First thing to consider is how much do you like the watch? Forget about resale value for a moment: there is absolutely no point in spending hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars on any item that you don't really like. Picture it on your wrist, in your collection. If you love the watch, then it's time to do a little research to identify, authenticate, and value the watch. Make a decision: what is the most you are willing to spend on this watch? That is, perhaps, the most important and effective decision you'll make after deciding whether or not you like it.
eBay and third party developers offer several great tools for research, though it can be a little bit difficult getting enough results on vintage watches since a particular brand or model may be fairly uncommon. The Cooksey Shugart guide is perhaps the definitive published work on vintage watches, definitely worth purchasing and referring to, not only for prices, but to help identify watches you may already own, and to aid in determining whether a watch is truly authentic or not.
Because eBay will submit your bid in increments, meaning that no matter what you enter as your highest offer eBay will only submit enough to beat the previous high bid of another eBayer, you can enter your highest offer and still win the auction having spent as little as was necessary to beat other bidders out for this watch that you want. Place your highest bid, knowing that you have made your best effort and given yourself the proper chance to win, and you'll still possibly win the auction with less than your highest offer.
Bid Assistant is a new tool well worth checking into, especially if you don't want to stay up all night watching the last hours of a hot auction. Sniping tools can be helpful in that you can 'keep your cards close to your chest' by not showing your maximum bid until potentially too late for others to react to, but eBay bids of the same or higher amount will ALWAYS beat bids submitted by sniping services.
Price expectations on eBay are another issue: very unpredictable. Almost all vintage watches sold on eBay come at a significant discount over watches sold at 'brick and mortar' establishments. Even though there are potentially more customers here, the expectation of price is lower on eBay, and most of the time this results in lower overall bids and fantastic deals for buyers - on the face of it.
The overall condition of any watch that is not 'factory fresh ' cannot be determined by the buyer, and many sellers offer no return policies. As a matter of fact, most seller are unable and unqualified to determine the condition of the watch movement, so it is not possible to determine from many item descriptions. Check the reputation of the seller - if they have a long list of successful transactions, or they are in the watch business professionally, then their descriptions come from experience and can be taken a little more at face value.
It is important to consider service costs as part of your purchase, especially when buying vintage, or any watch in excess of 3 years of age. It is more likely than not that the watch needs servicing - this is a reality that surprises a shigh number of vintage watch buyers, novice or experienced. Unless it was serviced within last 6 months, it is not possible to know the condition and reliability of the timepiece you are buying.
The average maintenance interval on a modern watch is 2-5 years, depending on the model, the environment it is worn in, and the frequency of wear. Vintage watches are, by design or from aging, usually poorly protected against the elements - dust, moisture, and oils are free to enter the watch, gumming and oxydizing the parts, potentially leading to poor operation or even ruined movements.
Even if the buyer says the watch is running well, that is no guarantee that the watch will continue to do so. These are extremely precise, delicate instruments. Even the simplest watch movement is manufactured to very tight tolerances, and the dirtier the movement, the less likely the watch will be a reliable timekeeper under any circumstances. If you are considering a chronograph, date, or other complicated watch then servicing is even more critical. Every additional feature on a watch involves many parts, all working together in fantastic precision, to operate correctly.
Another surprise for many vintage watch owners is watchmakers' unwillingness or inability to service these otherwise excellent pieces of horology. Parts are extremely scarce for many vintage movements, and details of how to service a given movement, are just as difficult to come by. Often the only source of information is word of mouth or training, and watchmakers are trained on new movements, not vintage. Most vintage watchmakers have their knowledge either from a lifetime of doing, or from an apprenticeship with a master watchmaker versed in arcane skills needed to service, diagnose, and repair movements that haven't been manufactured in over a half a century.
Watchmakers that specialize in vintage timepieces spend a great deal of time researching and acquiring parts & knowledge of how to deal with these rare and often complex movements. In addition to that, some vintage watchmakers are even able to fabricate parts when none are available - this is the highest level of watchmaking, besides producing an entire movement from scratch.
Prices for basic service vary greatly depending on the location and level of experience of the watchmaker. Just like the price of watches on eBay, the reputation and market circumstances will determine the value of any given watchmaker. Make sure you are giving your watch to someone that will care for it correctly, and be able to diagnose and solve any problems that your watch may have. Many watchmakers will simply dump the movement, in its entirety, into a machine with combination cleaning and lubricating agents. This is a definite no-no for quality movements like those found in most vintage watches. They must be disassembled by hand, cleaned in the appropriate solutions & machines, the mainspring should be replaced, the movement reassembled & oiled to manufacturer specification, and then regulated on a timing machine. That is the very minimum that goes into a service.
It is not unusual for a service on a simple watch to exceed $100.
For vintage chronographs, most services in qualified US watchmakers' shops start at well over $200.
Make sure you factor the potential service cost in your bid! If the seller indicates the watch was recently serviced then you can relax a bit, the watch will most likely be ok for a year or two at least, especially if the seller offers a satisfaction guarantee.
And most of all, have fun. Although vintage watch buying should involve careful consideration, few collecting hobbies are as rewarding both emotionally and financially. Many vintage watches gain regularly in value. Though sticking to certain brands, like Heuer, Movado, Breitling, IWC, Patek Phillip, Rolex, and others can increase the likelihood of a good investment, it is not unusual to see a vintage Chronographe Suisse (the Swiss equivalent of ACME) gain 10-50% anually in value, especially if it contains a quality movement.
So, see you out there, and enjoy your vintage watches!
Luna Cie Watches