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background/report: Buying vintage watches on ebay?

Ebay is a great! Ebay is full of crooks, Franken watches and disappointments! So what is true?

As with everything, the truth is somewhere in the middle and the more you’re educated on the subject, the more likely you can find great bargains. As for me, I love finding vintage watches on ebay, but it requires a few golden rules, which I’m happy to share.

As these are “The GP Chronicles”, I will stick to examples of Girard-Perregaux vintage watches but the principle can be applied to any brand.

Always search for as many photos of the same model online.

The more examples you can find online, the more likely the watch is genuine. Make sure to pay attention to all details. Are the hands identical, is the printing consistent etc. However, sometimes especially with rare models, you may actually find a rare dial colour you have not seen anywhere else. It could still be a good and rare find, so don’t immediately dismiss it.

Kamasutra dial: seems fun, but never existed as original
Neither did ever a playing cards dial existed

Look closely for details.

For example with GP, there has been a relatively consistent print of the brand and model name on the dials per time-period. If the print is off, like a different font or it appears too wide or narrow, chances are you’re looking at a redial. Another good indicator are tritium or radium lume and its condition. A greenish colour often indicates a later change of lume while tritium often has faded to a cream colour and radium anything from dark green to almost black or also yellow/brown.

inconsistent brand name print, repainted dial
A piece unique from fantasy land

Try to find the Reference model number.

Most watches have a Reference model number engraved somewhere. It could be on the case back either on the outside or inside or sometimes between the lugs. With the Reference number known, you have a much higher success rate finding identical watches and do a comparison.

Reference number “7373” between the lugs

Insist on seeing the movement.

Often you can read things like “barn find”, “inherited from my dad”, “I don’t have the tools to open” etc. If you really want to verify, it is best to also see the movement and check if it is consistent with the model Reference. Have I bought vintage watches before without seeing the movement? I have and I have taken my chances as it was a very rare model at a very good price but be prepared to be surprised, like I was in the below example.

A Gyromatic Crosshair that looked promising
but unpacking it, revealed a wrong movement

Condition. Condition. Condition.

You can call this dial what you want, but it’s just beyond repair.

Even the rarest model makes no sense to buy if the condition is really poor. Most importantly, once a dial is blemished, there is nothing you can do. There are collectors out there that put special value on destroyed dials and call them whatever, but in general, not a good idea unless you have an even patina or discolouration. Second important aspect is the case. Once a case has been polished, the material is gone forever and an over-polished watch will not provide you with long-term pleasure. Broken movements, scratched or cracked plexis can be fixed. Missing an original crown can be tricky to get corrected but with patience, it’s not impossible.


So those are the basic rules to sort out the Franken or lost-forever watches you want to avoid buying. However, that does not mean you are making a bargain. How to find a good bargain provided the above basic checks have all been positive?

Auctions or Buy-Nows?

No golden rule here. I have had very good “Buy-Now” bargains and I have seen watches go to insane prices on auctions. Do your homework, set yourself a budget and then do not dismiss either Auctions or Buy-Now offers. Price suggestions are another good way of pushing the price down, but always put yourself into the Seller’s shoes before you offer a price at 70% Off. And that you should hold your horses with bidding at auctions till the very end is no secret either.

A rare 1968 Olimpico black dial “Buy-Now” with wrong hands. Took me some effort to find correct hands, but was surely worth it.

Badly presented watches.

I love ebay auctions of watches that although are good enough presented that you can verify them, but have otherwise poor photos of low quality or poor presentation. That can often lead to a great bargain. I also had watches where the seller was basically too lazy to do some basic cleaning. They are full of slime and when you unpack them at home and clean them, you may actually find a case that is nearly “New-Old-Stock”. Those are the best bargains!

A great ebay bargain that was dirty and scratched
Another bargain, an almost perfect Damier Gyromatic that was poorly presented

Go off the beaten track.

An original “Vintage 1945” from a penny shop on ebay

We all want to have that cool vintage Chronograph or rare Diver model from the 1960s that everyone wants to have. Well, let me assure you, those will no longer be bargains. There are too many people out there that watch out for those watches and such auctions will typically end up at or above current market value. You may as well buy those models from an established vintage watch dealer and get a better deal and service. But if you are collecting a certain theme, look for bargains off-the-beaten track. They may well become sought after in the future and then you are the lucky one who bought it at the right time.

Conclusion.

Finding bargains on ebay is possible and often very rewarding. Be prepared to not get it right 100% of the time and try to stick to a price range where you can write off a certain percentage as loss. The more information you have plus a good portion of luck, then ebay can be a great source of vintage watches that are not yet the super hot collectors items.

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