buy it Now' or 'Best Offer' bid. Instead, use one of the sniping services that bid in the last 7 - 10 seconds of an auction.
- By using a sniping service you play your hand at the end of the auction. Most importantly, it allows you to decide rationally how much you are willing to pay for a watch (given your research) and then to enter that amount as your maximum bid. Sniping services can be found by Googling 'snipe' or 'sniper'.
Over time, if you build knowledge and expertise you can short-circuit some of the pointers given above. But, remember, even the most experienced of collectors can be taken for a ride.....and it's usually when they opted not to follow their own advice.