As news dripped out following the November 6 fiasco at Christie’s Geneva, it was easy to assume that the auctioneer had overseen either a cock-up of epic proportions or something more sinister.
In fact, my sources reveal, Christie’s was more of a victim in this story than either the Omani watch collector who consigned every watch in the Passion for Time auction, the third party guarantor who ended up buying almost two-thirds of the 113 lots, or the punters who outbid the guarantor for the remaining watches.
A court in Geneva has issued an injunction that keeps the watches locked up — effectively in escrow awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Mohammed Zaman, the owner and consigner of the watches to the Christie’s auction.
The precise aim of that lawsuit has not been disclosed, but Bloomberg reports that it has been filed under the Swiss Civil Code of Obligations, which says an interested party may make “a claim for avoidance in respect of an auction whose outcome has been influenced by unlawful or immoral means.”
Ultimately, it has to be assumed that Mr Zaman wants his watches back, and for the results of the Christie’s auction to be nul and void.
This is surprising, because the auction was judged to have been a success, not least because the third party guarantor and other bidders paid much higher prices than original pre-sale estimates at a time when this is far from assured in a cooling vintage watch market.
On the day of the Christie’s auction, previously published low estimates totalling CHF 19 million ($21.7m) for the 113 watches were jacked up to a total of CHF 35 million ($40 million) based on minimums agreed with the third party guarantor.
The lots ultimately sold for a total of of $42.4 million, which Christie’s describes as “the largest total achieved for a single owner watch collection at auction to date”.
So, why was Mr Zaman disappointed enough to effectively sue Christie’s and block the completion of the sales?
My sources say he was heavily influenced by rival auction houses in Geneva who aimed to convince the collector that they would have done a better job and sold the watches for more.
Phillips sold the headline lot in the Christie’s sale — a Rolex GMT worn by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now — for $1,952,000 in 2019.
Christie’s achieved CHF 4,582,500 for the same watch, beating a [revised] low estimate of CHF 3,740,000.
Average auction prices rose sharply from 2019 to 2022, but have fall since and this season is considered a buyers’ market.
Might Phillips have done better? We may find out if Mr Zaman succeeds in getting his watches returned, but whether the controversy swirling around the collection will increase or diminish its value is hard to forecast.