There might be a fortune sitting in your sock drawer—a watch that you purchased new for less than $300 in the 1960s or 1970s now could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars or more at auction. Nate Borgelt, head of the watches department for the Americas at auction house ­Bonhams, shares the latest developments in watch collecting…

Stainless steel sports watches have caught fire. Previous collectors preferred dressy, formal watches made from gold and other precious metals. But today’s younger collectors appreciate the versatility of elite steel sports watches such as Audemars Piguet Royal Oak…Patek Philippe Nautilus…and Rolex Submariner and Cosmograph Daytona. Production of the Royal Oak and Nautilus began in the 1970s…the Daytona, in the 1960s…and the Submariner, in the 1950s. What a watch is worth depends on the condition and whether the original box and papers are included, etc. Examples: A base Royal Oak in mint condition might bring $120,000…a base Nautilus, $150,000 to $175,000…and a base Daytona, $50,000 to $60,000. If you happen to have a Daytona “Reference 6239”—called a “Paul Newman” Daytona because the actor wore this style—the price could leap to $300,000 to
$1 million, even though it originally sold for less than $300.

Sports watches from less prestigious makers are catching on. Collectors who can’t afford the elite sports watches above are seeking watches made by Doxa, Heuer, Universal Genève and Tudor (a lower-priced Rolex subsidiary). Diving watches from the 1960s have fared especially well. Example: A Universal Genève Polerouter Sub diving watch that was purchased for $1,000 to $2,000 a decade ago now brings $8,000 to $10,000.

An interesting ownership history can increase a watch’s value. Five years ago, the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona sold for $17.8 million at auction. Last year, an Omega Speedmaster once owned by writer Ralph Ellison sold for $667,800 at auction—the seller had bought it for less than $6,000. Even a compelling backstory unrelated to anyone famous could add some value if it can be proven. Example: A watch that was worn by a soldier during a war.

Certain design-centric vintage watches are in demand. There’s been increasing interest in vintage watches that feature distinctive, avant-garde styling. Examples: Eye-catching watches designed by Gilbert Albert for Omega and Patek Philippe in the 1960s and 1970s…the asymmetrical and ostentatious Rolex King Midas—one sold for more than $40,000 at auction…a Cartier Crash from the 1960s—reminiscent of the melting timepiece in a Salvador Dali painting—sold for $1.65 million.

This is a great time to sell but a tricky time to be a buyer. If you’re not willing to pay today’s steep prices, seek out watches made by companies that remain largely off collectors’ radar even though they make excellent timepieces. Examples: Swiss brands Glycine and Nivada…and Doxa and Universal Genève. Non-Swiss brands are even less likely to get their due—Japan’s Seiko and Germany’s Glashütte Original, Nomos Glashütte and A Lange & Söhne.

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