Bob Maron walks onto the Sunland, California set of Anger Management, Charlie Sheen’s new sitcom for the FX network, like he owns the place. Maron is bearded and scruffy and dressed entirely in denim, looking more like a rock tour roadie than somebody with real power. Sheen spots him from across the room and immediately breaks into a wide smile. He walks over and gives Maron a bear hug, and they retreat to a corner to whisper conspiratorially.
It’d be easy to assume that Maron is a Hollywood agent or manager or even publicist. But Maron is just the guy who sells Charlie Sheen vintage and ridiculously expensive wristwatches.
When Sheen talks about Maron, it’s with genuine reverence. “He has incredible taste,” says Sheen, who’s made Maron a co-executive producer on his show. “He’s the most astute player in the game. He truly is, in my opinion, the market maker.” Maron couldn’t have said it better himself, though he’s happy to try. Ask him what he does for a living, and he won’t settle for a pedestrian job description like watch dealer. “I’m known for finding and selling the rarest, most important, most expensive, most complicated watches in the world,” he says. He specializes in brands like Rolex and Patek Philippes, valued in a price range that’s typically more than most people would spend on a house.
But he makes a convincing case for overpriced watches. In person, Maron is funny and charming; a consummate salesman. He’ll ask you for the time, and then smile in a way that makes you feel foolish for checking your cellphone. “You can drive a Ferrari,” he likes to say, “but you can’t drive it into a board meeting. You can put a beautiful Warhol on your wall, but you can’t take it to dinner with your friends.” And he has endless stories that prove how spending a small fortune on a thing you put on your wrist just might be the best investment strategy you’ll ever make.
“A client I worked with, one of the first hires at Dell, he bought twenty-two vintage Paul Newman Daytonas from me ten years ago,” Maron says. “I thought he was nuts. I remember the highest price I ever charged him for an individual watch was $16,000. A few years ago, I ended up buying his collection back. I bought twenty of his watches for million and a half bucks. He got the last laugh.” (Actually, Maron got the last laugh. He only bought the watches, he says, because he knew he could sell them for two million. “And I did.”)
Maron, 52, has been buying and selling watches since 1982, and the market for watch collecting, he says, has never been stronger. According to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry, a Bienne, Switzerland-based watch trade association, watch sales in 2011 were the highest in twenty years. Christie’s, the New York auction house, reported watch sales of $116.3 million last year, a 28 percent increase from 2010. Global Industry Analysts, a San Jose publisher of market research, predicts the worldwide market for watches could reach $46.6 billion by 2017. Forget gold, the future of investing might very well be an antiquated device that the Times of London once dismissed as “going the same way as the sundial.”
Fine watches have survived their redundancy in the age of mobile phones because telling time is beside the point. “Even the most complicated timepieces have a handmade quality to them,” says Evan Zimmermann, chief executive officer of Geneva-based watch auction house Antiquorum. “They’re not disposable, plastic things that will be replaced tomorrow with something smaller and faster.” In a culture that constantly looks forward, he says, watches offer a connection to a centuries-old art form.
Maron — who runs his own vintage watch boutique, Robert Maron Inc., in Thousand Oaks, California — has certainly benefited from the increased interest in collectible watches. Most of his customers, he says, buy in bulk. They’re aren’t limited to one or two watches. The serious collectors will buy anywhere from 40 to 200 watches. As for what that translates to in actual earnings, Maron would rather not get into specifics. “We sell million dollar watches,” he says. “You don’t have to do a lot of math to realize we’re doing tens of millions of dollars of business.” He says profits are up 20 percent so far in 2012.
That air of mystery surrounds everything he does. Most of his clients he declines to mention by name. “I deal with some of the most well-known icons in the business world,” he says. “I’m constantly on the phone with somebody from Goldman Sachs or-” He pauses, whispering to his associates, CFO Paul King and his Sales and Marketing Manager Rob Spayne. “Let’s just say when a guy sells his business for a couple hundred million bucks, their money usually finds its way to me.”
While his corporate clientele may prefer secrecy, he has a loyal and very public customer pool of Hollywood celebrities, including household names like pop singer John Mayer, Pirates of the Caribbean actor Orlando Bloom, and former Friends star Jennifer Aniston. “Maron is the only watch dealer that I ever allowed to bring watches into the locker room,” says Mike Dunleavy, the former head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. “He knows exactly what you want and how to get it,” says Richie Sambora, lead guitarist for New Jersey hair-band Bon Jovi. “I recently contacted him requesting a very rare Rolex made in 1962, as a present for one of my band mates. Within days it was delivered to my hotel room in New York. He is the rock star of watch dealers. You need it, just ask Bob.”
And then there’s Charlie Sheen, Maron’s most famous (and occasionally infamous) client. Maron has been selling him watches for almost a decade, through good times and bad. The engraved Patek Philippe Calatrava that Sheen used to propose to real estate investor Brooke Mueller in 2007, that came from Maron. And when he tore apart his room at the Plaza Hotel in New York City in 2010, looking for his cherished $165,000 Patek Philippe Ref. 5970 watch that he accused adult film performer Capri Anderson of stealing, it was Maron who helped him find a replacement. Maron also sold him the original and was out with Sheen the night before it disappeared.
“He partied a little harder than me,” Maron admits. “Dinner turned into drinks turned into four in the morning. But I skipped out on dinner the next night. Charlie’s blamed me for his 5970 disappearing. He said, ‘If you’d been with me, you wouldn’t have let me go up to the room with the watch on my wrist.’ Which is true, by the way.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Maron never saw watches as his career. As a student at Harvard and then UCLA Law School during the late 80s and early 90s, he paid for his tuition by buying and selling vintage watches, but it was just a low-stakes hobby he did mostly for fun. In 1999, he attended a Christie’s auction in New York, and made an impulsive bid on an IWC Il Destriero Scafusia. “The price was up to $100,000,” he remembers. “And somehow I raised my paddle. I bought the watch for $107,000. And I had no money.” But he did have a line of credit with Christie’s, and he managed to sell the watch for a profit to Silicon Valley real estate developer Robert Eves. “I just started telling him how magnificent the watch was,” Maron said. “I basically didn’t stop talking till he said yes.” With that sale, he says, he graduated into the big leagues, and he’s never looked back.
While he’s earned the respect of his customers, it’s unclear what his peers think about him. Zimmermann, the current president and CEO of Antiquorum, where Maron briefly served as chairman in 2009, claims that Maron “doesn’t have a connection with Antiqurorum. I’d rather not discuss him.” (Maron, however, says that his involvement with Antiqurorum is ongoing. “When they need expert advice,” he says, “they call me up.”) A representative for Christie’s felt it wasn’t “appropriate for us to comment” on Maron, and a Sotheby’s rep was not “available at any point in the relatively near future.” Benjamin Clymer, founder of the popular watch blog Hodinkee.com, was happy to “talk… about the rise of vintage watches in recent years but would prefer not to comment on Bob Maron.” Maron has his theories on why the vintage watch community is so tight-lipped. “They consider me competition,” he says. “They’ve said as much to me. You get on the top and everybody wants to put you down.”
Maron is less interested in the politics of the watch industry than the thrill of the chase. “Selling watches is secondary for me,” he says. “The best part of this job is finding watches.” But in a highly competitive market, it’s not enough just to locate the best and most valuable watches. You also have to beat every other dealer to the punch. There’s very little that Maron isn’t willing to do to get a rare watch before anybody else. He’s flown to Las Vegas on his wedding anniversary, with his wife in tow, to wine and dine an Italian race car driver with a Patek 130 that he wasn’t sure he wanted to sell. (“I ended up getting the watch,” Maron says.) He’s driven out to a “hippie commune” in Joshua Tree National Park to inspect a rare Patek watch before a Christie’s inspector could show up. (“I was part of a drum circle,” he says. “I left with the watch.”) He’s hired a helicopter pilot to take him on a high-speed commute from Thousand Oaks to Palm Springs to buy a vintage Patek World Time from an indecisive seller. “The guy told me, ‘I want a cashier’s check for $50,000 by 5pm or I’m considering other offers, and I’m not flexible on this,’” Maron remembers. “It was 3:30 in the afternoon and he was 140 miles away.” He made it to the seller with literally two minutes to spare.
His main flaw as a watch dealer, he says, is his reluctance to sell watches at all. “At least once a week,” Maron says, “I’ll walk into (Marketing Manager) Rob (Spayne)’s office and yell at him about some watch we’re selling on eBay. It always seems like he’s trying to undermine me by selling some incredible gem.” Maron is first and foremost a collector, and he reluctantly accepts that selling his treasured watches is sometimes a necessary evil of running a successful business.
For all his success, Maron still has a Great White Whale of timepieces: the Patek Philippe Ref. 3449. Only three were made, and two are publicly accounted for. One was sold at an Antiquorum auction in 2004 for $1.4 million, and the other in November of 2011 at a Christie’s auction, fetching €1.2 million (approximately $1.5 million). As for the third, Maron is either still searching for it or already has it; he won’t say definitively on the record. “People have insisted that I’ve found the third,” he says, without elaborating on who these “people” might be. “My answer is… I’m not going to confirm or deny it.”
He laughs. This is the part of his job that he loves the most. It’s not the celebrity clients or the high-stakes negotiations or the millions in profits. It’s having something the rest of the world wants, and being purposely elusive about whether he’s going to share. “The world will find out if I own it if I offer it for sale,” he says with a wry grin. “Let’s leave it at that.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the May 24th, 2012 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.)