22 January 2016

Fakes and Frankenwatches: the murky world of online watch buying


“Where there’s muck, there’s brass”, used to be the old Yorkshire saying. In other words, if you’re prepared to do the dirty jobs nobody else will, there’s money in it.

In the world of vintage watches though, we are increasingly finding that where there’s brass there’s muck as a combination of the popularity and cost of vintage watches and the internet has led to an explosion of fakery and swindling.

We should clear something up straight away if we’re going to discuss fake watches and how to avoid buying one – what do we mean by “fake”?

We all know someone who has returned from Islamabad or Hong Kong or one of a number of other places with a “Rolex” which cost them $200. These complete fakes have existed as long as nice watches have been expensive. The cheapest of movements, and everything else built up from nasty materials to look as much like the real thing as possible (and to give credit where it’s due, the best of them are real works of art in terms of attention to detail, at least from more than six feet away). Most give up the ghost within a year, or within a day if the buyer happens to wear them in the rain.

They’re not sold as genuine to fool the buyer, they’re sold as fake to fool people the buyer wants to impress. I find it a bit sad but it doesn’t bother me. It’s overt fakery and people only have themselves to blame when it ends up in the bin before their air miles have registered.

The wave of fakery you will encounter (knowingly or otherwise) simply by opening eBay and searching vintage watches is different, though. This is covert and it’s fraudulent. These are watches which are almost always partly genuine, partly what they claim to be, but they’re made to sell for large sums to people who think they’re buying the real thing.

It’s criminal, and in some parts of the world it’s such good business it’s now in the hands of organised criminals rather than individual tricksters.

In a world of media exaggeration I hesitate to use the work “epidemic” but let’s put it like this: if you spend two hours online looking at vintage watches for sale via internet auctions I would think about one in six of the pieces you look at are not what they claim to be, probably more actually.

These are known as “Frankenwatches”. In the case of pieces selling for the low hundreds, especially old Seikos, this tends to manifest itself in items like the dial, or hands or crown(s) not being original but sourced from the growing “replacement” sector. In other words a cheap version which looks like the original part but is newly made.

But when you get to more prestigious names from Switzerland or Germany the Frankenwatch becomes a whole new thing. Often it will be something which looks original to the untrained eye but has been built up from parts from other models (or sometimes entirely different manufacturers). Sometimes key elements which mark the watch as a particularly desirable model, or limited edition, will have been “vintage painted” on to the dial.

Often what you have is a £500 watch which has been carefully remade to look like a £5,000 watch, and it’s in this price range you’ll find the most offenders, because it’s in this price range you’ll find the most punters to swindle.

But even the very top end isn’t immune. Pictured at the head of this article is a Patek Philippe 1463 in steel which was listed on eBay for more than $25,000. It was, as the excellent watch writer Louis Westphalen noted in his indispensable “Bring a Loupe” column on the Hodinkee website, a complete fake. It’s not a very good one either, but someone was set to be a lot worse off before the seller did a runner thanks to Louis’s column (which you can read here).

This, at first glance, limited edition Speedmaster ”Japanese” is another. There’s lots wrong with it but if you blow the pic up and stare hard enough you can even see where someone’s painted out the original model designation on the dial.
A limited edition Omega 

The joy of the eBay platform is you have access to a global market, the horror is that the chances of holding your intended purchase in your hands before you’ve paid for it are slim. Caveat emptor indeed.

In a moment we’re going to look at a few basic steps you can take to try to ensure that the your parcel is full of joy when it arrives, and not a box to collect your tears in, but the final thing to say before we do that is that whilst my advice below is focussed on eBay, the giant auction site is not the only place where dodgy fakes exist.

Iffy watches can be found everywhere, including the plethora of pop-up “luxury” used watch shops which have appeared across major cities in the last two years to cash in on this expanded market. Even proper, honest auction houses occasionally drop the ball, so my advice is to be like a character in a John le Carre novel and trust nobody except yourself.

Don’t be scared off though, there are thousands of honest sellers of honest watches out there and lots of happiness to be had, and bargains can be found. Here’s my best advice for how to stay safe shopping for vintage online.

1. Images – Someone selling a watch they know (or think they know) to be honest will do their best to provide good, clear, detailed pictures of it. If the pictures offered are poor, be mighty suspicious immediately. Messaging the seller to ask for clear ones is often useful (although watch out for then getting images of a genuine watch, not the one you’re bidding on…a common trick).

2. Numbers – You are obviously not daft enough to buy an expensive vintage watch unseen without checking all the case and movement numbering. Of course you’re not. So you do, and it all looks fine. Imagine your surprise then when you carefully go back through the seller’s previously sold items and discover he’s sold six others with consecutive, similar or even identical, numbers.

3. Communication – Your social antennae are better than you think. Always, always, find an excuse to message the seller. Ask questions, even if they’re daft ones, be chatty and friendly and see what comes back. My experience is that whilst polite, helpful, literate responses are not a guarantee of anything, rude, surly or evasive ones are almost always a sign of something lurking beneath the bed. Listen to your feelings Luke…that’s your sub-conscious trying to tell you to walk away.

4. Is it too good to be true? – This is a heartbreaker of rule because we all dream of the mega-bargain, the Heuer chrono the seller thinks is “just an old watch”. Sadly, the answer is almost always yes. Even someone who knows nothing whatsoever about watches can do a Google search before listing so the chances the seller doesn’t know the real value are tiny. So why is it so cheap? Moreover, some dodgy sellers manage to write descriptions of their own stupidity which are works of creative genius (I saw an A. Lange & Sohne the other day which the seller claimed to have bought at a boot sale for £15 and wondered “if it was worth anything” – seriously).

5. Where is it? – A scoot through eBay will show even the greenest watch buyer that countries like India, Bulgaria and Ukraine seem to have hundreds and hundreds of vintage watches for sale, and they’re almost all amazingly unmarked and as new. Your risk buying from these places goes up exponentially. Israel and Argentina have a fair bit of this too although for historical reasons both actually do have a large number of genuine prestigious watches in circulation and there are honest dealers selling from both. Unfair on the few genuine traders from those places it might be though, but I would give all these countries the swerve.

6. Condition, servicing and extras – An old watch should be an old watch. The lume should be moderate to rubbish (in the main) so if it shines like an arc-light but claims to be from 1963, it’s been redone (at best). 50+ years of use also means it shouldn’t look like it was made yesterday. If it does, it probably was. Box and papers (or “full set” as it’s known) aren’t actually massively important to all of us but some sellers think they are and often it’s easy to spot fakery, or boxes which are wrong for the watch, here. Use these to gain extra “tells”. Finally frown hard at things which say “recently serviced”. Was it? By whom? Where? Is there a docket? Are they contactable? Most ordinary punters don’t pay £200-£800 to have a vintage watch serviced just before selling it. If it’s a serious watch a bad service is worse than no service, as any trader knows, so this will tell you something about your seller.

7. Research everything to death – If you’re tempted by something and the seller’s history looks fine, he’s nice to talk to and everything else seems right, I’m afraid I have bad news, you must enter [*film trailer voice of doom*]… the forums. Arguments, back-biting, geekiness which is off the scale, abuse to new folk asking perfectly fair questions, but also a treasure trove of data. An hour should see your notepad full of every little thing to look out for on your chosen model. I am often amazed at little things I discover here which save me and my bank balance from myself at the last minute. Proper research is your very best insurance against getting stung, nothing matters more. Don your tin foil hat and get in there, it’s worth it.

8. You – Yep, I’m afraid your greatest enemy is yourself. Sellers of fakes, ultimately, are banking on one thing: your inability to resist. It looks so lovely, people will be so jealous, it’s such a good price, you’ve been looking for one for ages… you want to believe. And like an Evangelist healer at a football stadium laying his healing hands upon you, the fake seller knows that your desperate desire to believe, for this to be real, will probably make it so. Until the moment passes and you realise what you’ve done. When you ask yourself “is this thing 100% right?”, your ability to walk away if the honest answer isn’t “definitely” is your best friend. There will be another one, I promise.

James Clark is a communications consultant and journalist.