Paolo Gobbi interviews Auro Montanari in Bonanno House

Enthusiast, historian, writer, photographer, Vintage and Haute Horlogerie guru, Auro Montanari is a reference when it comes to the most prestigious timepieces. We met him in Rome, at Bonanno's on Via della Croce, and with him we begin a series of interviews with the most interesting personalities in collecting related to the most important hands.

Daytona or Speedmaster?

"I like the Speedmasters, I find them more snobbish."

Nautilus or Royal Oak?

"Always Royal Oak. It was my first important watch when I was very young. I bought it as a boy, used, in steel the first reference that came out, paying a million and a half lire for it. It was in the late 1970s, and I saw the Nautilus as a Swiss-German model."

Was that Royal Oak a collector's item even then, or did you use it normally?

"I used it normally in that it was and remains a very beautiful and pleasant watch to wear on the wrist, plus it is the one that 'holds up best' to complications. It is no coincidence that inside its case we have seen everything from a chronograph, to a tourbillon, to a minute repeater... it has become an extra-flat, a Grand Complication has even housed comic books! The Nautilus gives its best exclusively in the solotempo version."


You used to be an engineer with a passion for watches. Today what definition would you give yourself?

(smiling) "I'm a retiree with a passion for watches!"

What do you think about today's collecting?

"Today there are three different types of characters: the collector, the investor and the collector-investor. The reality is that there are higher and higher values at stake, and rightly so, one must also pay attention to how one 'invests' one's money. Moreover, lately it has also become difficult, precisely because of their value, to wear certain particularly well-known models. Security issues are the same everywhere in the world."

Then there is an unclear line between investment and speculation.

"The bubble we had seen in previous years is deflating and we are returning to normal."

Is vintage watchmaking taking a kind of "revenge" over contemporary watchmaking?

"Vintage, in the end, has always remained fairly stable if not growing, even during the other "crises": from the financial one in 2007, even to the one in the early 1990s, which affected precisely the collecting of vintage models. I remember a friend of mine used to say, "Buying Patek Philippe is like buying shares in Generali: they are stable and growing slowly, but they are growing."

Perhaps it is also the story of the Daytona that has seen steady growth since the 1980s?

"The Daytona has also had its downward moments, however, there is no denying that its growth has been continuous and that it is still having a decidedly interesting time today."

What do you think of Swatch reproducing historical pieces from omega to Blancpain?

"It seems to me a good marketing operation although, I'm honest, I didn't think this experience would continue after Omega. In the end they chose a nice Blancpain model. I personally bought a couple of MoonSwatches and find the choice of bioceramics interesting."

Auro Montanari with John Bonanno
Auro Montanari with John Bonanno

Let's change the subject. Do you have models of any contemporary independents in your collection?

"I have only one, a Laurent Ferrier with a sector dial."

What do you think, more generally, of independent watchmaking?

"To be honest, I still don't understand them. They have definitely brought a breath of fresh air to the market and do things that others don't dare to do. It's a like collecting modern art: you know the living artist, you buy his paintings, you follow him to the atelier... With the independent, the collector can visit the production atelier, follow the construction step by step."

(John Bonanno) Doesn't it seem to you that some auction houses, Phillips in particular, has pushed some independents a lot, at the expense of far more historic pieces?

"Auction houses have to make turnover, and at that time the market wanted independents: it's normal that they chose to go that route as well."

Has the role of auction houses today changed from the 1990s, when they were undeniably the architects of the wristwatch boom?

"I remember when I started collecting in the late 1970s, wristwatches were not really taken into consideration. Then in the 1980s with Antiquorum this phenomenon started, which then exploded the following decade. Today they still play a key role, not only in watchmaking but also in art, to sell and buy objects."

Auro Montanari's first collector's watch: a Rolex Antimagnatic chronograph ref. 3835 from the 1940s, with its unmistakable stepped lugs.
Auro Montanari's first collector's watch: a Rolex Antimagnatic chronograph ref. 3835 from the 1940s, with its unmistakable stepped lugs.

What year did you start collecting?

"In 1978. Back then my parents, collectors of ancient art, used to take me with them to the various fairs that were held in Europe. I was bored to death and my father every time, to distract me, would say: go and see and if you want to buy yourself some 'little watches,' which are cheap anyway with the arrival of quartz."

Your first "little watch"?

"I still have my first watch purchased independently, in Bologna from an antique dealer, a chrono with three deco lugs, a reference 3835. New, with only one owner before me. I used my pocket money and it cost me 550,000 lire. Today it is worth about 40/50,000 euros."

An anecdote related to that period?

"My father who told me: be sure to buy only Patek Philippe and Rolex, which are serious Houses. Don't buy Cartier which are hairdresser's watches! Luckily, in the last part I didn't follow him and today I have fantastic Cartier in my collection." (ed. and also one on his wrist during the interview)

How did you understand Haute Horlogerie at a time when there were no books, no newspapers, no Internet?

"In fact, when my father mentioned Patek Philippe to me, I fell out of the clouds, because my only knowledge came from Veronesi's store in Bologna, which also had a secondhand display case. Ultimately, I had absolutely no idea what brand it was. My father's words were again enlightening: Go to Geneva on the Rue du Rhône and see what they do. I got into my Beetle and headed to Switzerland. I was fascinated by this world of hands."

The influence of parents...

"For better or worse, I can give you a push to do anything. My father was happy that I had a passion in the vintage world anyway. He was a collector of furniture and rugs from the 1500s and 1600s, things that nobody wants today..."

A very rare complete moon phase calendar with retrograde date by Breguet.
A very rare complete moon phase calendar with retrograde date by Breguet.

Do you see young people approaching the world of watch collecting?

"Italians, even if they wanted to, often cannot afford them. I was in Singapore at a talk organized by some friends. Before long, all these guys arrived driving their Lamborghinis in the most absurd colors, sneakers on their five-thousand-euro feet, Supreme T-shirts... One of them, wearing a Richard Mille with a candy-colored dial, looks at my wrist and asks, What is this? I answer him, An old Patek Philippe! From then on we stay in touch, and after a few months he writes me: I also bought myself an old Patek Phlippe, do you like my 1518?"

Is it perhaps easier for young Italians to approach youngtimers? Pieces from the 1990s and early 2000s that cost relatively little but offer so much in terms of quality and sometimes even beauty?

"Neo-vintages are an important rediscovery of recent times. What more and more people are valuing is that many models from the 1990s and later had case mechanics and dials that were qualitatively similar if not identical or superior to the more emblazoned and recognized brands."

Will they also turn into an investment?

"Who can tell? Of course, when the brand is reborn or has a major boost, as is happening for Daniel Roth or Gerald Genta, then vintage pieces also increase in value."

How do you choose pieces to put in your collection?

"In a very simple way: they must make aesthetic sense once worn on the wrist. So, they have to look good."

No sagging toward investment?

"No. Maybe, in addition to being beautiful, I also like them to be rare. I can't buy models that I don't like. Here we fall back into the talk of independents."

Don't you aesthetically like the watches of independents?

"No. They don't have the aesthetic sense of the case and dial."

Paolo Gobbi during the interview with Auro Montanari
Paolo Gobbi during the interview with Auro Montanari

What would you recommend to a person who wants to start a collection?

"Buy what you like. Buy the seller and not the watch. Study as much as you can and follow your passion."

Is the seller so important?

"For me it has always been fundamental. I have always tried to choose good partners, both in my work and in my passions. Also, I have always tried to make sense of my collection, and in this the "dealer" proves invaluable, because he is the best wingman in finding even the rarest and most difficult pieces."

Often newcomers to the world of hands choose to buy "new" models because they do not feel confident in buying vintage.

"It is a natural choice, at least in the beginning. Then there are two possible paths to take, even together and not necessarily separately: choosing a serious seller with whom to start a long relationship; buying pieces at auction, taking advantage of their warranties and documentation."

What are you particularly careful about, what warranties do you take before buying a watch?

"I just trust myself. However, it is very important to know the history of the individual piece I am going to buy. Mind you, I am not interested in knowing how much margin the seller makes, because the price is decided and accepted at the time of purchase. For me it is important to know where and how it was found, who had owned it, bought it for the first time."

One of the very rare 145 "Rolex Kew "A" Tested"

(John Bonanno) Today, the more transparency you offer your buyer, the easier it is to get to the sale.

"Sure. The same happens in Modern Art, or of the world of classic cars. Traceability is the basis of the most important and successful negotiations."

If you are looking for a particular piece, do you still buy it when you find it, or do you wait until you find it in perfect condition?

"I never look for a particular piece, but I see what I find or what is offered at the moment. In any case, quality and rarity always pay off."

(John Bonanno) You have always ranged between many different makes and models.

"Yes, if a watch is nice, I'll take it, without looking at what brand it is."

From October 26-29, Auto Moto D'Epoca, the legacy of the Padua show of the same name, will be held in Bologna. There are two new features: the first is the obvious change of venue; the second will be the presence of Time on Show, a space dedicated to vintage watches. You are one of the organizers of this event, can you tell us what are its special features?

"The organizers got me involved, and I was honestly happy that an event was finally being organized 'at my home.' I therefore helped them. There will be a raised pavilion dedicated exclusively to Time on Show, with controlled entry and exit."

How did the selection of exhibitors take place?

"The exhibitors are few, I assume only fourteen. There were many more requests, some even from abroad. I did not handle the selection, although I know the choice was difficult and very selective."

Does Bologna stand as an alternative to existing exhibitions?

"Parma will always remain an important and in some ways even fun event. It is the history of collecting and offers many different vintage objects, not just watches. Time on Show could stand side by side as an independent and in some ways elitist event."

Two extraordinary Patek Philippe pocketbooks: a World Hour and a Grand Complication.
Two extraordinary Patek Philippe pocketbooks: a World Hour and a Grand Complication.

Back to the Auro collector: the most rocambolic story you can remember in buying a watch?

"None, because I have always made my purchases in my "comfort-zone," without taking any kind of risk. I buy from dealers, who are people who work and derive their income from what they do, they have a name to defend. I don't buy from collectors, who from this point of view are not sympathetic to me, I consider them sad people: they all think they own the most beautiful watch, they only talk about money, how much they managed to make or save."

So, do you go for pizza with a merchant or with a collector?

"With a trader, without a shadow of a doubt."

You have a very clear view of the world of watch collecting.

"In my experience, the rules of the game are simple. There is a table with only three players around it: the collector, the dealer and the auction house. Only the watches and money are on the table. Everything else counts for nothing. The chatter, the social, the newspapers, the youtubers, the advisors don't count."

The piece you've never been able to purchase?

"So many. One out of all of them? A steel 1518, which I had been offered but did not take out of sheer snobbery. I didn't like the way it was presented to me."

What, on the other hand, are you most proud of?

"The first one I purchased, Rolex's 3835 chrono."

(John Bonanno) How did your passion for photography come about?

"Once again thanks to my father. At the age of ten I was taking pictures with his Hasselblad that he left around the house. From there I never stopped, and if I'm honest, it would give me more satisfaction to see my photos published in a National Geographic article than to own a steel 1518."

Haven't you ever tried?

"No, I'm not professional enough to do that. I'm not able to make images that are serious enough to stick then over time."

So many watchmaking books bear your signature, though.

"I am a lover of graphics, design, watches and photography. A book succeeds perfectly in bringing all these things together. It is therefore no accident that I have produced ten of them."

In Bulgari's latest book you appear under the signature John Goldberger, but Babin, the Ceo of the Roman house, in Geneva presenting the book called you by your real name: Auro Montanari. Don't you think it's time to drop the pseudonym?

"The time has come to make the leap: just Auro Montanari. John Goldberger was born for reasons of privacy, related to the importance and value of watches. But that was a different era. Today, with social media, privacy no longer exists, everyone knows everything, and it no longer makes sense to use a pseudonym."

I remember our first interview, you were a "masked" collector, photographed from behind in your leather bomber jacket.

"We're talking about 20 years ago! I remember you asking me about the collecting future of the Daytona!"

You made a correct prediction.

"Yes, everyone wanted the Daytona then and still today they don't stop looking for it, buying it, selling it."

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