June 15, 2024

Phillips, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen… Inside the wonderful world of record auctions with Marcello De Marco

We don’t get surprised anymore. The growth trend has in fact become steady, and when dealing with unique pieces, well, then, the exploit becomes a constant – a coup de théâtre that resonates far beyond the circle of mechanical watches enthusiasts and insiders, and spreads to the mainstream media like a Picasso painting or a Ferrari California from the Sixties. We are talking about Phillips’ latest auction last December 12th in New York, which awarded 135 watches – that is, 99% of the lots – for a total gain of almost 23 million euros, with the sale of truly iconic watches such as these first five, by final sales price: the legendary Daytona Ref. 6263 “Big Red” that belonged to Paul Newman, sold for 4.5 million euros; the Heuer Monaco Ref. 1133 that Steve McQueen, when he was finishing shooting the movie “Le Mans,” gave to his trusted mechanic Haig Alltounian (and that, with 1.8 million euros, broke all records for the house that today belongs to the LVMH Group); a pluricomplicated Patek Philippe Ref. 3974G-001 (€843,000); and two Richard Mille watches from the collection of super-aficionado Sylvester Stallone, the RM52-01 and the RM25-01, which fetched €823,000 and €773,000 respectively. And without forgetting the new record for a Panerai: the Ref. 5218-201/A worn by Stallone in “Daylight” has in fact reached the price of 214 thousand dollars.

Rolex Daytona Phillips
Heuer Monaco Phillips


On the other hand, in recent years the world of watch auctions is living a real “golden age” with a dominant figure in the sector – comparable, just to make a sporting comparison, to that of Lebron James in American basketball. Our hero bears the name of Aurel Bacs. Swiss, born in 1971, a passion for watches since his teenage years that made him a leading figure of watchmaking since the 1990s: first at Sotheby’s, then at Christie’s and, since 2014, deus ex machina – together with his wife Livia Russo – at the centuries-old Phillips where he has become the legendary artisan of the most famous watches on the planet. Such as the Daytona 6239 with a Paul Newman dial (New York 2017: $17.7 million) belonging to Paul Newman – at the time the most expensive wristwatch ever; one of the four existing Patek 1518 in steel (Geneva 2016: 11 million Swiss francs); the Daytona 6265 in white gold dubbed “The Unicorn” (Geneva 2018: 5 million euros); the GMT-Master 1675 that Marlon Brando wore in “Apocalypse Now” (New York 2019: $1.95 million); and the Vacheron Constantin “Don Pancho,” named after the nickname of its first owner Francisco Martinez Llano (Geneva 2019: 651 thousand euros). That said, not everyone knows that the dream team captained by the legendary Aurel includes the very Italian Marcello de Marco, a 37-year-old Milanese who has turned his passion for hands into a job that has brought him, in less than a decade, in close contact with Bacs – and consequently to the top of the industry’s food chain.

Marcello De Marco


The first two questions are inevitable. How do you get to work for the industry’s number-one team, and how do you comment on the December 12 auction? “Passion, will and luck brought me to Aurel’s team, who is a man of unparalleled charisma, with a work ethic as rigorous as engaging, and an uncommon intelligence that doesn’t let him be mistaken about the timing of any auction,” says Marcello de Marco, Specialist and Business Development Associate in the Geneva Watches Department since 2017. “While the ‘Racing Pulse’ auction was the icing on the cake of a record 2020 for Phillips, confirming that watches are real assets even at such a difficult time for humanity.

Going down into detail, in your opinion, what is the common thread, if there is one besides obvious rarity, connecting the record results of some models, starting, for example, with Paul Newman’s two Daytonas and all the way to Steve McQueen’s Monaco? “Apart from the indispensable uniqueness of the object in question, I see a common thread in the exceptional nature of the storytelling around these watches. In addition to the three mentioned, I’m thinking of the Omega Ref. H6582/D96043 with 44 diamonds brilliantly set on the bezel, sold in 2018 in our Geneva auction for 1.5 million euros: still the most expensive timepiece by the Bienne brand.

Omega Elvis Phillips

This is not a Speedmaster that went to the moon… “In fact, it is a white gold single time with a restrained diameter of 32.5 mm.”

Its virtue? “It was Elvis Presley’s watch, a present from the president of RCA to celebrate 75 million records sold. Beat that storytelling!


Besides the legendary pieces, auctions as a whole have been going through exceptional success for a while now, with contemporary models getting even higher valuations than those on the market – thus conditioning it in part. How do you explain this? “In the latter case, it’s thanks to the mix of guarantees and emotions offered by an auction purchase. The piece you want is there, with the certainty of a risk-free transaction. So, for some wealthy people, buying the object at a slightly higher price than what they would maybe obtain after months of doubts and research is a very valid trade-off. On the other hand, with intuition and luck it is also possible to make good bargains, grabbing watches at under-market prices. And this is also the beauty of auctions. However, in general, the auction world’s success is the result of the Internet and social networks, with the ever-increasing diffusion of knowledge and awareness about high-end watchmaking among end customers all over the world. So much so that, while back in the day auctions were mainly attended by specialized dealers, today the percentage is benefitting the end customer, who is also young.


Marcello, now let’s take the crystal ball and imagine the future of auctions, the watches to aim for and those to sell… “Well, the current references will remain such because they have, to all intents, become safe havens with minimal variations even during the Covid-19 months. I for one would bet on the Patek Ref. 5235G, a wonderful regulator with annual calendar which I love and actually bought for myself. I would add the Rolex Freccione, which has a lot of growth potential, and also several Cartier models that have crazy style content. Some independent brands already represent a certainty, particularly Philippe Dufour and F.P. Journe. About those to sell, regarding contemporary production I would keep an eye on those brands that exaggerate by producing too many pieces with the inevitable risk of inflating the market, as it already happened to a greater or lesser extent with some very famous brands. In this sense, however, it must be said that today the production-distribution strategy of the big brands, starting from the forerunners Patek Philippe and Rolex, but now also in a pervasive way all over the world, is very careful in this regard.

By Michele Mengoli