Determining a Watch's Value
I get a lot of e-mail saying "Can you tell me how much my old watch is worth?". To put it simply, no, I can't. I must emphasize that I am not an expert in this field. Even experts can't put an accurate value on a watch without actually holding it in their hand and examining it carefully. Any valuation I give could be out by hundreds of dollars.
The first step to identifying the value of your watch is to identify exactly what kind of watch you have. Some manufacturers (most notably "Elgin") can tell you this from the serial number on the watch movement (NOT the case). See the Watch Identification part of this site, especially the Elgin Database, to identify your watch from the serial number. For other watches, you will have to open the watch, look at the watch movement, and compare it to pictures.
A good book to consult regarding watch values is the "Complete Price Guide to Watches" by Cooksey Shugart, Tom Engle and Richard E. Gilbert. This is published annually, and is an excellent guide for identifying watches and finding their value. I suggest you sign this book out from your local library.
Once you know what kind of watch it is, you can check price lists (such as in the book mentioned above). A quick way is to search eBay for similar watches and see what people are buying the watches for. (See the "Watch Collecting" page on this site).
If you want your watch professionally appraised, contact your insurance company. They can put you in touch with an appraiser. However, keep in mind that most pocket watches are only worth about $50. Don't be surprised if the appraisal fee is worth more than the value of your watch.
The bottom line, your watch is worth whatever someone will pay for it.
Things to keep in mind about valuing a watch include:
The most common mistake new pocketwatch owners make is to "judge the watch by its cover". They go into a lot of detail about the watch dial or case, and provide no information about the watch movement. The case and dial is like the frame on a picture. This information is useful for fine-tuning estimates, but the most important thing is the serial number on the watch movement. If I don't have that, nothing else matters.
Below are what I consider common-sense things to consider in determining the value of an antique pocket watch. However, anyone wanting a serious appraisal for insurance or other reasons should consult a qualified watch appraiser.
The most common question asked by new pocketwatch owners is also the most difficult to answer: "How much is my watch worth?". This depends upon a variety of factors. Some of these are obvious just looking at the watch, others require an expert knowledgable in the field. Here's a few things to consider.
Please remember these are guidelines only. Ultimately what a watch is worth is whatever someone is willing to pay for it. You may have an old watch that doesn't seem worth anything, but if someone has watches with serial numbers on either side of yours, they might pay more to get a consecutive set of numbers. On the other hand, you might have a great watch with lots of gold and a great movement, but if that particular watch is out of style, you may not find a buyer for it. Besides, even if you do own a watch worth $30,000, how may people are actually willing to spend that much for it?
Value of Materials
This is the value of the materials if you forget about appearance, historical significance, etc. On this level, a watch made of a lot of gold, or decorated with precious gems, is naturally more expensive than a plain watch made of brass.
Generally something is an "antique" if it is 100 years old or older. If it is out of production and less than 100 years old, it is considered "vintage" (could be only one year old!!). Everything else being equal, an older watch will generally be more valuable than a newer watch.
The age of most pocket watches are relatively easy to find. Generally, the smaller the serial number on the watch's movement, the older the watch. My Watch Identification page provides links to a number of tables that can help you with this.
If you have a pocket watch, great. If you have the pocket watch with the original bill of sale, all the papers it came with, the box it came in, and any special presentation cards that show the history of the watch, then it will be more valuable.
Given two identical watches, the one in better condition is worth more. In the case of watches, there are three things to consider, the dial, the case, and the movement. My Watch Collecting page lists details on grading watches.
QualityNot all watches were created equal. There were cheap watches, and expensive watches. Here are some things to consider when evaluating watch quality.
AttractivenessWhat is "in style" changes from one year to another, but there are some general rules for pocket watches.
RaritySome watches were made by the thousands. Others were one of a kind specially commissioned pieces. All else being equal, the rarer piece is usually more valuable (simple law of supply and demand). A qualified watch appraiser should be able to tell from the serial number how many other watches like yours were made.
Don't forget the decorations on the watch case either. There could be thousands of watches with identical movements, but the case could be a one-of-a-kind creation.
Historical ValueThe watch that went with Neil Armstrong to the moon is worth much more than an identical watch that never left the earth. Watches that can be tied to important people or events can have significant value. The key is documenting that this is true, with presentation cards, etc.
For example, special commemorative pocket watches, such as 25 year service railroad gold watches, may be considered more valuable than ordinary watches to people related to the Railroad industry. Exactly how valuable would depend on how many of these commemorative watches were built, etc.
Engraved inscriptions not part of the original watch on watch cases could be considered damage by some. However, if the engraving was done when the watch was new, it could add a historical personal touch that makes the watch more collectable. For example, consider the value of the inscription "Purchased on the first Atlantic crossing of the Titanic". Just watch out for forgeries.
Special FeaturesMost pocket watches use the standard hour, minute, and separate second hand. However, some have additional features, like a built in calendar, moon phases, animated scenes, chimes, 24-hour dials, etc. All of these will normally increase the value of the watch over the "standard" watch layout.
In addition, there are special watches to look out for. Some watch salesmen had watches with a crystal on both the front and the back, so they could show off the movement without taking the watch out of the case. These are rare, and more valuable than normal watches. There may also be prototype watches that never made it into production that could be quite valuable.
A qualified watch appraiser can probably take issue with some of the things I listed here, and come up with hundreds of other things to consider in determining the value of a watch. However, the above should give you a rough idea of how to set a value to watches. Of course, there are always exceptions to any rule. You might have a watch that looks really plain and uninteresting, but later find it is a one-of-a-kind production prototype that's worth thousands of dollars. You could also have a really fancy watch that you think is worth thousands, when in fact it is worth very little. Only a qualified watch appraiser can tell for sure.