Inside the Archives: Pocket Watch Prices

Lot 214, Breguet pocket watch, Subastas Galileo (June 28)

Pocket watches are nowhere near as popular as wrist watches; however, in recent years, sales have been on the rise, with some rare examples reaching prices as high as $3 million at auction this year.

The first personal timepieces that people could carry around were of course, pocket watches. Many brands we know today, like Omega and Longines, started in the first half of the 19th century as “comptoirs,” agents responsible for assembly and sales of these watches using parts that came from the cottage industries of the Swiss Jura region.

As manufacturing techniques were refined over time, accuracy improved. The American pocket watch industry was born when railroad schedules demanded not only unified time zones, but accurate watches in order to prevent accidents along the mainlines. Around the turn of the 20th century, Patek Philippe and others were making more and more complicated pocket watches, catering to rich industrialists.

During World War I watches needed to be strapped to soldier’s wrists, and modifications to pocket watches were duly made. But the need for accurate pocket watches, and especially timers (chronographs and stopwatches) extended through World War II.

They also represent an easy, relatively inexpensive entry point for new collectors. Complicated pocket watches, however, is a very narrow niche category and ultra expensive. Below are five of the most recognizable pocket watch styles and price ranges gathered from the Invaluable Price Archive.

Complicated Pocket Watches

Around the turn of the 20th Century, Patek Philippe and others were making more and more complicated pocket watches. For instance, two American industrialist/ financiers, James Ward Packard (of Packard automobile fame) and Henry Graves Jr. engaged in an escalating “war” to own the most complicated watch ever produced.

More recently, brands like Vacheron Constantin have joined Patek Philippe at the forefront of making complicated pocket watches. These so-called super complications, like the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 from 1989 (33 complications) and last year’s Vasheron Constantin Reference 57260 (56 complications) are rare today simply because of the challenge of making them coupled with their expense. (Price Range: $50,000 to $23M)

1: Yellow-gold Calibre 89 Patek Philippe

Lot 364, Antiquorum (November 2009)
Realized Price: CHF5,120,000 (approx. $5.3M)

2: 1918 Patek Philippe Gold Openface Dress Watch

Lot 99, Christie’s (2011)
Estimated Price: $200,000-400,000
Realized Price: $986,500

3: 1973 Patek Philippe Watch with Linear Perpetual Calendar & Moon Phases

Lot 84, Christie’s (2014)
Estimated Price: CHF130,000-220,000 (approx. $135,170-228,750)
Realized Price: CHF173,000 (approx. $179,674)

4: 1970 Audemars Piguet Grande Complication Watch

Lot 67, Auctionata AG (December 2014)
Estimated Price: €72,000-90,000 (approx. $81,425-101,781)
Realized Price: €68,090 (approx. $76,662)

Railroad Pocket Watches

These high grade, easy to read pocket watches count brands like Hamilton, Waltham, Ball, Elgin, Howard, and Illinois among them. Primary characteristics included an open face, maximum variation of 30 seconds per week, adjusted in five positions, temperature compensation.

These watches, along with standardized time zones, were vital to keeping trains on schedule and prevent disastrous, often head-on, collisions on single-track mainlines. Keeping good time on America’s railroads in turn, was vital to the industrial growth of America in the early half of the 20th century. (Price Range: $200-3,000)

5: 1925 Illinois Bunn Special Pocket Watch, Railroad Grade

Lot 1204, Chupps Auctions & Real Estate (March 2016)
Realized Price: $1,150

6: Official Railroad Standard Ball Pocket Watch

Lot 325, Cottone Auctions (May 2016)
Estimated Price: $300-500
Realized Price: $690

7: Hamilton Gold-Filled Jewel Railroad Pocket Watch

Lot 128, North American Auction Company (March 2015)
Estimated Price: $400-800
Realized Price: $575

Military Pocket Watches

Military pocket watches and timers were limited to a relatively few companies, Hamilton being chief among American manufacturers, with watches like their 4992B 24-hour watch. Such watches were vital to military missions of all types. These watches weren’t as popular as wristwatches by World War II, but they had their place, especially behind the front lines. (Price Range: $300-500)

8: Military Issue Rolex Pocket Watch

Lot 206, Fellows (January 2011)
Estimated Price: £250-350 (approx. $283-396)
Realized Price: £360 (approx. $407)

9: 1960 Hamilton Military Pocket Watch

Lot 1189, Chupps Auctions & Real Estate (March 2016)
Realized Price: $500

10: Nickel-Cased Rolex Military Issue Pocket Watch

Lot 1282, Gorringes (2010)
Estimated Price: £150-200 (approx. $220-293)
Realized Price: £320 (approx. $468)

American Pocket Watches

Along with railroad grade pocket watches, numerous American companies like Hamilton, Elgin, Waltham, Illinois, and Hampden made more modest pocket watches. According to one source, 124 pocket watch companies existed in America between 1804 and 1968.

Back then, buyers went to their jeweler to choose a movement, which usually came with signed dial attached, and then chose a case separately. The jeweler’s watchmaker installed the movement in the case, often a nice hunter (clamshell) case, depending on the orientation of the movement’s winding stem. (Price Range: $75-500)

11: Elgin Engraved Gold Pocket Watch

Lot 41A, Cottone Auctions (September 2014)
Estimated Price: $300-500
Realized Price: $475

12: Illinois Yellow-Gold Pocket Watch

Lot 3296, Apple Tree Auction Center (March 2015)
Realized Price: $400

13: Hampden Keyless Railway Grade Pocket Watch

Lot 164, Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood (January 2015)
Estimated Price: £250-300 (approx. $366-440)
Realized Price: £250 (approx. $366)

14: Elgin 14K Gold Pocket Watch

Lot 3292, Kaminski Auctions (April 2014)
Estimated Price: $300-500
Realized Price: $325

15: Yellow-Gold Waltham Pocket Watch

Lot 2036, Alex Cooper (June 2015)
Estimated Price: $300-400
Realized Price: $275

16: Illinois Gold-Filled Pocket Watch

Lot 84, Stair Galleries (May 2015)
Estimated Price: $20-50
Realized Price: $250

17: Waltham Gold Vintage Pocket Watch

Lot 2238, Leonard Joel (November 2015)
Estimated Price: AUD100-200 (approx. $75-149)
Realized Price: $134

18: Waltham Pocket Watch & Chain

Lot 2019, Alex Cooper (December 2014)
Estimated Price: $60-100
Realized Price: $50

Vintage Stopwatches

Stopwatches are a special category – partially overlapping with military pocket watches, like the Hamilton Model 23 AN-5742-1 Military Chronograph. These timers were especially useful during bombing missions over Europe and the Pacific where massive, highly synchronized bombing raids helped win the war.

Other stopwatches found service as sports timers, like the Omega Split Seconds Chronograph first used in the 1932 Olympics. Numerous other brands got into the sports timing action, including Longines, Heuer, Hanhart, Breitling, and Minerva. But Omega was most often chosen to time the Olympics, even after the heyday of these unique pocket watches ended in the 1960s. (Price Range: $30-5,000)

19: 1856 Charles Oudin Yellow-Gold Pocket Watch

Lot 321, Freeman’s (May 2013)
Estimated Price: $3,000-5,000
Realized Price: $6,875

20: 1930 Omega Télémètre Pocket Watch

Lot 86, Auctionata AG (March 2015)
Estimated Price: €1,200-1,500 (approx. $1,357-1,697)
Realized Price: €929 (approx. $1,051)

21: Hamilton “Model 23” Chronograph Pocket Watch

Lot 225, R.O Schmitt Fine Arts (October 2013)
Estimated Price: $300-400
Realized Price: $375

See a selection of fine vintage pocket watches in upcoming sales including Leclere’s Montres & Bijoux (June 27), Auctionata’s 583 Modern & Vintage Timepieces (June 27), Adam’s Fine Jewellery & Watches (June 28), Tajan’s TLIVE – Vintage Accessories (June 29), Henry’s Auktonshaus’ Diamonds & Gemstones, Antique Jewellery & Silverware (June 30), and more.

Learn more about Elgin Pocket Watches from In Good Taste