By Simon de Burton, Financial Times
Published: Nov 10, 2007
Any high drama that takes place in the world of watch auctions is usually associated with exceptional selling prices, but one event that rocked the business this summer was not quite so positive. It concerned the announcement that Osvaldo Patrizzi had been ousted from his position as chairman and CEO of the leading specialist auction house Antiquorum, the company he founded more than 30 years ago. The news broke on August 2 that John Tsukahara had taken over management of the house after, according to Antiquorum's official press release: "...irreconcilable opinions with regard to the strategic focus of the company became explicit and an audit regarding financial management and governance was ordered".
Mr Tsukahara is a director of ArtistHouse Holdings, a Tokyo-based publishing company with subsidiaries in the film, music and entertainment business that acquired 50 per cent of Antiquorum in 2006 for around $30m and now has majority control of the company. Under the terms of the original deal, Mr Patrizzi was due to remain at the helm until the end of 2008, but the apparent differences of opinion mean, according to Antiquorum spokeswoman Karin Tasso, that there is "no possibility" of a reconciliation.
The split marks the end of an era not just for Antiquorum, but for a global community of watch enthusiasts: Mr Patrizzi is widely held responsible for raising the status of the wristwatch from mere functional object to that of art form by producing highly-detailed catalogues that explained the significance of individual makers and their products.
Antiquorum also introduced the concept of themed sales with the Art of Patek Philippe auction of 1989, held to celebrate the brand's 150th anniversary. Since then the house has held sales dedicated to Cartier, Breguet, Rolex, Vacheron Constantin ($15.1m) and, most recently, Omega ($5.5m), all of which have helped to raise the profiles of the respective brands.
Other pioneering ideas include the first effective live broadcasting of auctions over the internet in 1998 (a feature followed two years later with the addition of online, real time bidding), the introduction of a free, online database drawn from Antiquorum catalogues and the recently set-up "myCollection" facility that enables enthusiasts to track the value of certain models. But Mr Patrizzi's undeniable contribution to the general success and popularity of watch auctions around the world was further overshadowed last month following an article in a US newspaper that stated that some of the stellar prices achieved at Antiquorum sales were merely the result of certain brands bidding-up their own products.
As anyone who follows the international watch auction scene knows however, it is a common and entirely acceptable practice for leading names to buy back important pieces from their past. The recent high level of growth in new watch sales has given such firms the financial wherewithal to do this, so it is unsurprising that their buying power often outstrips that of individuals.
In most cases, too, the brands make no attempt to conceal the fact that they have bought pieces back, often asking to be publicly named as buyers during the sale, with transparency being further emphasised when the repatriated watches are put on public display in the museums that more brands are establishing in order to preserve their all-important heritage.
What the US newspaper also overlooked was the fact that in order for an object to achieve a substantial price at auction it needs to have not just one bidder pursuing it, but at least two. It was an undeserved kick in the teeth to Mr Patrizzi, without whom many people might never have discovered the wonder of collectable watches in the first place.