The story of Sam Hines’s career trajectory should be taken by those starting out as a lesson in seizing opportunities.
Back in 1997 as a teenager, he was working as a postboy, scuttling round the labyrinthine corridors of Sotheby’s in London. Today, he generates tens of millions of dollars’ worth of sales for the auction house as the Hong Kong-based head of its global watch division.
“The most interesting aspect of being in this business for the past 20-plus years is seeing how dramatically it has changed, not least during the past six months,” says Mr Hines. Sotheby’s has become the market leader in watches in 2020, with sales of $48m for the first six months of the year.
“The coronavirus pandemic meant we had to pivot our business to include more online sales, and that has further encouraged the number of younger buyers, who were already the fastest-growing part of our client base, especially here in Asia. They appreciate the quick turnround offered by the internet, and that is altering the way auction houses are operating.
“It seems likely that traditional watch auctions will increasingly become marquee events for relatively small numbers of exceptional lots, with mid-range, contemporary pieces being offered either online or through our private sales platform. I think the retail side of an auction house will become as important as its traditional side,” he says.
Mr Hines, 41, has been based in Asia since 2011, initially as an employee of rival house Christie’s at a time when watch auctions were entering a boom period in the region.
He could never have dreamt of finding himself in his current job as he rushed to present post to the late Alfred Taubman, daunting doyen of US shopping mall developers and Sotheby’s one-time owner and chairman. “I was always amazed he would usually be smoking a large Cuban cigar at eight in the morning,” recalls Mr Hines, who landed a transfer to the company’s bids department in 1998.
“Little did I know it, but that is when I was given the first clue to my future — one of our responsibilities in the bids department was to train prospective auctioneers in how to understand the ‘book’ so that they knew where to open the bidding, how much increments should be and so on. One of the first people I had to work with was a young Swiss called Aurel Bacs.” Mr Bacs is now an associate of Phillips whose flamboyant performances at the rostrum have led to him being dubbed the “rock star” of the watch auction world.
It was Mr Hines’s next move, however, that cemented his future. “I got a position as an administrator and by pure chance was sent to work in the clocks and watches department, where I immediately became obsessed with horology. After a year I applied to become a junior cataloguer and found myself working with some of the most highly respected people in the field, including Tina Millar [who founded the department in the 1960s], antique clock expert Michael Turner and even the legendary watchmaker George Daniels, who was then a Sotheby’s consultant,” he recalls.
At the time, prospective vendors were expected to turn up at a Sotheby’s counter to have their items assessed. Being the most junior member of the team, it fell to Mr Hines to make the walk along New Bond Street from the watch department in a satellite building to the nearby mother ship to offer a first opinion.
“It was an odd system. If I thought the watch was of interest, I would have to place it beneath a camera that transmitted images to my more experienced colleagues back in the office, who would decide whether it should be consigned.”
Back then, says Mr Hines, values were a fraction of what they are now. A Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with a “Paul Newman” dial, for example, was worth about £10,000. Now, the best realise hundreds of thousands.
Marriage to a colleague in the US watch department led to Mr Hines transferring to New York. But company policy did not allow spouses to work in the same field, so he returned temporarily to the role of business manager.
“I missed being involved in the watch world, so I took a job with the Henry Stern Watch Agency, the New York-based Patek Philippe distributor,” he says. “It took me all around the country, training sales staff about the history [of the watchmaker] and organising events and exhibitions — it was a superb opportunity to learn about Patek and why its watches are so coveted by collectors.”
But, missing the variety of the auction world, in 2008 Mr Hines joined Christie’s in New York before moving to Hong Kong three years later. “It was a time when clients from mainland China were simply buying everything available.”
Mr Hines was then given the opportunity to help re-establish a watch department at Phillips (alongside his former colleague Mr Bacs) and he served as its Hong Kong-based global head for two and a half years before returning to Sotheby’s in 2018, where he built a new team from scratch.
One watch that will not be for sale, however, is the Rolex Submariner Mr Hines was given by his father on his 18th birthday. “When I was earning £9,000 a year as a junior cataloguer, there were several occasions when I thought of selling it,” he says of a watch that would have tripled in value during that time. “But it has stayed with me all the way.”