Obituary: Giovanni Zavota, Vintage Watch Dealer (1952-2022)

An original character and pioneering tastemaker.

A distinctive gentleman whose trademark outfit always called for multiple scarves looped around his neck, Giovanni Zavota was one of the old-school Italian dealers who shaped vintage watch collecting of the late 20th century, having sold some of the most important wristwatches – amongst them a steel ref. 1518 and the platinum ref. 2499. He passed away on 15 January, aged 69.

I would see him each time I went to Geneva for the auctions and he was clearly an original character. He was most comfortable conversing in Italian, which I speak none of, so we only spoke briefly a few times.

But one occasion that stands out in my memory is when I encountered him in Italy and he was wearing a Patek Philippe ref. 2481 with a cloisonné dial – and a matching bracelet – on one wrist, and on the other he had on a crisp and enormous Longines Lindbergh. Two watches of different style and disparate value, yet each interesting and important in its own way – a sure sign the man had good taste and understood historical significance.

Giovanni Zavota. Photo – Auro Montanari

A testament to his place in the world of vintage watches – specifically the pre-internet world – was the turnout at his funeral, which took place on January 18 in Collecchio, a small town just south of Parma where he had spent his summers as a boy.

Almost a hundred people turned up, including family and old friends, but also a large contingent that exemplified the Italian-centric, late-20th century world of vintage watches. The attendees included mega-collector Sandro Fratini, author and scholar Auro Montanari, founder of the eponymous auction house Dr Helmut Crott, as well as Aurel Bacs and Livia Russo of Phillips.

His life’s calling

Like many other watch dealers of his generation, Zavota entered the business via other collectibles but spent his life in watches. His father was an infantry general in the Italian army who upon retirement opened an antique shop in Parma. Zavota began his career working in his father’s store before starting his own business in 1982.

He named his store ZeB, short for Zavota e Battistini – Battistini referred to Cristina, Zavota’s longtime partner. The pair met sometime in 1967 as teenagers – in a bar on the town square of Collecchio – and stayed together for over fifty years.

Zavota (right) in his store, with Monaco-based dealer Corrado Mattarelli. Photo – Auro Montanari

One of his earliest clients was none other than Mr Montanari, better known as John Goldberger. “Both [Zavota and his business partner, the late Alessandro Fabbiani] were the first persons I met in the watch business”, recalls Mr Montanari, “They were very good friends of mine.”

Auro Montanari in ZeB. Photo – Auro Montanari

“The first watch I bought from him was a white gold Patek Philippe 2526 with a diamond dial, and he later sold me a steel Rolex split-seconds chronograph,” continues Mr Montanari, “The last watch I bought from him was a gold ref. 3448 with original certificate and a gilt dial confirmed by Patek.”

The ref. 3448 with gilt dial. Photo – Auro Montanari

Original taste

Exceedingly rare in themselves – grail would certainly be an apt label – the watches Mr Montanari mentions were just a few of the important timepieces Zavota sold over the years.

“In the first half of his career, in the 1980s and 1990s, and up to the early 2000s in fact, Giovanni was instrumental in bringing some of the world’s most important watches to the market,” says Aurel Bacs.

Amongst the important watches Mr Montanari recalls Zavota selling: “A steel ref. 1518, a white gold ref. 3450, a steel mono-pusher chronograph ref. 130, a platinum ref. 2499, and [several] Clapton watches.

Mr Bacs remembers the same Patek Philippe ref. 1518 in steel – but further recalls that Zavota sold that ref. 1518 twice – along with many Patek Philippe world times, including several with cloisonné dials, and 2499s.

Watches like these made Zavota “a pillar of the [vintage] watch market in Italy since its very beginnings,” says Marcello de Marco, a watch specialist at Phillips whose family is prominent in watch collecting.

But as with many of the most successful watch dealers, Zavota was a keen collector himself – longtime friend Dr Crott describes him as a “charismatic watch collector and dealer, aesthete and a bon vivant”.

Part of Zavota’s collection was documented in a book published four years ago by Mr Montanari, who recalls, “I created for him a limited-edition, black-and-white book Professione Bianco that was all about his collection of white gold, platinum, and steel watches.”

Form watches from Patek Philippe documented in Professione Bianco. Photo – Auro Montanari

And of course a Cartier Tank Cintree. Photo – Auro Montanari

The book reveals Zavota’s passion was for watches of the mid 20th century – and the stories they could tell.

“Giovanni almost never paid attention to contemporary watches and would categorically be not interested in a double-sealed limited edition,” says Mr Bacs, “He never got the modern trend of watches being over 40 mm, though he knew oversized vintage watches like Panerai or [the Longines] Lindbergh had their raison d’etre [as instrument watches].”

Those sentiments are echoed by Mr de Marco, who notes, “Giovanni would not be moved in the least by the current fashion – his distaste for ‘hot’ modern references was well known – but rather he possessed a close-to-preternatural ability of identifying the true beauty of pieces at a glance.”

“He was a man from a different era, who cared for the true substance of things without regards for appearances or carefully constructed opinions,” continues Mr de Marco.

It was well known that Zavota’s taste in watches was driven by aesthetics and instinct, rather than scholarship and science.

“Giovanni had an eye for good aesthetics, but the underline, dot-over-ninety, Mark I language was not his thing,” continues Mr Bacs, “He was more fascinated with a single-owner, patinated rectangular, Art Deco wristwatch.”

He adds, “Sometimes when Giovanni picked up a watch, it seemed like he wasn’t just checking it for condition or correctness, but for good or bad vibes – and whether the watch sang to him.”

And an original character

Anyone who has attended a Geneva watch auction, especially the Phillips sale at La Reserve, would have seen Zavota bidding in his quirky manner with disjointed increments and often hilarious banter with the auctioneer.

“He never wanted to be mainstream,” recounts Mr Bacs, “He was very comfortable to be less formal than everyone else at a dinner, while being equally comfortable overdressed at the beach – I remember once he came to the beach in swimming trunks with a blazer and two shawls.”

“And he always had a big keyring hooked on his trousers with up to 30 keys hanging from it – Giovanni told me a man with keys is someone who opens doors – which he would also wear on the beach.”

Zavota (left) with Aurel Bacs, not too far from the beach. Photo – Aurel Bacs

Zavota’s inimitable character meant he is fondly remembered as more than a purveyor of watches. “For more than 30 years he was a reference for exceptional watches, vintage wristwatches in particular,” says Dr Crott, “But friendship was more important to him than business.”

“He did business in a very personal way,” says Mr Bacs, “And I don’t even think he shipped a watch – ever.”

“He wasn’t a collector and dealer of the new generation, one who discusses what the font of ‘2’ should be or schedules a post on Instagram every night,” continues Mr Bacs, “He didn’t save mobile numbers on his phone but on his little notebook, and some say he never owned a credit card.”

Mr Bacs likens Zavota to “dealers in Old Masters, Renaissance furniture, and pre-war motorcars – once he and his generation disappear, they will not return.”

Zavota with Helmut Crott (left). Photo – Auro Montanari

But above all, Zavota loved watches – and nothing could get in the way of that.

“During my birthday party in Geneva last November,” recalls Dr Crott, “Giovanni was sitting with one of my guests whom he did not know, and he enthusiastically explained the beauty, function, rarity, and history of the ref. 1415 Patek Philippe Cottier world time he had on his wrist.”

“After his long speech, the man in question just said to him, ‘I am Peter Friess, the curator of the Patek Philippe Museum’.”


 

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Business News: Joey Luk to Lead Sotheby’s Watches in Asia

New heads for watches, jewellery, and luxury.

Continuing the steady pace of personnel changes since French telecoms tycoon Patrick Drahi acquired Sotheby’s in 2019, the auction house has just announced an overhaul of its watches and jewellery departments in Asia.

The chairman of Jewellery and Watches for the region is Wenhao Yu, formerly of Beijing-based Poly Auction. The jewellery department will be led by Regine Ngan, while the watch department promoted from within with Joey Luk being elevated to the top job.

The trio will report to Josh Pullan, who was appointed  Head of Global Luxury Division just last year after almost a decade as a manager in Sotheby’s digital and e-commerce departments, which no doubt explains Sotheby’s volume of online-only auctions.

Left to right: Regine Ngan, Wenhao Yu, and Joey Luk

A veteran of watch auctions despite her relative youth, Ms Luk was most recently Head of Sale, having been recruited to Sotheby’s from Phillips in 2018. Ms Luk succeeds Sam Hines who will “take on an advisory role for Sotheby’s worldwide Watches sales efforts”.

Mr Hines led Sotheby’s to a record year in 2021, where watch auctions totalled over US$150 million. Sotheby’s also claimed the title of most expensive wristwatch sold at auction in 2021 with the Patek Philippe ref. 1518 “pink on pink” once belonging to an Egyptian prince that sold for US$9.57 million (pictured at top). He will be leaving Sotheby’s with a bang – his closing act will be a single-owner sale of 41 Patek Philippe wristwatches led by a ref. 2499 in pink gold, which will take place in April.

The watch department achieved its banner year with both traditional, physical auctions as well as some three dozen online sales, making it one of the most prolific watch auctioneers in e-commerce. Unsurprisingly, industry chatter has it that Mr Hines will eventually join an online-only watch auctioneer.


 

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Exhibition: Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Timeless Stories in Singapore

A retrospective that reveals both sides.

Having celebrated the 90th anniversary of the Reverso last year with several limited editions – including the mega-complicated Quadriptyque with four faces – Jaeger-LeCoultre is revisiting its iconic swivelling wristwatch with a retrospective in Singapore.

Open to the public from January 23, the event takes place in the brand’s boutique in the Marina Bay Sands casino and shopping complex. The store has been transformed into a miniature museum that includes exhibits of historical watches and material, and also interactive sessions where visitors can try their hands at perlage, the technique of applying a repeating circular graining often found in watch movements.

1931-2021

The retrospective includes a compact but all-encompassing line up of watches from Jaeger-LeCoultre’s museum in Le Sentier, including the very first Reverso from 1931 as well as the latest models conceived to mark the 90th anniversary.

While the original Reverso is famed for its clever simplicity, the exhibits also include little-known variations such as the Reverso Cordonnet from 1933, a stylish Reverso for ladies that has a black-cord strap and two-tone case.

And the exhibits naturally include the uncommon, highly-complicated models from the 1990s, when the brand first ventured into larger cases for the Reverso – and first started both sides of the case for displays. In fact, some of those watches are landmarks in Jaeger-LeCoultre history: the brand’s first-ever tourbillon as well as chiming wristwatches were both Reversos.

Of course, with the swivelling case being the perfect canvas, the Reverso has long been available with personalisation and miniature enamel painting on its reverse – right from its inception in the 1930s – with several examples of such watches on show.

And for those who can’t make it in person, here’s our quick journey through the history of the Reverso from last year.

Event details

The retrospective is open to the public daily 11:00 am-8:00 pm, January 23-30, 2022. Entry is free but registration has to be made in advance via Jaeger-lecoultre.com.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Boutique
Marina Bay Sands
B2M-240

2 Bayfront Ave
Singapore 018972


 

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