If you inherit a watch these days, one that's been passed down through one or more generations, you probably know you have reason to be excited. It might be something with an important family story, something you can keep and treasure and pass along. Or it could be something valuable to sell.
But if you're not already a watch enthusiast or collector, you might not recognize the name of its manufacturer—let alone understand how much the thing is worth. And just because you don’t see a name like Rolex, Omega, or Patek Philippe on it doesn’t mean you haven’t hit the jackpot. The vintage watch collecting market is now hotter than it’s ever been, and a lot of lesser-known brands—Universal Geneve, Enicar, and even vintage Movado watches—are starting to be worth some serious cash. If a vintage heirloom has landed in your hands, here’s a quick guide to where to look and what to look for to decipher the value of your new timepiece.
Start With Google
Sure, this sounds like a no-brainer, but to narrow the search, Google Images is always your first step. Search any combination of words that appears on the dial, and if you have any other pertinent details (approximate era your elder may have acquired it), this can be equally helpful. Say you inherited this Wittnauer watch, for example. Searching "Wittnauer watch" on its own sends you down a rather deep rabbit hole. Adding the word chronograph to the mix brings you much closer, and guessing a ballpark date (1960s) to the keywords leads you to a random website that shows you a few more photos and names its manual-wind movement, and also to an EBay landing page with a few comparable listings on it (more on the dreaded EBay later…). Not all these sites are necessarily totally accurate, but lots of little facts can help point you in the right direction. Now that you’ve narrowed things down to make and model, it’s time to dig a little deeper.
The Online Marketplace
There are a ton of online watch retailers these days, making it easier than ever to get at least a loose ballpark value of your new-to-you vintage watch. Be warned, just because you see one obscure site with a watch similar to yours listed for more than $10,000 doesn’t mean yours will earn anywhere near that. At this stage of the game, there are a few key places you should be looking.
Chrono24.com is one of the best aggregator sites for watch retailers around the planet, and if anywhere will give you a relatively accurate high-low ballpark, it’s this site. Using the vintage Wittnauer chronograph as our example yet again, a skim of the site shows a few similar examples ranging from less than $1,000 to more than $2,000. We aren’t out of the woods yet, but this at least puts you in the ballpark. Watchrecon is also a great tool in some cases, as it aggregates all listings from such online sales forums as Watchuseek, Timezone, and others. The difference here is that the majority of users are collectors instead of retailers, so some examples might be priced a little higher than they should be. As mentioned above, your best bet is to ignore anything that seems higher or lower than average.
In cases where the piece in question has been tenderly cared for and is in immaculate condition, pricing can be found at a few other places. The top-tier of the online vintage watch retailers—specifically, such folks as analog/shift, HQ Milton, and Hodinkee’s online shop—tend to offer the best of the best in the vintage realm, and their prices reflect it. If your watch has some wear and tear, don’t expect to reach their sticker prices, but if gramps was a little obsessive-compulsive about caring for his belongings, you might be in the same range.
Having bought, sold, and traded countless times over the years, I've found the most obnoxious line to be: “Well, I saw one for sale on EBay recently for $XX,XXX.” Consider EBay the armpit of online watch sales. Any watch bought or sold on EBay is effectively a gamble, you need to do a ton of research on any seller, most watches sitting on EBay with a “Buy It Now” button end up selling for significantly less than the listed price, and most importantly, a lot of sellers are throwing astronomical sticker prices on things with the mantra, “Maybe some sucker out there will pay this much for it.” (For a great example, have a look at this absurdly overpriced tropical-dial gold Rolex Submariner ref. 1680 listed for $95,000.) Do yourself a favor and focus more on trusted watch-specific marketplaces instead.