5 min

A rare interview with the world’s most notoriously elusive and influential watch collector.

If you think you haven’t heard of Auro Montanari, it may be because you only know him as John Goldberger, the name he adopted years ago to protect his privacy – and maintain a little mystery.

For decades now the effortlessly stylish and enigmatic Italian has been widely revered as the ultimate authority on watches, and for having one of the most rare and impressive collections in the world. Since 2005 he has been pouring his knowledge into a series of hugely successful books, published under his alias. His most recent, Time to Race, is a graphic celebration of the interwoven worlds of racing and watches, co-authored by the renowned motorsports journalist Cesare Maria Mannucci.

We were lucky enough to sit down with Montanari and discuss the golden age of racing, social media, and buying watches by fax…

Many people know you as a great scholar of watches and a well-regarded collector because of your incredible book, Time to Race, so thank you for the preview of Volume Two…

You’re welcome. I’ve been working very hard on “Time to Race part II”. It will be ready towards the end of next year.

It looks pretty complete already, so we look forward to seeing how it develops! For anyone who might not be completely familiar with who you are, can you tell us what first drew you to collecting, and how you got started?

In the 1970s my parents were art collectors – very good art collectors – but I got a little bored following them around antique shows, looking at carpets, old paintings, and furniture. So my father gave me the great advice to start buying watches. Back then, during the Quartz era, there were very good mechanical watches available at flea markets everywhere, so I started my collection with my pocket money.

Your recent work explores the great relationship between racing and watches over the last century, from the very dawn of motorsports. Why do you think these two worlds are so connected?

For me, the most important industrial objects manufactured in the last century were cars and watches. Everybody drove a car, everybody wore watches. I was a big fan of cars when I was very young. That’s how I met Cesare Maria Mannucci, when we were both kids. We were both big fans of Formula 1, and we would discuss it every day, the cars, the drivers. And now we’ve consolidated our friendship, by making these books.

Did you go to races when you were younger?

When I was very young I went to the Grand Prix in Monte Carlo, and I saw races at the Imola and Mugello Circuits because they were very close to my house in Bologna. I was very passionate about it.

Auro Montanari & Cesare Maria Mannucci, co-authors of "Time to Race"

Are there any specific cars you remember from that period?

This was towards the end of the 1970s, which I believe was the golden age for Formula 1, and for the great sports prototypes. When you saw all the cars at Le Mans, it was incredible. The Ferrari 512S and 312PB, the Porsche 917 and 908, the Ford GT40, Matra sport. The Porsche 911 was a great car, and I liked a few Aston Martins. But I drove a Beetle.

It was also a golden age for Heuer.

Well, Jack Heuer invested a lot in motor racing. The relationship with Ferrari was a great move. And Heuer watches are great for drivers. The ergonomics, the readable dials.

We were very lucky that Jack Heuer and Enzo Ferrari formed that relationship, first for the sports timekeeping, and then of course for the presentation watches, of which you’ve seen quite a few…

Yes, we found many of the gold Carreras that were presented by Jack Heuer to the drivers, and they’re featured in the books.

Jack Heuer, Niki Lauda and Clay Regazzoni (Heuer Carrera 1158)

Heuer Carrera 1158CHN

Can you tell us more about some of those drivers, and the watches?

There are about 60 characters featured in the second book, and at least 11 of them are wearing Heuer watches. John Barnard with a Heuer Titanium, Sacho Fukuzawa with an early Autavia, Tetsu Ikuzawa with a black Monza, Andre Lotterer with a Heuer Audi Sport, Bud Moore with a Carrera Cougar, Marvin Panch with an Autavia “Motor Age”, John Watson with an Autavia, Yody Scheckter and Clay Regazzoni with a Camaro, Tim Schenken and Mauro Forghieri with an 18k gold Carrera, which was presented to them by Jack Heuer. As well as the drivers there are some of the actors from Le Mans and Grand Prix.

Have you ever raced yourself?

When I was 15 my father bought me a go-kart, but then he sold it almost immediately because I failed an exam at school [laughing]. It was my dream. I do love cars, and car design, but I have always been focused on watches – which was perhaps a mistake, because in the 80s you could find great cars for reasonable prices, but now it’s impossible.

You said the 70s were the golden age of racing. Is that also your favourite period when it comes to design?

The 50s and 60s were the best era for everything. Clothes, furniture, cars, watches. It was a great period for creativity, and the quality of everything was great. In every period there is a pivotal city in the world, and in the 60s it was London, for music, for clothes, for racing. After London it was New York in the 70s for contemporary art, and now the new order is in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore. In the 80s the best collectors were Italian, American and German. Now there is a new generation from Asia, and they’re very influential.

When you started collecting in the 70s and 80s, was the market very different?

There were a lot of watches on the market, but I had no knowledge, no books, no internet. I was a pioneer, finding watches, discovering brands. It wasn’t easy, but it was exciting. Now you can go online, and find most things, and all the details. And the new generation of collectors have a good head for these tools.

Did you ever try to build any kind of database of models, at the time?

I didn’t. The first reference book that was published in the early ‘80s was a German book, and it was technically very good, because it described calibres well. Then, after that there were reference books published in Japan, and then Italy. The Italian books were more superficial.

Is there any advice you’d give to collectors starting out now? 

It’s very simple; buy what you like, don’t follow common trends, and always buy quality. 

It feels like there are great opportunities in the vintage market at the moment.

Every 20 years, watches change hands. There are a lot of collections on sale around the world now, and it’s a good time to get something, definitely.

Your Instagram is fascinating, because as well as your watches it showcases your photography. Is that another passion of yours? 

I love Instagram, and photography is one of my great passions. I was very lucky when I was younger because my father had some great cameras that I could use, and I’ve loved photography ever since. My dream, perhaps even more so than finding the Holy Grail of watches, is to have one of my photos in National Geographic.

Do you think social media has impacted the world of collecting? 

It has its problems, but the democracy of the internet is a good thing. You have access to a lot of information, and that’s good for the market, so it’s good for everybody.

Do you think the watch collecting world is becoming more local, or more global? 

More global, definitely, with the internet. Especially in the last two years, during the pandemic. I remember in the 80s, when somebody in the US wanted to show me a watch, they had to send me a blurred fax, in black and white. It was very hard to know if the watch was any good or not.

And you’d buy watches just from seeing a fax? 

Sometimes, yes.

I’m sure you had a heightened sense of what was good or not by then.

I learned a lot in the flea markets. Seeing so many watches that way, with no tools, you learn what’s collectible, what’s rare. The flea markets were a good school for me. I still made a lot of mistakes, in the past, but now mistakes are a little more expensive… But the sense of discovery is still incredible.

Do you think there are still many great undiscovered watches hiding out there? Do you still enjoy hunting for them ?

I’m sure there are, all over the world. I’m getting old, but yes, I still enjoy it.

What aspect of collecting do you enjoy the most? Is it the research, or the deal itself? 

I love the research. For me the discovery is the most important thing, more than owning the watch. After I take a few photos, the watches go in a safe. 

Do you enjoy selling, and moving watches on?  

I try to downsize my collection whenever I move towards other brands, or other niches. Right now I’m very focused on pocket watches. My dream for future generations is that they start wearing them again. They can have a good electronic device on their wrist, but then a nice Grand Complication watch in their pocket. You can enjoy the split-second perpetual repeating sound of the pocket watch, and then have a smart device on your wrist for fitness, connectivity, and everything else.

Let’s finish on that dream! It was a genuine pleasure to talk to you.

And the same to you. Thank you.