by J.C. Vaughn
After a period in which a number of character watches enjoyed values that we might call “overly robust,” the market has stabilized and it seems that we’re now in period of some real bargains.
“Character watches have always been very popular. So many different characters have been represented, so the cross-over appeal is large. As with any collectible, rarity and condition still command strong prices in general but with so many choices out there and with the subject matter spanning decades, there are plenty of choices for collectors looking to build a collection without breaking the bank,” said Alex Winter, President of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles.
“It’s a very deep category. You could just collect Mickey Mouse and literally have thousands of time pieces to pick from dating back to the first example produced in 1933 up to the many new models that are currently offered at the parks and elsewhere. From all the classic comic characters to super heroes to real life celebrities, it is a collecting category that can be as small or large as you want to go,” he said.
First, let’s step back to basics for just a moment and take a look at elements of the hobby that are true no matter which niche one chooses to inhabit.
As with all collectibles – and so much else in life – when a purchase is made, the buyer is putting his or knowledge and instincts to the test. He or she is operating in a marketplace created by people with a shared interest in owning a particular object. Experience may be the only way to hone your knowledge, but there are many ways to educate yourself in your chosen area including attending conventions, participating in and observing auctions, reading websites and print publications, and most importantly getting to know dealers and fellow collectors.
Through all of this, the golden rule of collecting remains simple and in effect: collect what you enjoy.
The category is just over 100 years old, so compared to many collectibles it spans a relatively brief period. The Buster Brown pocket watch, circa 1912, is regarded as the first comic character timepiece.
There are certain common characteristics seen in many compelling character watches, including design of both the watch and box. The more graphic and the more design elements, the better, generally speaking. For watches, animated hands are always a plus, as well as specially designed bands with attachments or images relating to the character. For packaging, die-cut elements and special inserts were often used to entice buyers.
While not exclusively true, as a general rule a character being strong in other categories can serve as an indication that a timepiece of that character will have appeal in the marketplace.
“The more popular the character, the more desirable the timepiece will be. Characters like Superman and Mickey Mouse are at the top of everyone’s list and always will be. More marginal characters will have less interest but in some cases rarity will overshadow the lack of a large audience of collectors and still command high prices,” Winter said.
For vintage collectibles, as opposed to new creations designed for collector appeal, the rules of supply and demand are important, but sometimes they are secondary to condition.
Supply is, of course, is an assessment of availability, but rarity does not automatically equate to value. Rare items without the support of strong collector interest will stay at low to moderate prices. Other much more commonly available items, may see demand drive them to achieve higher dollar values, especially in top condition.
Vintage collectibles were produced in finite quantities and have various survival rates. Factors include length of time an item was in production and its intended use.
For example, character watches might have been used as every day watches rather than put away or taken care of as collectibles.
Often, rarity is further increased as surviving examples enter collections to be held long-term. As it was with other collecting categories, many collections assembled in the 1960s and 1970s era of greater availability were brought to market in the 1990s and purchased by new owners who may hold them for a quarter century or longer.
The flipside of the coin is demand. Demand is an assessment of popular appeal. Levels of interest may vary over time and in some narrow specialties even be influenced by the actions of just a few individual collectors. The important issue for a person selecting a collecting focus is to find a subject with a demand level that results in a value structure comfortably in tune with available finances. Collecting goals must realistically match collecting resources.
And just like other categories, condition is important in character time pieces, and often this extends to the original packaging.
The Present Market
The decline in high end prices the market experienced a few years back has made several pieces seem like very good buys at this point.
“As with most things, it is cyclical. When a few collectors leave the arena, for whatever reason, you tend to see a dip in prices. However, as new blood comes along (and it always does with timepieces) the values will see an upswing,” Winter said.
He said for Hake’s, the rarest and most sought after watches and pocket watches have stayed relatively the same over the years, with models by Ingraham and Ingersoll for Betty Boop, Donald Duck, Tom Mix and Dizzy Dean leading the way. Their appeal to collectors is always stronger, he said, if they are in their original boxes.
He also stated that they have been able to find high-grade specimens for their auctions in recent years.
“A number of very extensive collections have hit the market over the last five years or so. This has resulted in a number of rarely seen watches and high grade examples become available that otherwise just don’t come up for sale,” he said.
Among their top sellers, a very rare Tom Mix pocketwatch sold for $6,568.73 on March 19, 2015, an Ingersol Mick Mouse 1933 electric clock with original tag realized $3,542 on March 20, 2014, a 1933 New Deal wristwatch featuring FDR by Ingersoll, boxed and previously unknown, closed at $1,897.50 on November 20, 2013, and a Jay Ward Super Chicken watch with 17 jewels totaled $1,075.25 on March 20, 2014. All prices include their 15% buyer’s premium.
Winter said he definitely sees some bargains available to collectors at the moment.
“Bradley watches from the ’60s and ’70s have yet to really hit their stride. So many wonderful designs were made and while these were once around, as they now become ‘vintage’ timepieces, their demand will rise. There are also some that did not sell well initially so they have always been scarce, like a boxed Underdog. The Jay Ward series of watches from this time period is also one that continues to rise, especially some of the scarcer ones such as Super Chicken and George of the Jungle,” he said.
As in most areas of pop culture collecting. Disneyana has a strong representation in character time pieces, including this Ingersol Mickey Mouse watch, he said.
Winter said that if a collector handed him $2,000 right now and said they wanted him to purchase character watches at his or her behest, Mickey would be at the top of recommendations.
“Not to sound like a broken record, but Mickey would be at the top. I’d go with some of the rarer models and seek high grade. You can never go wrong with the trifecta of Mickey, rarity and investment grade,” he said.
“The category should always remain popular. It is a practical item, we will always need to know what time it is and even in this tech age, wearing an actual watch is still in style and serves a purpose. Factor in your interest in the subject matter that appears on the dial and you have an item that will fit in with any collection,” Winter said.
J.C. Vaughn is Vice-President of Publishing for Gemstone Publishing. Members of the Gemstone staff also contributed to this article.