Remember the Good Old Days . . . Before OnTheDash?

We launched OnTheDash on February 12, 2003, with an email message to 80 recipients.  A few days ago, I received a message from one of these recipients, who I have been in touch with from time to time over the years.  In his message he reminisced about the good old days, shared some thoughts about the state of the current market, and also posed a few questions for me.  To mark the 12th birthday of OnTheDash, let me publish the message that I sent to this gentleman.

 

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Nick:

It’s great to hear from you!  As I mentioned in my quick reply, I was recently doing some work on my old email files, and had a look at the message that I sent on February 12, 2003, announcing the launch of OnTheDash.

I scanned the names of the recipients and while I recognized almost all the names, I realized how, over the years, almost all of them may have moved on to other hobbies or otherwise drifted away from the community.  (Recall that, at its inception, OnTheDash was dedicated to dashboard timers, with minimal content about the chronographs, so most of the recipients of that message were dashboard timer enthusiasts, rather than the chronograph guys.)  Of course, you were one of the folks that I remembered well – recalling specific watches and conversations that we had back in the early years, even before OnTheDash.

I was mighty proud of OnTheDash . . . couldn’t believe how amazing the homepage looked.

The First Meeting Place – eBay. 

As I looked at the 80 names on that initial message, it made me wonder how in the world we communicated, before the Heuer discussion forums, before any of the Heuer websites, and – of course – before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr and the other social media.  Seeing these 80 names, I realized that the way we found each other was almost entirely through eBay.  You will remember that in the early years of eBay, you could easily contact the sellers listing the watches, as well as all the other bidders.  The minute an auction ended, or even while it was under way, there was chatter about the item and invariably some collusion in the bidding.  So we actually “met” as a couple of the guys who used to regularly bid on the Heuer dashboard timers.

And here’s an irony for you.  You referred to eBay as being at the center of our community of collectors, and indeed it was a safe place to buy and sell watches, with free flowing communications between all the participants.  Now, for many of us, eBay has become the marketplace of last resort, a “Wild West” where the most you can do is come out alive and all communications must flow through eBay itself.  Not exactly the friendly place we enjoyed in 1998!

From Dashboard Timers to Chronographs

Yes, those were the days when I believed that my wrists were too skinny for what seemed to be the giant Heuer chronographs.  But over time, I got into the Heuer chronographs and finally took the plunge on my first one, shown on the left.  You took a different path to the world of Heuers, receiving this one as a gift, at age 16.

  

Your collection is definitely looking good.  You’ve come a long way from that old Daytona to the current box-full of Heuers.

The Hits and the Misses

You mentioned that we had both “passed” on one of the McQueen Monacos from the property master of Le Mans, being convinced that even this provenance did not justify the asking price of around $10,000 (probably four or five times the price of a “normal” Monaco).  Could we have possibly imagined one of these selling for $799,500 in 2012!  I’ll take the excuse of being a lawyer but, as an investment professional, this doesn’t look good on your record.

But of all the Monacos that I passed on, the one I remember most clearly was a nice looking Chronomatic, on its bracelet, that was listed on eBay.  The seller wanted something like $2,200 and I stalled out somewhere in the $1,800 to $2,000 range.  You see, this would have been my very first Monaco, and I clearly remember my thought process – let me start with a “standard” Monaco, at around $1,500, rather than paying the big premium for the “Chronomatic” version.  I figured that if I enjoyed a standard Monaco, then I can always try one of these Chronomatics.  But it seemed to make no sense to start with the more exotic (expensive) model.  It’s hard to imagine what that Chronomatic would be worth now.  Oh well.

The Chronomatic Autavia that I most vividly recall “missing” was a bit different than the miss on the Chronomatic Monaco.  This Autavia was listed on TimeZone, sometime around the year 2002, in nice condition, on the original bracelet, for the price of $599.

I missed the $2,200 Chronomatic Monaco because I was too cheap, and I missed this $599 Chronomatic Siffert because I was 10 or 15 minutes too late, in responding to a listing.  But I missed it, and the seller was committed to his buyer, so that was that.  Those were the good old days, when gentlemen didn’t interfere with each other’s purchases.

Of course, I was always admired your Chronomatic Autavia (of the “Siffert” variety), and always always imagined that at some point I would purchase it from you or trade for it.  I’m sad to hear that it is no longer part of your collection.

Were We Pricing the Autavias by the Pound? 

In my earliest years of collecting the Heuer chronographs (say, around 2000), most of the automatic Autavias were selling in the $300 to $500 range.  I don’t know exactly which models are the subject of this recollection, but maybe that’s the point.  We didn’t really distinguish between the 1163 Viceroy and the 1163 MH, as opposed to the 11630 P or the 11063 Diver 100.  A black automatic Autavia was pretty much a black automatic Autavia, regardless of the geometry of the “V” or the letters on the end-pieces of the bracelet.  Maybe the ones in nicer condition sold for $500 and the poorer samples sold for $300, but this variation in prices wasn’t driven by any detailed knowledge of the models or their relative scarcity.  Who knows . . . perhaps we paid the premiums for the bigger ones, with the smaller ones selling at a discount.

In those early days of eBay, I can’t recall seeing many of the manual wind Autavias from the 1960s.  It seems that there was more demand for the automatic Autavias (and, of course, more supply of these).

About the Prices.

You mentioned the strong appreciation in the prices of the vintage Heuer chronographs in recent years, and indeed some members of our community have been lamenting the fact that the prevailing prices of some of the standard, non-Grail models have recently jumped up to new levels.  (Of course, we had the same discussions about the Grails some years ago, but for most of us, these have been gone for a while.)  I really have mixed feelings about this across-the-board appreciation in prices of the Heuers.

When They’re Gone, They’re Gone. 

To be honest, I can’t say that I really regret the appreciation in prices.  If the $1,000 Sifferts are now selling for $10,000, it affects me in a couple of ways.  First, I look at the one that I own and ask whether owning it is really worth the price of a semester of college (assuming a state college, with in-state tuition).  If it’s not, then maybe it’s time to sell the thing.  But that leads me to a second difference in the way I think about the watches in the current market.  Now, if I sell the Siffert for $10,000 or the Transitional Monaco north of $20,000, I am assuming that I will never own the same model again (unless I get lucky at a flea market or am first to spot a mispriced BuyItNow on eBay).

Psychologically, that’s been a bit of an adjustment, but I have only sold a couple of the ones that I really like. So my current mind-set is that when they’re gone, they’re gone.  The only watch that has tempted me to deviate from this approach is the first execution Autavia 1163 GMT.

I sometimes ask myself whether I could be happy selling a lot more of my Heuers, and being content merely to write about them, but that still seems very unlikely.

High Net Worth (and Ultra High Net Worth)

Given your career as an investment professional, and especially one who appreciates “value investing” in alternative assets, I enjoyed your comments about the current state of the vintage watch market.  It’s fascinating that you see (relatively) more safety in the higher priced Heuers than in the lower-priced ones, and that’s something that I had never really thought about.  But if it’s the high net worth investors (or ultra high net worth investors) who have driven prices to this level, I must agree that these “strong hands” tend not to be sellers and are certainly less likely to panic.

Indeed, the $50,000 Chronomatic may not get much scrutiny on the $50 million balance sheet, while the $2,500 Autavia Viceroy is more likely to be dumped on the market, by an investor who is more affected by short-term changes in the markets.

Still, I will admire your courage if, after booking a nice profit on the Chronomatic Autavia that you might have purchased in 2002, for $2,000, you will have the stomach / confidence to buy another, at today’s prevailing prices.  Based on your experience with the cars, I’m sensing that you are happy selling them, only to enjoy the challenge of finding

A Quick Lesson in Supply and Demand. 

You are absolutely correct that for every vintage Heuer that we see on the market there are 100 Rolexes (or even more), but of course the irony comes in your next statement – that for every 100 collectors who might be interested in Heuers there are 10,000 who chases the Rolexes.  The differential in the supply certainly became apparent to me, in my recent search for a Rolex Submariner 5513.  Jump on the internet looking to spend $8,000 on a Submariner 5513, and you can find 50 of them.  Now try to find the $8,000 screw-back Autavia, and you will do well to find one or two of them.

From eBay to ChronoTrader.

As you search for some nice old Heuers, I hope that you will consider using ChronoTrader and I’m sorry to hear that the recent arrival of a scammer (or two) on ChronoTrader has made you hesitant to post “Want to Buy” messages there.  There are scammers in just about every market and as annoying as it may be, I am confident that most of our participants are smart enough not to get “taken” by the crooks and that the crooks will soon head for the exits.  ChronoTrader has had huge growth over the past year, with traffic up over 50% from last year, so we are hesitant to impose any new requirements for listings.  It seems that we are achieving the network effect – attracting good sellers because of the good buyers, and vice versa – so if we can just endure the current wave of scam listings, we should be OK.  Even if you don’t receive any offers of watches as a result of your Want to Buy postings, it’s probably to get the word out that you are on the prowl for some of the high-end pieces.

Playing with the House’s Money. 

When people lament the strong increase in prices for the vintage Heuer chronographs, it makes me wonder what they would be saying if the market for these watches had gone the other direction or stayed flat.  Looking at the customary $1,500 to $2,000 that we were paying for Monacos back in the good old days, would it really be more fun if they were now changing hands for $1,000 or $1,200, or even in the range between $2,000 and $2,500?  Yes, there might be more activity in the market and perhaps more watches might be accessible to more collectors, but would we really be enthusiastic about investing in these “wasting” assets?  I’m just not smart enough to be able to visualize what the market for vintage Heuers would look like in a down or flat market.

So I’ll admit that “playing with the house’s money” makes this hobby more relaxing (and rational) for me.  I’m not sure how I would feel if my collection of a few dozen vintage Heuers were now worth half or three quarters the price that I had paid for them.  If we can’t have the prices linked to the Consumer Price Index, then I am happier with them appreciating faster than the other asset classes.

But It’s Not All About the Money

Some have also suggested that our community focuses too much on the prices of the watches and that this detracts from the pleasure of collecting.  All in all, I believe that we have found a good balance between discussing the watches and discussing the prices.  For every discussion a record price, there are several discussions about the racers who wore them, the history of the watches or some other aspect of the watches themselves.  Indeed, I believe that most of the members of our community get more excited about the discovery of a new execution of the Autavia or a new scan of an old catalog, than about the price of a Viceroy moving from $2,000 to $2,500.

I’m probably comparing apples to oranges, but I’m confident that our body of knowledge about these old Heuers has expanded at least as rapidly as the prevailing market prices.  And yes, there is some element of cause and effect there (but that can be another topic for another day).

What Comes Next? 

In response to your comments about social media and how we will communicate in the future, let me share a couple of quick thoughts.  I am confident that reference sites like OnTheDash will be around for the long-haul and that discussion forums will also remain useful,  even in the face of the newer social media.  Yes, there are numerous Facebook groups covering vintage watches, but, while fun for “show and tell”, the format really isn’t ideal for serious discussions about watches and their history.  And as long as Google isn’t indexing and referencing the Facebook postings, they will not be good references for the new enthusiasts.  You know that I am also a huge fan of Twitter, to keep up with the new information that is being published every day.

And in Closing . . .

Thanks for reconnecting and thanks for sharing so many wonderful memories about the good old days.  Indeed, we have moved from email to Twitter, from one coffee-table book to a dozen websites dedicated to the Heuers, and from the $300 Autavias (Viceroy) to the $30,000 Autavias (Chronomatic).  Most remarkable of all, we have built an amazing community of enthusiasts, who like each other as much as they like the old Heuers.  And that’s what’s made it all worthwhile.

It’s just past midnight, so I’ll sign off for now.  You know the drill – one last look at eBay, then it’s lights out for four or five hours, then we wake up and check eBay again.  Who knows . . . maybe when I wake up, I’ll be the first to see that amazing one-owner Chronomatic Monaco, listed with a $2,200 BuyItNow!!

All the best,

Jeff

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Jeff Stein
February 12, 2015

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