If you were to ask any watch enthusiast who the most well known watch dealer in London is, you will invariably get the answer David Duggan. David has been a horological fixture in Mayfair since the late 1980s, but the story begins a long time before that, in the north of England. Before Patek Philippe complications and vintage Rolex Daytonas were part of the daily routine, David’s focus was on old coins and pocket watches.
In the first of a two-part interview, One To Watch caught up with David to find out how he discovered the business that has since made him one of the most trusted names in the industry.
“The story began in 1975. For a year I’d been working for the civil service as a ‘weights and measures man’. This involved checking that the scales used by the coal delivery guys were true and accurate as well as checking petrol pumps and the optics in pubs. We were there to make sure the public wasn’t being short-changed by businesses. I’ll never forget the Starsky and Hutch-esque chases we had pursuing coal lorries around Blackburn!” he explains.
The civil service wasn’t the life for David, however, and an opportunity offered by his brother John Duggan would give David a new focus…although he wasn't to escape the scales just yet.
David continues: "By 1975, John was one of the top coin dealers in the UK. He had adverts in the national coin publications and built up a reputation as one of the go-to guys for rare and important coins. He had decided to embark on regional weekend buying trips and needed another pair of hands. He placed adverts for our first trip to Shrewsbury in the local paper. The advert was an offer to buy old coins, Albert chains and pocket watches.”
And so the Duggan brothers set out on their adventure. John had booked a function room at the Prince Rupert hotel, where he set up his table and stashed a bag containing £20,000 in cash under is chair. And so the buying began. David’s job was to keep the ‘punters’ happy in the adjoining waiting room. On arrival at each venue there would be around 25 people waiting to sell their old coins and silver. This became the familiar weekly pattern of weekends spent in provincial towns, with David working through the coins on a Monday morning.
“The Krause catalogue (a rare coin directory) became my bible," says David. "We would put away the really good pieces and then sell the rest to visiting dealers from Tuesday to Friday. On a Saturday morning we were back in the car heading off on another trip. Such great, fun times!
“After a year, we had a superb reputation up and down the country. One weekend in Derby there were more than 80 people waiting and John told me I would have to start doing the buying alongside him. He gave me £10,000 cash in a bag and it was sink or swim time! I took care of the regular stuff and John did the rare bits. We then expanded to Scotland and spent some fabulous weekends up in the highlands."
This was where David’s love of Scotland began and is the location of one of his favourite stories: "I’ll never forget one lady who walked into the room that we’d rented for the weekend and asked us if we bought silver thruppenny bits. I replied that we did and that we paid 10p each for them. She had 100 with her, so I offered her a crisp £10 note. She then informed me that she had a few more at home. How many? I asked. Her reply – 72,000! It transpired that she had spent 40 years working in a bakery and every time she has been given a silver threepence, she had popped it in a dolly tub…and done this for 40 years."
David and John drove to the lady’s house that evening and sure enough all the coins were there, so John gave her a cheque for £7,200. "Unfortunately, I was tasked with counting them on the Monday. There were actually 72,144 in total so John sent her a further cheque for £14.40. It was good business though, as we would sell those for 15p each into the trade. Back then it was a good profit."
By the early 1980s, other dealers had cottoned onto the Duggan brothers’ business model and were also travelling the country buying through newspaper adverts.
Then, in 1983, David branched out on his own: "It was a bit of a leap of faith, but I knew the game well and was ready to run my own business. After a couple of months, however, I realised that the coin trade was dead but that jewellery and pocket watches were getting hot. I was doing great business buying pocket watches for the scrap value, but then cleaning them up and selling them on to clock and pocket watch dealers. Jewels were also very good for me and I had built up a good reputation among the jewellery dealers of the time."
It was on buying trip to a jeweller that David witnessed a transaction that would change the course of his career and life. "I was sitting in a jeweller’s shop, waiting to collect some pieces we’d agreed to do a deal on. The owner was dealing with a customer who came in and placed a steel Rolex Datejust wristwatch on the counter. It was in terrible condition with a grubby loose bracelet and scratched glass. The owner gave it a quick look and offered to buy it for £50 – I couldn’t believe it! The customer took the money and left. I was so surprised that he’d paid £50 for the watch, but he told that he could easily and quickly sell it on for £100. At that moment I knew where I needed to take my business next…"
Look out for the second part of our interview with David, coming soon. In the meantime, why not read our Timepiece Tale, in which David shares his memories of an extraordinary set of Rolex Princes.
If you're looking to buy or sell a vintage watch, need some advice on your collection or have a watch that needs servicing, don't hesitate to get in touch with David and his team.