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When Bob Maron walks onto the set of Anger Management, Charlie Sheen’s new sitcom for the FX (NWSA) network, he exudes the confidence of a Hollywood agent or manager. Sheen spots him from across the room and walks over and gives him a bear hug.
Despite Maron’s swagger, he’s just the guy who sells Sheen wristwatches. “He has incredible taste,” says Sheen, who’s made Maron a co-executive producer on his show. “He’s the most astute player in the game. He truly is, in my opinion, the market maker.”
Maron specializes in brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe, and makes a convincing case for spending more on a watch than on a house. “You can drive a Ferrari, but you can’t drive it into a board meeting,” he likes to say. “You can put a beautiful Warhol on your wall, but you can’t take it to dinner with your friends.” And he has countless stories that prove that spending a fortune on a watch is the best investment you’ll ever make.
“A client I worked with, one of the first hires at Dell (DELL), he bought 22 vintage Paul Newman Daytonas from me 10 years ago,” Maron says. “I thought he was nuts. I remember the highest price I ever charged him for an individual watch was $16,000. A few years ago I ended up buying his collection back. I bought 20 of his watches for a million and a half bucks. He got the last laugh.” (No, Maron did. He only bought the watches, he says, because he knew he could sell them for $2 million. “And I did.”)
Maron, 52, has been buying and selling watches since 1982, and the market for watch collecting, he says, has never been stronger. Christie’s, the New York auction house, reported watch sales of $116.3 million last year, a 28 percent increase from 2010. Global Industry Analysts, a San Jose publisher of market research, predicts the worldwide market for watches could reach $46.6 billion by 2017.
Fine watches have survived their redundancy in the age of mobile phones because telling time is beside the point. “Even the most complicated timepieces have a handmade quality to them,” says Evan Zimmermann, chief executive officer of Geneva-based watch auction house Antiquorum. “They’re not disposable, plastic things that will be replaced tomorrow with something smaller and faster.” In a culture that constantly looks forward, he says, watches offer a connection to a centuries-old art form.
Photograph by Peter Bohler for Bloomberg Businessweek
Maron, who runs his own vintage watch boutique, Robert Maron Inc., in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has certainly benefited from the increased interest in collectible watches. Most of his customers, he says, buy in bulk. The serious collectors will buy anywhere from 40 to 200 watches. As for what that translates to in actual earnings, Maron won’t get into specifics. “We sell million-dollar watches,” he says. “You don’t have to do a lot of math to realize we’re doing tens of millions of dollars of business.” He says profits are up 20 percent so far in 2012.
Maron seems to enjoy cultivating an air of mystery in everything he does. He declines to name most clients. “I deal with some of the most well-known icons in the business world,” says Maron at his office. “I’m constantly on the phone with somebody from Goldman Sachs (GS) or ….” He pauses, whispering to his associates, Paul King, chief financial officer, and Rob Spayne, sales and marketing manager. “Let’s just say when a guy sells his business for a couple hundred million bucks, his money usually finds its way to me.”
While Maron’s corporate clientele prefers discretion, he has a high-profile customer pool of celebrities, including musician John Mayer and actors Orlando Bloom and Jennifer Aniston. “Maron is the only watch dealer that I ever allowed to bring watches into the locker room,” says Mike Dunleavy, former head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. “He knows exactly what you want and how to get it,” says Richie Sambora, lead guitarist for Bon Jovi. “I recently contacted him requesting a very rare Rolex made in 1962 as a present for one of my band mates. Within days it was delivered to my hotel room in New York. He’s the rock star of watch dealers.”
Sheen has been buying from Maron for almost a decade, through good times and bad. The engraved Patek Philippe Calatrava that Sheen used to propose to real estate investor Brooke Mueller in 2007? That came from Maron. And when Sheen tore apart his room at New York’s Plaza Hotel in 2010 looking for his cherished $165,000 Patek Philippe Ref. 5970, the watch he accused adult film performer Capri Anderson of stealing, it was Maron who helped him find a replacement. Maron also sold him the original and was out with Sheen the night before it disappeared.
“He partied a little harder than me,” Maron says. “Dinner turned into drinks turned into 4 in the morning. But I skipped out on dinner the next night. Charlie’s blamed me for his 5970 disappearing. He said, ‘If you’d been with me, you wouldn’t have let me go up to the room with the watch on my wrist.’ Which is true, by the way.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Maron never saw watches as his career. As a student at Harvard and then UCLA School of Law during the late 1980s and early ’90s, he paid for his tuition by buying and selling vintage timepieces. It was a low-stakes hobby he did mostly for fun. In 1999 he attended a Christie’s auction in New York and made an impulsive bid on an IWC Il Destriero Scafusia. “The price was up to $100,000,” he remembers. “And somehow I raised my paddle. I bought the watch for $107,000. And I had no money.” But he did have a line of credit with Christie’s, and he managed to sell the watch for a profit to Silicon Valley real estate developer Robert Eves. “I just started telling him how magnificent the watch was,” Maron says. “I basically didn’t stop talking till he said ‘yes.’ ” With that sale, he graduated into the big leagues.
There’s very little Maron won’t do to beat a competitor. He’s flown to Las Vegas on his wedding anniversary, his wife in tow, to wine and dine an Italian race car driver who wasn’t quite ready to part with his Patek 130, a model that sold at a Christie’s auction in 2008 for $213,833. (“I ended up getting the watch,” he says.) He’s driven out to a hippie commune in Joshua Tree National Park to inspect a rare Patek before a Christie’s inspector could show up. (“I was part of a drum circle,” he says. “I left with the watch.”) He’s hired a helicopter pilot to take him on a high-speed commute from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs to buy a vintage Patek World Time from a difficult seller. “The guy told me, ‘I want a cashier’s check for $50,000 by 5 p.m. or I’m considering other offers, and I’m not flexible on this,’ ” Maron remembers. “It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and he was 140 miles away.” Maron made it to the seller with minutes to spare.
For all his success, Maron still has a Great White Whale of timepieces: the Patek Philippe Ref. 3449. Only three were made, and two are publicly accounted for. One was sold in 2004 for $1.4 million at an Antiquorum auction and the other in November 2011 at a Christie’s auction, fetching €1.2 million (approximately $1.5 million). As for the third, Maron is either still searching for it or already has it; he won’t say. “People have insisted that I’ve found the third,” he says, without elaborating on who these people might be. “I’m not going to confirm or deny it.” He laughs. “The world will find out if I own it if I offer it for sale,” he says with a grin. “Let’s leave it at that.”