Blog No. 11: At Last! Some Not-So-Blue News

Lots of lessons to be learned, not least about how slowly turn the wheels of justice. Is it really over two years since I posted “Blog No 9: Bluer News”? In it, I reported how James Dowling, my colleague of nearly 20 years, found himself in court, defending his reputation as a watch expert, as a dealer, and – by inference – a person. It is with no small sense of satisfaction I note that the case has now been thrown out of court.

If you’re a possessor of the skill set that allows you to find court judgments on line, you might like to read “Case 1:16-cv-05478-LTS-SDA Document 44 Filed 08/20/18,” filed in the United States District Court Southern District of New York. In a word, it proves that James has been exonerated. The fallout, however, will drift downward for years; its poison is a consequence of far too many things to list. But the ingredients of this perfect (shit) storm are the same that one can find motivating Twitter trolls, hackers, malcontents, losers, the envious, etc, etc.

In a nutshell, James was accused of selling watches that were not as described. The court disagreed. Along the way, something emerged that includes, but goes beyond the watch world, and which I credit in part my increasing levels of misanthropy. Simply put, James is acknowledged as one of the world’s great authorities on Rolexes, if not THE Numero Uno maven when it comes to this brand. But, as such, he is a target for the sort of arriviste that now populates the watch world, from dealers to journalists to collectors to that most dire of plagues: web vermin.

When one attains the status such as James possesses relative to Rolex, the wannabees seem to forget that he’s spent a lifetime acquiring the knowledge that fills his c.v. Like too many people today, they want the kudos without the effort. The problem this presents for the wristwatch revival is that it came so quickly, without having the time to develop like car or art collecting. With the immediate commercial expediency it demanded – the need for the watch industry to satisfy the hunger for timepieces and the media to address the thirst for knowledge (and suck up the advertising revenue) – came a lowering of standards.

Most obvious are the incompetent writers dubbed “watch experts,” hacks plucked from unrelated fields like fashion, employed just to fill space. They see someone like Dowling, who knows what he’s talking about, and resent him for it. Instead of keeping their heads down, mouths shut and bothering to learn what they need to, they attack or snipe or – worse – fake it.

It’s not just the writers. So, too, certain “experts” at auction houses, who know far less than their business cards promise. Bloggers who, strictly by virtue of the ability to seed Google, achieve vast numbers of hits in direct contrast to their actual worth as commentators or observers. As for some of the vendors …

Watches, especially of the vintage variety, have been a godsend for opportunists and hustlers. In my entire life, I don’t recall meeting so many disreputable people, so many sleazy sorts such that I consider them to be less upright than those who were selling pot and acid to me in the 1960s.

What this has done for watch collecting is added an unsavoury taint and a sense of risk. 40 years ago, when I started collecting, fakes were rare. “Frankenwatches” may have existed, but if so, they, too, were uncommon. But, as with anything attracting big bucks, out from under the rocks slither the reptilian lowlifes looking for a fast result.

This can work in the favour of established vendors, with decades-long reputations, but even they can be falsely accused of assorted malfeasances by twisted customers. All it takes is one collector to ask another for a second opinion – regardless of the latter’s actual knowledge – and if it’s a negative reaction, the former will jump to the conclusion that he’s been screwed. And if a dealer or auction house is accused of shifting iffy watches, the taint lingers, even when proven innocent.

A cautionary tale? If it is, then it’s for the likes of James and other vintage watch dealers, not for the customers. As one highly-placed auctioneer told me, the values of vintage watches may be in a vertical trajectory, but running parallel to this is an increase in the nastiness and suspiciousness of the buyers.

It’s a vicious circle. All it takes is the purchase of one dodgy watch to render a collector permanently sceptical. If the fakers didn’t exist, the neurosis that’s now a part of watch collecting wouldn’t exist. And James Dowling wouldn’t have gone through two years of hell.

As is fair, the final word on this sorry tale goes to James.

My official statement on the matter is this:
“In June 2016 I was sued by a US collector who claimed that I had sold him several watches which were incorrect and that I had defrauded him. I chose to fight the case and not settle.
“In August 2018, the judge who was in charge of the case dismissed all of the collector’s claims & threw the case out of court.”

©Ken Kessler 2018