I am relatively new to appreciating wristwatches and their history. I am a Ph.D student and cannot spend thousands of dollars on watches. My question is what should I watch out for when I'm visiting online sites, such as eBay and Chrono24, when looking to buy vintage watches? I'm interested in buying pre-war Longines and Omega Speedmasters.
Great to hear from someone new to the watch world. Almost all of us watch-lovers have gone through a time without the ability to really spend on watches; in your case, it's paying for that degree, and for me, it's just being fifteen. Since you have given me an idea of what you're hoping to purchase, I will do my best to give you, and the rest of my readers, a few helpful hints on what to look out for when buying online.
The RIGHT Seller
Whenever I come across a watch on an online marketplace, such as eBay and Chrono24, my immediate reaction is to find out who the seller is and where the seller is based. Pictured above is Robert Maron. Though Robert is one of the industry's preeminent dealers, he is a long-time eBay seller with a truly blue-chip selection of watches. Other dealers, such as Matthew Bain and HQ Milton, also hold eBay accounts. The watches offered by these sellers are generally in impeccable condition and are always professionally authenticated.
Often, watches from Asian and South American countries will have refinished dials, missing parts, replaced parts, or may not even run. I recommend, especially if you cannot identify these flaws, to buy only from sellers such as those aforementioned.
The RIGHT Watch
No matter what that case, never buy on impulse without adequate knowledge. Always do the most research possible, make sure you like what you are buying, and are confident that you're buying the best watch you can find within your price range. It can take months or even years to acquire the "right" watch. For example, I recently purchased a Longines Calatrava-style watch (non tre/sei tacche). It has taken me about a year an half to find that watch with that dial at a price I wanted to pay. Just don't be so quick to click that "Buy It Now" button. To figure out the market price for a specific watch, I advise searching through online catalogues from past auctions. For further information on buying via auction (Christie's, Sotheby's, etc.), click here.
Longines/Omega Under $2,000
It always seems like $2,000 is the magic number when it comes to buying [relatively] inexpensive vintage timepieces. $2,000 also happens to be the perfect price point for quality vintage Longines and Omega wristwatches. Unfortunately, it's hard to find those awesome oversized Calatravas and early 321 Speedys for that kind of money, but there are still excellent alternatives.
Speedmasters from the mid-1980's through the early 2000's can be easily found on eBay for less than two grand. The cases and dials on some of these later Speedmasters are proportioned slightly differently than the originals, though the value is still unsurpassable.
Since Longines did not name many of their early models, they are referred to by collector-bestowed nicknames and by their movement numbers/reference numbers. FYI: The 12.68 and 10.68 are probably the highest grade time-only Longines calibers. Suprisingly, they aren't recognized for their functionality; instead, they are recognized for the provenance of the watches they were put into. For $2,000, I would recommend purchasing a steel Longines Calatrava (mid-size/small-size) with a stepped bezel, a classic Patek 570 case shape, and an unusual dial (always adds value). You're more likely to find these on Chrono24 or other sites strictly intended for watch-trading. Also, if the seller is based in Italy and the watch looks legit, it's not a bad idea to buy. Just sayin' the Italian guys I know have more killer Longines in their collections than anyone else on this earth.
As I have said, it won't be easy finding that perfect vintage watch online, but if you spend just the right amount of time exploring the world-wide-web, you're apt to discover the watch you're after.