Robb Interview: Auro Montanari, Watch Collector
Up close and personal with one of the most influential watch collectors in the world.
Auro Montanari—also known by the alias John Goldberger—has amassed a vast vault of rare watches over the past 43 years. Having acquired Patek Philippe and Rolex models at bargain prices during the quartz crisis in the ’70s, Montanari found himself sitting on a gold mine when the renaissance of mechanical watchmaking occurred roughly two decades later. The recent boom in sought-after vintage pieces has only furthered his renown. His Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6265, nicknamed “The Unicorn” because it was the only known vintage white-gold manual-winding Daytona ever produced, sold for US$5.9 million (approx. $8.35 million) in 2018 when it went up for auction at Phillips. Montanari donated the proceeds to the Geneva-based charity Children Action. But the native of Bologna, Italy, is equally known for his refined sense of style and an eye for everything from photography to rare books to fine china.
Do you have any personal rituals?
Just to drink Illy espresso made with mocha, the old Italian way.
What advice do you wish you’d followed?
I started in Italy [at a university] specialising in design and photography, very similar to the Parsons School in New York. After that, my father advised me to go to a good university in California, like Stanford or USC, but I was very lazy. I preferred to spend my time playing basketball, surfing and buying watches at vintage flea markets.
When I went to the States for the first time in ’78, I went to New York and discovered it’s very expensive for a young guy. So then I went to California and discovered it’s a wonderful life there and not expensive. I remember the first year I was in California, in ’80 or ’81, it was easy to buy a car, to rent an apartment in Venice Beach or Santa Monica, and the life was more exciting. I stayed from ’80 to ’84. I was 22 or 23 years old to 25, and I met my wife, a German girl who was living there. Unfortunately, she passed away from cancer almost 20 years ago. I have a new wife now, but I had happy times in California.
What do you do that’s still analog?
I am a digital man, but I still read and collect real books. I love the smell of paper. I’m a big fan of photography books. I have many books by Henri Cartier- Bresson and Irving Penn, but the original ones printed in the ’70s. They’re very collectible. They have been reprinted, and the quality is better, but I prefer to have the originals, the first editions.
What in your wardrobe do you wear most often?
The light-blue Oxford button-down shirts by Brooks Brothers, New York, and vintage chambray shirts.
How do you find calm?
To take sun everywhere possible. I like to spend time in New York, and many times I go to the park to a bench in the direction of the sun, mostly in the winter. I have tan skin all year long.
Who is your guru?
My father was my guru. My father was always a good example because . . . he worked hard to build something. He set up a company from nothing. He was a good engineer, and he set up a very novel company in Italy with a focus on IT. He was also very elegant. He approached fashion the right way. He was never a fashion victim. He taught me how to find the right things, whether it was a tailor or a shop, and to save my money to buy vintage pieces.
Did he pass any watches down to you?
No, my father gave me a vintage Omega Seamaster for my communion, when I was somewhere between 8 and 10 years old, made in the same year of my birth, in 1957. Later, in the ’70s, he gave me good advice: “Start to buy watches, because they are very cheap. . . . Buy Patek Philippe because it is a strong brand.” I said to him, “Who is Patek Philippe?” I knew only of Cartier, Omega and Rolex. He told me, “Go to Geneva and study.” So I went to see this small building on a lake, the small shop of Patek Philippe, to understand why the brand was so strong. At that time, there were no books available. I started to develop my knowledge and collect watches in ’78, when I was 20.
What was your first watch purchase?
A vintage Rolex chronograph, which I purchased in an antiques shop in Bologna. It was US$500 (approx. $700). In the ’80s, I bought a nice rectangular Patek “Hour Glass”, which I bought for about US$900 (approx. $1,270) at a flea market in Italy. Also, I discovered a watch source in New York in ’78. At a flea market, I met a young lady who was Andy Warhol’s watch buyer, and she introduced me to him. In Beverly Hills, there was also a great pawn shop where you could find incredible watches from stars like Ava Gardner.
What’s the most recent thing you’ve added to your collection?
A very rare and unique platinum Cartier Tonneau chronograph monopusher manufactured at the end of the ’20s.
Who is your dealer and what do they source for you?
My preferred “pusher” is a good friend of mine. I like to call him my pusher because whenever he finds something he thinks I will like, he tries to sell it to me. He is Italian and knows my taste in watches very well. He is one of the most important dealers in Italy, or in Europe. Everything is rare and in perfect condition with good provenance and a good story.
Is there a watch you have always wanted but still haven’t found?
Ah, so many. The holy grail for me is always the next discovery. One in particular is a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar with a chronograph Ref. 1518. I have it in pink gold and in steel. But from the books of Patek, we know that they made only one piece in platinum. No one has seen a photo, and no one knows where it is located.
Which watch are you wearing?
Today, the average price for a vintage Patek Philippe “Hour Glass” is around USD$22,000 (approx. $31,000). I love to wear my platinum Cartier Tank Cintrée, which I had custom made in the Cartier boutique in Paris with Roman numerals instead of Arabic, in blue.
Is there anything else that you like to collect?
I collect some old porcelain china for my kitchen, pots that were used to contain tea powder, from the end of the 19th century. I bought all of these pots in New York almost 20 years ago. They were about US$1,000 (approx. $1,410) when I bought them, but now they are more expensive and there are many fake oriental pieces.
What’s the most impressive dish you can cook?
I love to spend time in my kitchen. My specialty is pasta with zucchini, like in Nerano, on the Sorrento coast. I use a Wolf stove and oven from the States. They shipped it to me in Italy because they are very hard to find here. My pots and pans are also from the States. I’ve spent a lot of money on shipping!
What is your favourite cocktail?
A frozen margarita with a good tequila. I started drinking margaritas in the Mexican restaurants when I was living in California. I like a good frozen margarita with nachos.
What is your exercise routine and how often do you do it?
No exercises, because I am very lazy. Maybe I am lucky with my metabolism, but I was a big sportsman when I was young. When I was 12 or 13, I was told I had a heart murmur and shouldn’t do sports, so I made a fake certificate so I could play basketball. Now I just try to walk.
What does success look like?
To do what I like without hurting my family or my business team.
Where do you buy most of your clothes from?
I purchase vintage and military clothes in flea markets around the world. I also love clothes by Double RL, Brooks Brothers shirts, and all of my suits are handmade by my tailors in Bologna and Naples. One of them is a tailor named Solito, who specialises in Neapolitan jackets with a good shoulder, handmade stitching and applied pockets.
Drive or be driven?
I do not like to drive. I love to travel by train and by plane.
When was the last time that you completely unplugged?
I unplug when I visit the bank vault once a month to see my watch collection in complete relaxation. I keep all of my watches there because it is not safe in Italy. I have a small private room underground where I sit and I have all of the watches organised by style, by type and by age. I go there and study them and take some photos. I always stay half an hour or 45 minutes.
How would you describe your look?
La sprezzatura, a studied carelessness.
What’s your favourite hotel?
The Whitby in New York because it’s in a good location, they have good service and good decor, and I love the private room downstairs with the fireplace, which is only for the guests, and the small garden. The breakfast is also very good there.
What’s always in your hand luggage?
A camera. I have a Sony AR7 II full format. I also sometimes use a Leica, but it’s not digital. The Sony is good because it’s a good price and good quality. It takes really good photos.
What is the car that you are most attached to?
My first car, a convertible VW Beetle. But I made it a present to a young engineer in my company who loves vintage cars. I hadn’t used it for the last 10 or 20 years, and he will still let me drive it.
What’s worth paying for?
Last box set or Netflix binge?
Recently, I purchased a DVD of Le Mans, with Steve McQueen, because I am writing, with Cesare Maria Mannucci, a new book, Time to Race, Part II, and I am trying to recognise the wristwatches worn by characters in the movie.
Bowie or Dylan?
Bowie. He was a great character during my youth.
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