Friday, June 24, 2011

Why are serial numbers so important?

The other day I was going through a pile of old watch magazines, when a glossy two-page flyer "flew out" of the Horologian Society. The title grabbed my attention:

"STOLEN. The following watches were stolen in London on 2nd June, 1980. Any information as to their whereabouts, etc. please pass to Det. Sergeant McMahon, Vine St Police station, London, SW1 or the Art and Antiques Squad, New Scotland Yard, London Phone 01-230 2150"

What followed was a list of 13 pockewatches with photographs and very detailed descriptions. The stuff were without any doubt both high grade and highly collectable. A couple of watches were Breguet, there was also a nice Kullberg, a Buffat Tourbillon and a vintage Lange. I can almost feel the owner's pain.

I wondered what would be the chances, 30 years later, of tracking any of these watches. To my surprise, it only took 2 minutes of googling to track the Breguets. After all, individually numbered and unique in design, they would be impossible to hide!

In November 1999, both Breguet No. 3259 and No 3964 were sold at Christie's. Here is the link to No 3259:

Accompanied with provenance notes:

Purchased by M. Le Comte de Toreno, 4 September 1821, for 4,800 French Francs. The Belin Collection, no. 170, Sotheby's, London, 29 November 1979, lot 194.

Based on the above, we know that last recorded sale was in November 1979. But what happened seven months later remains a mystery.

The second Breguet was also sold at the very same auction so we can assume that they remained together for 19 years after the theft. Curiously, both watches were no longer associated with their original chains and fobs.

I was able to trace one more watch: Hunt and Roskell No 10413. It was mentioned in Merrill Lynch Cap Gemini (a managed fund) World Wealth report in 2007 and it is now part of a fund offered to investors interested in fine arts. God's strange ways...

I guess it would not be all that difficult to trace most of the stolen watches. Thanks to the fact that more auctioneers and dealers list stocks online, it would be just a matter of time before they will resurface.

So the bottom line is this: keep a good record of your collection. Serial numbers, photos, detailed description including receipts, guarantee cards etc. are essential if there would ever be need to report them as missing.

Second point: never buy a watch with serial numbers removed! And dare I say - never deal with dealers who refuse to disclose serial numbers online! Dealers have only two "valid" reasons for not disclosing serial numbers publicly: for fear that such stock could be stolen or to 'cook the books' and avoid GST and income tax. A legitimate business should also provide and disclose unique stock numbers, valuations and Tax invoices.

Second hand dealing in Australia is a highly regulated area and have strict rules with regards to handling stock and collecting data - including regular reporting to the Police. Therefore it is not a matter of choice to report or not, to disclose or not or to hide and play dumb. This is the only way to keep the traders 'honest'.

Similar regulations are in place in almost every country in the world. Online dealing is no different to 'over the counter' dealing so the same rules apply. Don't settle for less because by buying illegitimate stock or supporting shonky dealers, you are actually sailing in murky waters - and possibly be the first one to sink ending up as shark's feed.

Remember: the honest dealer has nothing to hide!

At the end of the day, we are merely guardians taking care of fine horology for generations to come. What an enjoyable and noble task!

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