Here at TimeScapeUSA, we saw a lot of interest in one of our previous posts, “On Collecting,” and thought that it might be worthwhile to continue the conversation. One of our esteemed local collectors agreed to chat with us via email about a particularly rare find, a new old stock Omega Speedmaster 105.012-65. For the true watch enthusiast, this has all the marks of a good detective story, and it gives us a window into the life of a passionate collector at work.
Q: Obviously a piece like this doesn't drop out of the sky. Do you spend a great deal of time looking for similar watches? How did it first come to your attention?
A: I usually check new listings that have the word “Speedmaster” in them in the watch category on eBay before I go to bed at night on weekdays. It is a good way to wind down after a long day of work. I bought this particular watch a couple of months ago. The seller had listed it with photos that were just terrible, but I could see things in the photos that indicated it may be something worth going after.
Q: It sounds like it boils down to knowledge and tenacity. What kind of research do you do to keep up with the market?
A: I keep a mental record of what I see things selling for on eBay. Over a long period of time, that gives you a good feel for what something should sell for or when a buy-now price is too high, right on or too low. I also watch listings that I have no intention of buying just to see the selling price.
Q: What were the specific clues that made this watch intriguing?
A: As far as this particular watch, there were three things. First, whether the Omega logo on the dial is silver or looks like it is just part of the dial print. “Applied” is the word people normally use. When you see a silver logo, chances are good that the movement is a caliber 321 rather than the less desirable 861. Second, what is referred to as the “dot over 90” bezel. The name refers to whether the small dot next to the number 90 on the bezel is to the right of the 90 or to the right and slightly above it. Bezels with the “dot over 90” stopped being used around 1970. The third detail is whether the case back is single or double stepped. What you really look for is an extra line between the flat part of the back and the outside edge of the back. That tells you that you are likely looking at a watch from 1965 or earlier.
Q: And that's enough for you to pull the trigger? At this point you knew what you were looking at?
A: No. Just from the photos you only have indications, not certainties. With vintage Speedmasters there’s so much dial, bezel, hands and case back replacement going on. Combine that with bad photos and the indicators just help you determine whether it is worth going after or not.
Q: With these kinds of external indications, there must have been some competition for the piece. How did you bring it home?
A: The seller had it listed with a buy-now price that was in the right range for a pre-moon Speedmaster, but was by no means a steal. I was not interested in paying that much, so I sent an email to the seller asking for better photos. In the same email, I also told the seller that, if the buy-now price was lower, I would take a chance on the watch even without better photos.
Q: That seems like the moment where a lot of sellers might back out of a deal. Did they cooperate, and if not, how did you continue?
A: The seller sent me an email saying that the buy-now price had been dropped and I pounced.
Q: Even without photos of the movement you were willing to take the risk?
A: Yes. The condition looked good in the photos, but until it showed up in the mail I had no idea how good it really was.
Q: Please tell us what it was like when you saw the watch for the first time.
A: I opened the box and I was stunned. I started looking at the watch trying to find flaws and the only flaw I could find was a thin line on the back where someone had slipped with a case opening tool. The bracelet was unbelievable, the links felt like sand when I tried to move them. It had clearly never been worn.
Q: How often does this sort of thing happen?
A: I have been collecting watches for 25 years and events like these are very rare. In my entire time buying watches from people in person, from dealers and over the internet, I had never seen a Speedmaster in this condition. It was as if time had stood still for this watch. Fifty years had gone by and the watch showed almost no trace of it.
Q: But I assume for a full confirmation, you have to evaluate the movement itself.
A: Yes. Until you get the watch open, you cannot be 100% certain. There is always a chance that the movement has been serviced even if the outside looks untouched. In this case, had the seller had it serviced before listing it on eBay the value would have gone down a lot.
Q: This is an interesting point you've mentioned in prior conversations. As a technician, my instinct is to repair every watch, so to refrain from service seems to say a lot about the collector's priorities. Could you elaborate?
A: It is counterintuitive, and it's not true for the 99.9% of Speedmasters out there that are not new old stock. For the collector, whether to repair a watch depends on its intended use. If I am going to wear a watch and don't not know the service history, I will have it checked out to see if my watchmaker can tell when it was serviced last or when it will need service. I have watches in my collection that I am not going to wear and have no plans to sell. Those watches have no need for repair now or in the foreseeable future and spending money on them is not a good investment.
Q: When the time came, how did you feel about opening the case? That must have been a little tense.
A: I was both excited and worried. Given the fact that someone had already put a mark on the case back with a case opening tool I thought it would happen again. It took two people to get the back off. My watchmaker has a Horotec press and I was holding onto the base as hard as I could while he turned the wheel. It was clear that someone at the Omega factory had put a lot of force on the case back when they tightened it. You would not have had a chance with a hand-held tool – which explains why someone would slip when trying. These days companies like Rolex use specific torque settings to avoid this issue.
Q: Describe what the movement looked like
A: It was flawless and it was clear nobody had touched it since it left Omega fifty years ago. It was like looking inside a time capsule.
Q: Other aspiring collectors will want to know exactly what to look for. How do you make that first evaluation of a watch?
A: I generally focus on watches where I can see patina. In a vintage watch, a lack of patina is usually a sign that the watch has been refinished. If it looks too good, it probably is. A lot of it is hands-on experience, talking to watchmakers, reading online forums and articles. As far as the condition of the movement goes I am not a watchmaker, but I tend to focus on the screw heads because that’s where you will see signs of work first. Over time, the screw heads will inevitably get small indentations from the screw drivers the watchmakers use.
Q: The first thing I'm thinking is that this piece is fabulously valuable. You must have plans to put it up for auction.
A: No. I have no plans to sell it. Getting a watch in this condition was just plain luck. The chance that it will happen again is so low to be almost negligible. I could never get another one without spending a fortune and even if I did, I would not be there when the case was opened for the first time in fifty years.
Q: So it will just sit in a safe somewhere for the foreseeable future?
A: Yes but, as I mentioned before, this is an extreme case. I can’t wear the watch or have any work done to it because both of those things would take away from the value. I am basically relegated to being the custodian of the watch for the time I have it. I can take it out from time to time and look at it, I can show it to other people, but I cannot do any of the things to it that normal people do with normal watches. The condition of the watch transcends everything else.
Q: You're saying condition is all that matters?
A: In this case – yes. The condition puts extreme limitations on what I can do with the watch. I would also like to point out that I am not the one who made that decision. There is a community of watch collectors out there that places a value on condition, scarcity and so on. You can have a watch in new old stock condition and nobody cares about it at all. I have several watches like that in my collection. It is the fact that it is a somewhat rare watch and in new old stock condition that makes it so valuable.
Q: I think we're back in terrain where the collector's depth of experience is so important. Can you say a little bit more about exactly what position this piece holds in the hierarchy?
A: There are a lot of Speedmasters out there. You have to get back to 105.003 or earlier before they start to become rare and even then it is usually just a question of money. Speedmasters with “Professional” on the dial are not that rare. I have pieces in my collection that are one of a kind or one of only three known and things like that.
Q: It seems like Speedmasters have a certain mystique with collectors of all stripes. At some point we'll have to take a long walk through that wing of your collection.
A: I would be happy to.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. As a technician I'm forced to be a bit of a generalist, so I always learn a great deal talking to collectors with a real depth of knowledge. I certainly appreciate it.
A: I had a good time and I look forward to doing it again in the future. Craig’s got a nice operation going at TimeScapeUSA and I can’t wait to see what he does next.