Determining, by yourself, the value of an old pocket watch
“How much is my old pocket watch worth?” is a question pocket watch owners often ask.
Having your old pocket watch appraised by a professional is undoubtedly the easiest way of establishing its worth. But blindly sending it for appraisal might end up costing you more than the timepiece’s actual selling price.
If you want to avoid losing money, the best choice is to perform an initial assessment of the watch. A pre-assessment, while not accurate, can give you an opinion of the item's potential value.
After the initial appraisal, you can confidently choose the next step to take. If it’s valuable, you can have it appraised by a professional with little risk.
Establishing the value of an antique pocket watch requires expertise in horology and a good grasp of the current market trends.
A normal appraisal process undergoes three steps: Identification, Evaluation and Pricing. Identification centers on researching the identity of the item, Evaluation is the grading the item's condition and Pricing assigns its probable market worth.
In a pocket watch appraisal, the identification step alone is very complicated and involves digging information and counterchecking them with databases. The evaluation step is even harder.
We’re going to make things simpler by looking for what I refer to as “signs of value.” And to make it even easier, I devised a series of guide questions.
Ready your pocket watch and let’s start with the eight most important signs to look for when valuing a pocket watch.
1. Does the pocket watch have a mechanical movement?
A watch is run by a mechanism, commonly referred to as a movement, which measures the passage of time. In pocket watch collecting, the movement is considered as the soul of the timepiece. There two types of movements – mechanical and electronic.
A mechanical pocket watch is powered by a mechanical movement consists of gears, springs and chains. The craftsmanship and aesthetic appeal of mechanical watches make them extremely attractive to collectors; thus, increasing their worth. On the other hand, electronic or battery-powered timepieces have little to no value.
Most old pocket watches have mechanical movements. A watch that has been handed down through generations is most likely a mechanical pocket watch.
2. Is the pocket watch still working?
Condition defines the value of a pocket watch. There is a rating system referred to as pocket watch condition grade to determine the condition of a watch.
Judging the condition of a watch requires expertise on the subject and a good eye for detail. Instead of delving into the technical aspect of grading your watches, we’re going to use a simpler method for judging their conditions – by checking if it’s still working or not.
To test your watch, gently wind the pocket watch and start it up. If you hear the familiar “tic”, it is working.
The price of a working pocket watch is, at least, three times, that of a non-working one. Non-working watches will sell for scrap value. Horologists and restorers buy defective antique and vintage pocket watches for their parts.
Unless you have a rare pocket watch, restoring it would cost more than its value. In most cases, the selling price of a restored or repaired watch will barely cover for the restoration fee.
3. Is the old pocket watch encased in precious metal?
Pocket watch cases made of gold, silver or platinum are highly priced not only for the metal’s intrinsic value but also for aesthetics. The case will usually be stamped with the metal that it’s made of.
The value of a gold pocket watch, for example, generally depends on the amount of gold in it. A working 10-carat gold pocket watch in good condition will only be valued at around USD 75.
Engravings and rubbings on the case decrease the timepiece’s value. On the other hand, engravings on non-precious metals might increase the value of the pocket watch.
Many gold cases have been melted leaving behind uncased movements. These are still saleable for their parts. A complete set of Breguet hands in good condition, for example, can be sold at around USD 10. A fusee movement with an intact chain is worth around USD 40.
4. Is the vintage pocket watch manufactured by a reputable maker?
In pocket watch collecting, the quality of the watch is synonymous to its maker. Thus it’s essential to determine the manufacturer of the watch.
Famous makers of pocket watches stamp their name on the case or face of the watch and provide a certificate of authenticity. You should see such inscription on the watch. Mass-produced vintage American pocket watches will have the name or mark of their makers on the face.
Working gold watches marked with names like Patek Philippe and Breguet will automatically be modestly valued at USD 750.
5. Is the pocket watch hallmarked?
Hallmarks refer to the markings on jewelry that indicate its precious metal composition and purity. Think of hallmarks as an insurance of the stated quality and value of the materials used in the item.
Valuable watches usually bear hallmarks on the case. Each stamped figure has a corresponding meaning. Swiss pocket watch hallmarks, for example, does not only indicate the metal and its purity but also the place where it was made.
Check the case of your watch for hallmarks. A pocket watch made of gold, silver or platinum is usually hallmarked. Watches that aren’t hallmarked will sell for scrap value.
If you have, at least, four yeses to the questions above, then it’s safe to assume that you are carrying a valuable pocket watch. You can now proceed with having the item appraised by a professional.
Additional factors that affect the value of an old pocket watch
There are other factors that can significantly increase the value of pocket watches. The presence of the following will make your watch more valuable.
Does the old pocket watch still have the original packaging?
A working mechanical pocket watch with the original case complete with warranty, authenticity certificate, manual and spare parts will fetch, at least, 10% more than just the pocket watch itself.
Does the pocket watch have complications?
Complications are additional features of a pocket watch. Examples of complications are minute repeater, perpetual calendar, alarm and thermometer. The more complications a pocket watch has, the more expensive it becomes.
Determining the number of complications in a pocket watch is difficult. What you can do is look for additional dials on the face of a pocket watch. The more sub-dials the watch has the more complications it has.
Demand and its effect on the price of the pocket watch
Demand for a collectible item such as a pocket watch is hard to determine. Still, it’s important to understand its effect on the value of a pocket watch.
Demand refers to how sought-after is an item by collectors. In pocket watch collecting, demand can be considered as the factor that ultimately set the price of the watch. Pocket watches that are put into auctions are those that are very collectable and with high demand.
It is important to remember that the appraised value is only an opinion of the worth of the pocket watch. In the end, the real value of a pocket watch is the price that the buyer is willing to pay.
In conclusion, let’s see how the factors discussed above affect the value of a pocket watch. Let’s take the 1914 George Thompson Double-Dial pocket watch as an example. The watch surfaced in the TV series Antique Roadshow.
The Thompson watch is in excellent working condition equipped with a mechanical movement. It is housed in an 18-karat engine-turned case manufactured by luxury watchmaker Patek Philippe. The owner who brought it had the box along with spare parts and photocopy of the authenticity certificate. Some of its complications are a minute repeater, a perpetual calendar, and a moon-phase dial.
Fifteen years prior, the watch was professionally-appraised and was valued at USD 6,000. It was valued by a watch expert on the popular television show Antique Roadshow for, at least, USD 250,000. During a Sotheby auction, it was sold for USD 1,541,212.