One of the world’s most influential watch collectors, Auro Montanari, also known by the pseudonym John Goldberger, has amassed a vast vault over the past 43 years. After acquiring bargain-priced Patek Philippe and Rolex models during the quartz crisis of the 1970s, Montanari found himself sitting on a gold mine when the revival of mechanical watchmaking occurred around two decades later. The recent boom in sought-after vintage pieces has only reinforced its notoriety. Its Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6265, nicknamed “The Unicorn” because it was the only known vintage white gold hand-wound Daytona ever produced, selling for $ 5.9 million in 2018 when it was auctioned at Phillips. Montanari donated the profits to the Geneva charity Children Action. But the native of Bologna, Italy is also known for his refined sense of style and his eye for everything from photography and rare books to fine china.
Do you have personal rituals?
Just to drink an Illy mocha-based, old-fashioned Italian espresso.
What advice would you have liked to follow?
I started in Italy [at a university] specializing in design and photography, very similar to the Parsons School in New York. After that, my father advised me to go to a good college in California, like Stanford or USC, but I was very lazy. I preferred to spend my time playing basketball, surfing and buying watches at vintage flea markets.
When I first went to the United States in 1978, I went to New York and found it was very expensive for a young man. So I went to California and found out that it was a wonderful, cheap life there. I remember the first year I was in California, ’80s or ’81, it was easy to buy a car, rent an apartment in Venice Beach or Santa Monica, and life was more exciting. I stayed from ’80 to ’84. I was 22 or 23 at 25, and I met my wife, a German who lived there. Sadly, she died of cancer almost 20 years ago. I have a new wife now, but I had some happy times in California.
What are you doing that is still analog?
I’m a digital man, but still read and collect real books. I love the smell of paper. I am a huge fan of photography books. I have a lot of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Irving Penn books, but the originals were printed in the 1970s. They are very collectable. They’ve been reprinted, and the quality is better, but I prefer to have the originals, the first editions.
What do you wear most often in your wardrobe?
The light blue oxford button down shirts from Brooks Brothers, New York and vintage chambray shirts.
How do you find calm?
To sunbathe wherever possible. I love spending time in New York and I often go to the park on a bench facing the sun, especially in the winter. I have tanned skin all year round.
Who is your guru?
My father was my guru. My dad was always a good example because… he worked hard to build something. He created a company from nothing. He was a good engineer and he created a very original company in Italy, focused on IT. He was also very elegant. He approached fashion the right way. He has never been a fashion victim. He taught me how to find the right things, be it a tailor or a store, and save my money to buy vintage pieces.
Did he pass you any watches?
No, my father gave me a vintage Omega Seamaster for my communion, when I was between 8 and 10 years old, made the same year I was born, in 1957. Later, in the 70’s, he gave me good advice: “Start buying watches because they are very cheap… Buy Patek Philippe because it is a strong brand.” I said to him: “Who is Patek Philippe? I only knew Cartier, Omega and Rolex. He said to me: “Go to Geneva and study. So I went to see this little building on a lake, the little shop of Patek Philippe, to understand why the brand was so strong. At that time, there were no books or information available. I started to develop my knowledge and collect watches in 1978, at the age of 20.
What was your first watch purchase?
A vintage Rolex chronograph, which I bought from an antique store in Bologna. It was $ 500. In the 80’s I bought a very nice rectangular Patek “Hour Glass”, which I bought for around $ 900 at a flea market in Italy. Also, I discovered a watch source in New York in ’78. At a flea market, I met a young woman who was Andy Warhol’s watch buyer, and she introduced me to him. In Beverly Hills, there was also a super pawnshop where you could find amazing watches and jewelry from stars like Ava Gardner.
What’s the most recent thing you added to your collection?
A very rare and unique Cartier Tonneau chronograph monopusher made in the late 1920s.
Who is your reseller and what does he source for you?
My favorite “pusher” is a good friend of mine. I like to call him my pusher because every time he finds something he thinks I will like, he tries to sell it to me. He is Italian and knows my taste for watches very well. He is one of the most important resellers in Italy, or in Europe. Everything is rare and in perfect condition with good provenance and a good history.
Is there a watch you’ve always wanted but still haven’t found?
Ah, so much. The holy grail for me is always the next discovery. One in particular is a Patek Philippe perpetual calendar with a Ref. 1518. I have it in rose gold and steel. But from Patek’s books, we know they only made one piece in platinum. No one has seen a photo, and no one knows where it is.
What watch are you wearing?
I love wearing my Cartier Tank Cintrée in platinum, which I had made to measure in the Cartier boutique in Paris with Roman numerals instead of Arabic, in blue.
What else do you collect?
I like to collect old porcelain for my kitchen, pots which were used to contain tea powder, from the end of the 19th century. I bought all of these jars in New York almost 20 years ago. They were around $ 900 or $ 1000 when I bought them, but now they are more expensive and there are a lot of fake oriental coins.
What’s the most impressive dish you cook?
I like spending time in my kitchen. My specialty is zucchini pasta, like in Nerano, on the Sorrento coast. I use a Wolf stove and oven from the United States. They sent it to me in Italy because they are very hard to find here. My pots and pans also come from the United States. I spent a lot of money on shipping!
What is your favorite cocktail?
A frozen margarita with a good tequila. I started drinking margaritas in Mexican restaurants when I lived in California. I like a good frozen margarita with nachos.
What is your exercise routine and how often do you do it?
No exercises because I am very lazy. I might be lucky with my metabolism, but I was a big athlete when I was young. When I was 12 or 13 I was told I had a heart murmur and shouldn’t play sports, so I made a fake certificate to be able to play basketball. Now I’m just trying to walk.
What does success look like?
Do what I love without hurting my family or my sales team.
Where do you find your clothes?
I shop for vintage and military clothing at flea markets around the world. I also love the Double RL clothes, the Brooks Brothers shirts and all of my suits are handmade by my tailors in Bologna and Naples. One of them is a tailor named Solito, who specializes in Neapolitan jackets with a good shoulder, hand stitching and patch pockets.
Drive or be driven?
I don’t like to drive. I like to travel by train and by plane.
When was the last time you completely unplugged?
I unplug when I visit the bank safe once a month to view my collection of watches in complete relaxation. I keep all my watches there because it is not safe in Italy. I have a small private room underground where I sit and have all the watches organized by style, type and age. I go and study them and take pictures. I always stay for half an hour or 45 minutes.
How would you describe your look?
The sprezzatura, a studied carelessness.
What is your favorite hotel?
The Whitby in NYC because of the location, they have good service and decor, and I love the private room downstairs with the fireplace, which is for guests only, and the little garden. The breakfast is also very good.
What’s always in your carry-on baggage?
A camera. I have a full frame Sony AR7 II. I also sometimes use a Leica, but it’s not digital. The Sony is good because it is a good price and of good quality. He takes very good photos.
Which car are you most attached to?
My first car, a convertible VW Beetle. But I gave it to a young engineer in my company who loves vintage cars. I haven’t used it for 10 or 20 years, and it will always let me drive it.
What is worth paying for?
Latest Netflix box set or frenzy?
Recently I bought a DVD of Le Mans, with Steve McQueen, because I write, with Cesare Maria Mannucci, a new book, Race time, part II, and I try to recognize the wristwatches worn by the characters in the film.
Bowie or Dylan?
Bowie. He was a great character in my youth.