Hubert Burda Media

A Conversation with Panerai Collector Eng Tay

The artist’s love for Panerai is a natural extension of his passion for antiques and contemporary art.

If you own a few Panerai watches or are a fan of Southeast Asian art, chances are, you would have heard of Eng Tay. Born in Kedah, West Malaysia and based in New York for the last 40-odd years, Tay is a well-known artist that has held more than 100 solo exhibitions worldwide. His pieces may be found in the permanent collections of the Fukuyama Museum of Art in Hiroshima, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the New York University Department of Anthropology among others.

He works across different art forms such as etchings, paintings and sculpture, and is known for expressing the concept of family through his signature rounded, organic figures. A consistently good performer at art auctions, his Four Musicians painting recently sold at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art auction in Hong Kong for HK$68,750, significantly higher than the estimated price of between $30,000 and $50,000.

Like many artists, Tay is fastidious about his image. Dressed in an oversized striped collared shirt and a formal jacket, he is adamant about leaving his hair in its tousled condition and keeps the same intense expression throughout the photoshoot. “I’m an artist. So it’s important that I look like one and not a businessman,” he says. But scratch past that brooding artist persona and we find a jovial man who is happy to engage in animated discussions ranging from cross-country driving, to contemporary art and Panerai watches.

The 68-year-old is a prolific collector of Panerai watches, with an impressive collection of more than 40 timepieces, among which are some very valuable and rare examples. He is also an active member of Paneristi, a private community composed of Panerai collectors. “I first heard of Panerai in 2000. At that time, nobody liked the brand because its watches were so big,” he reminisces. Tay himself was initially intimidated by their extra-large proportions, which partly explains why his first purchase – the PAM 21 – was only made four years later.

To the uninitiated, the PAM 21 is what they call the Holy Grail for all Panerai collectors because it is the first special edition Vendôme Panerai watch (those that were released after the Richemont acquisition in 1997). Hailed as the design that follows most faithfully to vintage Panerai timepieces from 1938, it measures 47mm in size and is presented in the Radiomir case shape in platinum and with a hand-wound vintage Rolex movement. Only 60 pieces were ever produced.

Some 11 years since that unforgettable first purchase, he recounts researching his buy as if it happened only a week ago: “I was on the internet and saw a guy offering to sell his PAM 21…the watch was offered at auction for US$38,000 but he wanted $55,000!” Its value has since shot through the roof, with a piece going for €103,500 at Artcurial’s Panerai Only auction in 2014. It was in fact considered by some collectors as a steal because it is valued at upwards of $200,000.  

Before Panerai watches came on Tay’s radar, he was a modest collector of vintage Casio and Seiko watches. “I love old things like antiques. I don’t like plastic,” he says. His preference for objects of yore explains why most of his Panerai acquisitions belong to the vintage (1930s to 1980s) and pre-Vendôme era (1992 to 1997). Even his recent purchase, the PAM 785 set, composed of the Black Seal and Luminor Daylight Special Edition, are reissues of popular pre-Vendôme references. These watches were made in 1996 for actor Sylvester Stallone and named after the film Daylight to coincide with the movie that the actor was filming at the time of his purchase.

Reintroduced at the end of 2014, they were presented as a collector’s set of 500 limited editions and housed within a pear-wood box inspired by the pre-Vendôme Luminor. The set is also composed of a miniaturised model of the human torpedo (Siluro a Lenta Corsa or Slow-speed torpedo) on a teak base, as well as a book about the military equipment of the Royal Italian Navy’s special forces — precious Panerai paraphernalia for the hard-core collector. 

When we spoke in August, Tay was in Singapore as a guest of the brand’s History and Legend exhibition held at the ION Orchard Singapore. Housed within vitrines, Panerai’s contemporary models from the Submersible, Radiomir 1940, Luminor 1950, Radiomir and Luminor families took their places alongside historically significant watches and precision instruments that the brand used to produce for military use. Among these precious vestiges of the past were two of Tay’s own watches: A Ref 3646 Radiomir from the 1930s and a Ref 3646 German “Kampfschwimmer” model with an anonymous dial from the 1940s.

The Ref 3646 models were produced in various versions between 1938 and the 1950s, when Panerai was actively producing watches for the Royal Italian Navy, Egyptian Army and the German Kriegsmarine. It was also during this period that they were actively developing instruments such as depth gauges, compasses, and torches. The German “Kampfschwimmer” models, named after the German frogmen, were made with no branding and lettering on the dials to prevent the divers from being identified if they were ever caught. Although there remains no official records on how many of these watches were made for the Germans, they are very rare and particularly sought after by collectors because they reflect the intimate relationship the brand shares with the navy.

Tay also owns a Ref 3646 model made in 1938 that comes with a California dial (composed of Arabic and Roman indices). These were the first dials on the Ref 3646 until they were replaced with self-illuminating sandwich dials featuring radium, and then luminor. The transition period also marked a change in the bezel design to accommodate the thicker sandwich dials.

Other highlights from his collection include the Ref 6154, complete with its faded brown dial (originally black) and worn luminous markers. Known as the Egiziano Piccolo, it was made for the Egyptian Navy in 1954, in a very limited series and is hardly ever seen at the resale market. It was last put up for sale at a Christie’s auction in 2012 at a pre-sale estimate of $80,000 to $120,000 and was sold for $326,500. At that time, it set the record for the highest price ever achieved by a Panerai watch. Tay is also particularly fond of his Ref 6152 from the 1950s that features a blueish Radiomir dial along with a Rolex movement. There are only 24 watches bearing the 6152 reference and Tay believes his is the only one in the world with a blue dial.

“My relationship with Panerai goes beyond collecting. It is about the community,” he says, referring to the Paneristi. His relationships with some of his fellow like-minded collectors have grown into lasting friendships and he thoroughly enjoys their get-togethers. The annual P-day, when Paneristi members get together at a different part of the world each year to celebrate their shared passion for Panerai, is something he looks forward to particularly. Tay hosted the P-day in New York in 2010, during the community’s 10th anniversary, with a cocktail reception at his SoHo studio. To commemorate the occasion, he also made and sold prints of the PAM 360 (created for sale only to 300 lucky Paneristi members), with all proceeds benefitting The Mulliganeers, a charitable organisation for families of sick children in need. He has plans to do the same with the PAM 634 (his latest purchase), the new 500-piece watch that is only available to Paneristi members and is sold exclusively in Panerai boutiques.

These days, aside from his Panerai watches, Tay also buys from Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Söhne. When he’s not indulging in his watch collecting hobby, you can find him shopping for contemporary art (he owns pieces from Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat) or cross-country driving in his four-wheel Ford Explorer. “Before I’m unhealthy, I would like to see the world. I missed all these when I was younger and had to work. Now, I’m free,” he says.