On watches, chicken vases, and the value of things

Some of you may know that I’ve taken an interest in mechanical watches, and I have been putting together a collection of pieces I like to wear. I also like to think about them as products, design objects, and examples of human ingenuity.

It’s easy to find watches for any budget, including budgets far exceeding mine. For example, this morning, I was browsing a couple of my favorite watch dealer sites, and I saw a new posting offering a Rolex Sea Dweller, a watch that typically sells for well over $10,000 USD, but… this particular example had a “COMEX” signature on the dial, referring to the relationship between Rolex and the Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX), a French deep sea diving and technology company well known for pushing diving to new depths. Since comparatively few of these pieces were made, they are rare, and given the association with an illustrious company like COMEX, they are special too. Therefore, this particular example was being offered, with the original box and associated papers, for $140,000 USD.

Wow!

This $140k asking price raises the question of what objects like watches or Rolexes or specially signed COMEX Rolexes are rightly worth, and can also cover similar questions we might ask about Impressionist paintings, vintage Superman comic books, a Mickey Mantle baseball card picturing him in his rookie year, or all the new attention being paid to NFTs. What are these things really worth?

As I thought about this question, I was reminded of a time when my wife and I were watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow. It’s been quite a few years, and I may not have all my details right, but I’m sure about the main parts of the story.

An appraiser began to introduce an early American document, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal signed by President James Madison in the 19th century. In the age of sailing ships, such letters were official proclamations naming specific individuals as operating under the auspices of the US government. In other words, they were privateers, not pirates. Letters of Marque and Reprisal are mentioned in the US Constitution (and shows how just how old the US Constitution is: it has specific provisions for dealing with pirates on the high seas). My wife and I thought this was an incredibly cool object, signed by one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Yet, the appraiser gave a disappointing auction estimate: $1500.

The show went bling and went on the to next item, which was, to our eyes, an incredibly ugly early 20th century vase by someone neither of us had ever heard of. But… oh… the appraiser was quick to add that this artist has suddenly become collectible, especially works depicting chickens. Yes, his indeed, the chicken pieces have become highly sought after, and lucky for you, the appraiser added, “Since the vase you’ve brought in today features chickens so prominently, I feel confident giving an auction estimate of $4500.”

My wife and I laughed, and ever since then, she and I share an inside joke. Whenever we see an item that isn’t as good or special as it might be, especially pieces of art we don’t like, we say, “Well, if only it had a chicken on it…”.

There’s a point to the chicken vase story I try to remember as I think about watches and collecting them. No object has intrinsic value. We make the valuable things valuable, and whether it be a COMEX watch, a Letter of Marque and Reprisal, or a chicken vase, the monetary value of a thing is usually just a simple case of supply and demand, and often reduces to little more than a silly and fickle popularity contest.

In my watch collecting, I aim to avoid getting caught up in that. My watches may never be the ones that will suddenly become highly sought after but I don’t care. I tell myself: Just collect and wear what you like. I even bought a watch this morning. I can’t wait for it to arrive.

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