The Man Who Sparked the Vintage Watch Boom


The auctions that Bacs oversees can often be spectacles. “[They’re] sort of like the Friday-night fight in this community,” James Lamdin, the founder of Manhattan-based watch boutique Analog/Shift, tells me in his office between drags on a vape. (Lamdin’s metaphors have mellowed a bit since last year, when he described one such event to me as “a fucking circus.”)

Bacs hosts his circuses all over the world—New York, Hong Kong, Geneva—but the show is almost always the same. Waving his auctioneer’s hammer like a conductor’s baton, Bacs introduces every watch as though it is an unparalleled beauty—and those assembled are beyond blessed to have the chance to win them. A watch is never a Rolex, it is the Rolex.

Gliding easily in and out of the four languages he speaks—English, French, Italian, German—he talks personally, casually to the bidders in hopes of coaxing out higher figures. The words emerge honey-coated, attached to sentimental imagery: Grandma’s teacups, a scar on Bacs’s hand he got when a dog bit him when he was 8, classic Hollywood beauties. He pulls, strums, and plucks on the heartstrings until he finds the right tune.

Rolex GMTMaster

A gold Rolex GMT-Master with ample signs of wear. Still, the watch sold for $137,500 last December.

Sometimes he playfully bullies. Such was the case during an auction in December, when an IWC with a black face and beige markers, its design seemingly ripped straight from the control panel of a fighter jet, came under the hammer. “There’s only one, and this is it,” Bacs announced. What ensued was peculiar: Most auctions are dominated by high-priced Rolexes and Patek Philippes, but there was a dogfight over this IWC. The piece had been owned years ago by the late legendary watch executive Günter Blümlein, who’s hailed with saving Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC in the ’80s. An interested bidder stood behind a column and waved his paddle into Bacs’s sight line. Bacs lured his prey out into the open. “Please come forward—we’d like to see you in action,” he said. “Come on, don’t be shy.” The man, Wei Koh, the collector and editorial director of the watch magazine Revolution, eventually appeared and placed a bid of $32,000. Earlier that morning, over breakfast at the Soho House, Koh had told me he was going to make a run at the watch. He loved the story behind it. “[Blümlein] bought it as a gift for his wife, which is maybe even better,” Koh gushed. “And it’s a stunning watch, the [model is the] first ceramic watch made by IWC.” There were ample strings for Bacs to play: After nearly ten minutes of bidding, the watch sold for $53,750—$45,750 more than its high estimate.

In late 2017, I watched as Bacs presided over a particularly sensational sale that involved a much hyped Rolex Paul Newman Daytona previously owned by Paul Newman himself. The room that night was packed to the rafters—a record attendance—and a large majority of those in the audience held their phones aloft to capture the frenzy. Before Bacs even finished introducing the watch, a woman screamed at him: “Ten million dollars, sir!”

As the auction grew wilder, Bacs leavened the atmosphere. At one point, he chided a bidder’s intermediary to hurry it along: “What would he like to do now—go for dinner, go for drinks, or maybe leave a bid?” The joke raised the price to $14.6 million.

Some excruciating minutes later, Bacs shouted as he finalized the sale, “It is history now: fifteen million five hundred thousand!” A buyer’s premium tipped the price closer to $18 million—a figure that made global headlines. A few weeks later, Bacs, spending New Year’s in Cambodia, was biking along the shore of the Mekong River when a man stopped him. “ ‘I know your face,’ ” the man said, according to Bacs. “ ‘You’re the guy who sold the Paul Newman, aren’t you?’ In Cambodia,” Bacs continues, emphasizing the utter improbability.

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