Buying vintage 20180504
May 5th, 2018
- Version 20180504
- How to buy a vintage watch
- Vintage watches offer a lot of really good value compared to new. But, as you might imagine, buying them is more work than walking into a boutique and handing over a credit card. Here's a guide to buying them.
- Step 0: figure out which watch you want
- OK, obviously. But there's really something to this. For example, I recently purchased a Girard Perregaux Gyromatic Chronometer HF 32A. There are a ton of chronometer HF watches out there, but most use the 42.1 movement, rather than the 32A. The only really reliable way to tell the difference is looking at one particular engraving in the movement - the dials may be indistinguishable in some cases, and even on the movement many of the engravings are the same - for example, the 32A and the 42.1 both have the same engraving on the rotor. The 32A is significantly rarer and more valuable and someone could easily be scammed into paying too high a price for a 42.1
- So how do you do this? When you figure out what watch you want, learn EVERYTHING about it. Read every single forum post you can find. Scrutinize pictures. Equally important, learn everything you can about the watches that are similar, but not what you want. I probably learned more about the 42.1 than I did about the 32A. I typically do at least 20-30 hours of research on a vintage watch before I buy one. Learn what markings to expect on the watch and when they should or need not be consistent. For example, I bought a Seiko 5256-8010, but the dial says 5256-8000. Franken? Probably not, as dials marked 8000 were used in both cases marked 8000 and cases marked 8010. When you finish this process, you should be able to look at a watch and figure out (a) what confirmatory markings it has, (b) what wrong or inconsistent markings it has, and (c) whether you have enough information to make a positive identification, what additional information you'd need to make a positive identification, and what the chances are that the watch is the one you want based just on the information you have. You should also know common problems that can befall the watch and how expensive they are to fix. For example, on Beta 21 movements (early Swiss quartz), the date wheel is plastic, and is very often worn out and needs to be replaced. You need to know these things and factor them in to your assumption about potential after-purchase service costs.
- This process takes a long time and is a lot of work. You will still end up occasionally not getting what you want.
- Places to buy watches:
- There are a lot of places to buy vintage watches. I'll list the three most important for the audience of this pastebin: ebay, Yahoo JP auctions, and watchrecon.
- ebay has a huge variety of sellers. Some are people who found a watch in a drawer and threw it up on ebay. Some are professional dealers using ebay as their main storefront. Some are serious watch enthusiasts selling collection pieces but there's not too many of these. You should be able to pretty quickly get a handle on which is which. Ebay is typically the easiest place to find a particular watch. The trouble with ebay is that it can be very difficult to assess condition. Non-watch people with no knowledge about what they're selling may not be able to do better than "it runs", and professional sellers may not want to. The most important thing when buying on ebay is to buy from sellers that allow returns. On ebay, a listing will indicate whether it allows returns (this is not part of the product description, it's a separate field on the listing). If a listing allows returns, you can return it - regardless of what's in the product description. Hop onto ebay after you receive it, choose the item, indicate you want to return, and you can select as a reason "I decided I didn't want it anymore". You'll be out shipping costs, which is just something you have to be comfortable with. I would advise not buying from any listing that doesn't permit returns unless the listing is sufficiently detailed that you're comfortable the watch is described as being in a condition you're happy with (this has never happened for me).
- ebay is the best place to buy non-japanese vintage watches. If you encounter a rare watch on ebay that you have to have, but the seller's listing doesn't have enough information, one thing I've done is to offer the seller a nominal amount of money (say, $50) to take the watch to a local watchmaker to open the watch, take a few pictures of the movement or read off any engravings, and do a timing test. Private sellers will usually do this; professional sellers usually won't. You should make this as easy for the seller as possible; google watchmakers local to the seller, and call them first to make sure they'd be willing to do this, before contacting the seller.
- When bidding on ebay, keep in mind that the huge majority of price moves typically happen in the final ten seconds of the auction. However, this does NOT mean that you should wait until then to place your first bid. As soon as you find an item, make the minimum possible bid on it. This avoids situations where for whatever reason your account is not eligible to bid on an item - this is a really unfortunate thing to discover ten seconds before the auction closes. Then, at the end of your auction, place your actual bid. I usually bid on the android ebay app (which is quite good, and has watchlists, saved searches, etc) 7 seconds before the auction ends, which is enough buffer to usually trust the bid will go through but not enough for other bidders to react to your bid).
- For vintage japanese watches, you may want to use Yahoo JP auctions While ebay is popular worldwide, Yahoo JP is really only used in Japan. Most sellers list only in Japanese, won't answer questions in English, and ship only within Japan. If you live outside Japan you need to use a proxy bidder to access these auctions. I prefer zenmarket; others use buyee. These services allow you to deposit money (through paypal or bank wire), and then use that money to bid on auctions. If you win the auction, zenmarket buys the item on your behalf and the seller ships it to them. They then package it and ship it on to you. Naturally there are some costs to doing this - a small charge for the bidding service, plus whatever shipping they charge (it has been $20 for me to the US for anywhere between 1 and 4 watches). Yahoo JP is definitely the best place to buy vintage Japanese watches, where they are typically much cheaper (one-half to one-tenth the price of ebay, for example), but there are some downsides. There is absolutely zero buyer protection on yahoo JP. No returns, no refunds, no recourse. Yahoo JP sellers also typically do not test watches and may not even certify whether they're running or not, and typically do not respond to questions. They may not have good movement photos or any movement photos. Unless you speak Japanese, you are typically relying on computer-translated text, which is not always clear.
- My general advice is this: 90% of Yahoo JP auctions are too sketchy to bid on. Pass on them. Only bid seriously on auctions that have good shots of a watch movement, and a positive assertion that the watch runs. I've accumulated a collection of 5 non-working examples of a particular watch from Yahoo JP. The upside is that each one of them I got for less than $15 - my hope is that eventually I will have enough that one working watch can be made from the parts - but understand that if you're bidding on something that might not work, you need to low-balling it.
- Watchrecon is a fantastic site launched to aggregate private watch sales listings across many watch forums. Watchuseek is still the main watch sales forum but there are quite a few others. Most of the sellers on watchrecon are private collectors, although there are a few professional dealers. Typically I would rate watchrecon as the place where I am most likely to get a watch taht works and is in decent condition. Sellers are typically responsive to questions and will provide more pictures and timing results, but not all of them have the ability to open cases. Watchrecon is a better place to find modern watches, but there are occasionally some decent vintage pieces on there. Expect to pay more than ebay. Generally you should assume there are absolutely no returns on these watches. There is also no buyer protection built in - nothing guarantees the seller will actually send you anything. I would advise always paying by paypal (or transacting face to face, as many sellers are happy to do). If a seller says they want payment by bank wire, offer to pay the paypal fees (3%, plus another 1% to 5% if currency conversion is involved). Paypal at least provides some measure of protection. Many buyers will simply refuse to accept paypal as a payment though, since paypal overwhelmingly sides with buyers. If you have buying references, be able to provide them.
- Surprisingly, etsy is a reasonable place to find decent deals, especially on lower-end older European or American watches. Etsy, like ebay, has both sellers that have no idea what they have and professional dealers. In my experience, "amateur" sellers on etsy tend to overprice their watches, whereas dealers on etsy tend to have good prices, but it's very variable. Selection on etsy is much more limited than the other venues listed above.
- Some people also have good expierences on reddit watchexchange, but I have no experience there so can't comment.
- Red flags and tips when buying a watch
- Watch movements in vintage watches should look like new. Watches are designed to be sealed containers. If a watch movement shows more than minimal corrosion, rust, or dirt, it may be in absolutely horrible condition. You should probably not buy it.
- Watch dials in vintage watches should be in good shape. Watch dials can fade or speckle over time, usually due to either exposure to sun or due to exposure to radioactive lume material on the hands or indices. However, they should not have signs of water damage or mysterious stains. Aside from looking awful, these are typically a good indication something bad has happened to the watch.
- If a seller indicates a watch is recently serviced, ask for a photo of the receipt for the service (potentially with presonally identifying information blacked out). If the seller can't provide these, assume the watch has not been serviced. If the seller has a picture of the inside of the caseback, look for either a scratched-in date or a date in marker that would typically indicate a watch has been serviced.
- Most vintage vanilla mechanical watches can be serviced by any competent watch maker. However, keep in mind that some vintage pieces may be very difficult to get serviced. High-beat movements (vintage 28,800 or any 36,000+) may have special service requirements. Vintage tuning fork or quartz movements may be very difficult to get serviced (but they definitely still need it).
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