Auctions: Why I believe Rolex bought Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman’

The picture that a started it all, this image was used in an Italian advertising campaign and created the demand for the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’

The picture that a started it all, this image was used in an Italian advertising campaign and created the demand for the Rolex ‘Paul Newman’

In the 1990’s an early 2000’s Patek Philippe made no secret they would bid at auction, usually successfully, on their own historically important vintage watches in an effort to build inventory for the (2001) ’Patek Philippe Museum’ in Geneva. The fact that they had such deep pockets and knew the history of each watch, meant they usually bid a hefty premium and made the news as vintage watch prices started to seriously escalate.In the 90’s every top lot reported at auction, almost without exception, was a Patek Philippe. You just can’t buy that sort of reputation and it secured them as the worlds foremost respected watch manufacturer, but, well, you can, obviously, buy that sort of reputation. In later years Omega started buying back their own watches at auction to build a museum, even going as far as to assist in the highly publicised Antiquorum OmegaMania auction in 2004. While Patek Philippe were usually publicly quoted as being the buyer of significant watches, Omega were less forthcoming about their participation. That said, Omega has every right to bid and buy at auction and no doubt still does, regardless though, they won’t buy just anything, only significant pieces they would put into their own museum. 

This accepted and known practice of prestigious Swiss manufacturers bidding for their own vintage and highly collectible watches at auction didn’t muddy the waters, other than perhaps to dissuade some collectors from bidding when they assumed they would be against Patek Philippe, they simply knew they wouldn’t win. Everything changed though when a French journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Stacy Meichtry, published an article in 2007 titled ‘How Top Watchmakers Intervene in Auctions’. The article suggested that manufacturers were buying back their own watches to artificially inflate prices and create demand. The article is one of the worse pieces of watch journalism I have ever read and so factually incorrect regarding both the manufacturers participation and the auction process, it is amazing the WSJ ever published it, or weren’t sued. Even the title was incorrectly written. Amazingly, it’s still available online here. Overall, the participation of watch manufacturers bidding at auction was written in a very scandalous way, and, well, the Swiss really don’t like scandals. It didn’t mention Patek Philippe also bid and bought watches from other makers it wanted for it’s museum and made it sound, at least to the average reader, like they were in cahoots with Antiquorum to bid on every watch at auction and fool collectors by driving up prices, which was a lie, or certainly misleading. To the casual reader it was a bombshell and changed the way manufacturers bid at auction. Ever since the publication Patek Philippe stopped allowing the auction houses to announce their purchases to the press, initially changing the wording to “purchased by an private museum’ and then to simply requesting privacy. The same for Omega, Stacy Meichtry turned what was once an accepted and acknowledged practice of transparency, into secrecy. Which brings us to Rolex S.A.

Rolex are known to be perhaps the most secretive of Swiss watch companies, for good reason. When the founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf died in 1960 with no heirs, he left his 100% ownership shares to the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation (founded in 1945). This means the profits from Rolex are re-invested back into the company and they’re not obliged to release financial details, it’s also why they spend more money on advertising the any other watch company, something like US$80 million in 2018 and donate an unknown figure to numerous worthwhile events and charities. With an estimated US$8 billion value, Rolex really is unlike any other watch company. Ever noticed you never see a Rolex advert on the inner pages of a glossy magazine, only on the back or inner covers? When you spend the most, you demand the most. It’s well known within the industry Rolex have been quietly bidding and buying at auction for some time and purchase rare examples from select dealers; but it’s always very quietly. It’s also rumoured recently they’ve been acquiring watches with strong provenance. Which is why, in New York on October 26, 2017, when (ex) Phillips Geneva representative Dr Nathalie Monbaron bid $15.5 million (US$17.8 million with auction fees) for the Rolex Daytona ‘Paul Newman’ given to Paul Newman by his wife Joanne Woodward, I knew, with some decree of confidence, Rolex had bought it. The final two phone bidders were Nathalie Monbaron from Geneva and Tiffany To, from (previously) Hong Kong. Tiffany’s bidder, who we now know to be a Singapore collector, placed an opening bid of $10 million to took the room, and auctioneer, by surprise, however he was more cautious bidding in later stages raising the bid slowly in $100,000 increments. Nathalie on the other hand, speaking in French to her successful client on the phone, was bidding in a very prompt and precise manner, you could say in a very Swiss way. The final bids were NB at 15 million, TT at 15.1 million and eventually NB at 15.5 million. Before Aurel Bacs put the gavel down he commented “It’s not going come back to you Tiffany, EVER, I know where it’s going’. This was an unusual and telling comment from Aurel as any collector could be tempted to sell, or his heirs no interest in watches and sell, only if someone with no financial restrictions and a strong incentive to retain the watch would that comment be applicable, like a corporate company for instance. I heard stories subsequently about a Saudi Prince buying it, or Ralph Lauren, the latter I know untrue as the watch was offered directly to Ralph by (seller) James Cox (James asked me how much to ask, luckily, for him, I talked him out of selling) there were other similar unrealistic tales about the buyer, but sometimes this business is about reading between the lines.

rolex.org

rolex.org

In late 2018 Rolex released the new website rolex.org to (finally) focus on their heritage and previous important owners. The Rolex advertising campaign stresses ‘Every watch tells a Story’ and, although it can always be argued Rolex watches have some pretty impressive owners, including dictators and presidents, none come to mind like the passion and influence Paul Newman impressed on the world when he wore his ref.6239 Daytona; a watch he gave away in 1986 because he jumped into a swimming pool with it on, forgetting it wasn’t waterproof and the glass steamed up. Yes, that was the original story James Cox told me. Wouldn’t have made for a good press release though.

I would expect to see Rolex, finally, hopefully, open a museum in Geneva hosting their own watches and others, such as the first automatic watches launched by Harwood in 1926 that Rolex purchased the patent for in 1929 and released their own, improved, version of in the form of the Oyster Perpetual in 1931. Assuming they do open a museum, among the watches on display I am confident with be Paul Newman’s very own Rolex ‘Paul Newman’. 

Of course others might have a different view of the unknown buyer, or comment that they ‘know’ who the buyer was and it was a Saudi Prince, especially since Aurel Bacs commented in an interview the buyer was an individual, but knowing Aurel, that was a ruse to confuse. Of course one of the problems with this business is; everyone’s an expert.

Watches: The Lure of Vintage

Several years ago a collector came to me with a list of luxury modern watches he owned and asked, what should I buy next? Looking over his list of some 50 watches, he had a good selection of complications from the right manufacturers, a few from independents and the usual commercial ones that are always in demand. Rather than concentrating on one collecting area, he had diversified to allow for turbulence in any particular brand, it was what I would call a financially ‘cautious’ selection, if perhaps not a particularly passionate one. However, something was missing, he didn’t own a single vintage watch by any brand.

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After some discussion I advised he should include a selection of vintage watches and the look on his face was one of sheer horror. You see he viewed the watches as a commodity without ever becoming emotionally attached to them and so, in his opinion, the risks for buying vintage outweighed the potential financial rewards. Buying vintage watches, as with buying vintage cars, can be a virtual minefield; it doesn’t matter how much money you have, if you are not experienced or well advised, mistakes will be made. There are usually plenty of people willing to give you advice when buying vintage but this is rarely accurate and often, unfortunately, misguided. In short, you need a reliable independent guide, preferably two, or three. For those with a passion for watches who are either lucky, have researched themselves or willing to learn by costly mistakes, the rewards for buying vintage, both financial and emotional, are like no other.

1963 Rolex Submariner Ref.5512

1963 Rolex Submariner Ref.5512

I agree owning a unique modern Patek Philippe wristwatch is something most of us only dream of, but if you have the money then other, similarly unique pieces can be made, or you find the company decides to make your ‘unique’ piece as a series. Apparently the first Patek Philippe Nautilus Ref.5711p was made a unique piece, but turned out so well, they made more. To find a perfectly preserved Patek Philippe minute repeater wristwatch from the 1950’s isn’t something that turns up often and when it does, demand is high. Imagine a watch 60 years old that has never been polished, had no restoration and been stored away, unseen and forgotten for several decades. These are the watches that keep the aficionados awake at night and make the billionaire collectors, usually hardened businessmen, go weak at the knees - to find exceptional vintage watches isn’t just about having a lot of money.

Patek Philippe Nautilus in platinum available as a special order Ref.5711p

Patek Philippe Nautilus in platinum available as a special order Ref.5711p

To own a good collection of vintage watches, regardless if they are IWC, Omega, Rolex or Patek Philippe, takes time and usually persistence. You have to have a certain love for the art of watches. For most serious collectors, once they start to buy vintage, they rarely turn back. Many even buy two or three of the same model due to minor variations (usually with vintage Rolex) or to replace an example they already own that isn’t in quite as pristine condition.

It’s amazing what. little sunlight can do. Two Rolex Explorer Ref.1016

It’s amazing what. little sunlight can do. Two Rolex Explorer Ref.1016

So where to start? First decide what field you are drawn to. It really has to be something you have a passion for so it’s different for each person. The most common areas of collecting vintage, certainly today, are Patek Philippe complications and Rolex sports models, both are fraught with dangers from varying opinions on condition and, alas, fakes. Perhaps though, this creates more appeal, as when you find and wear a great example, a knowing nod from another collector giving approval can easily make all the hours, or years, of searching worthwhile. You never just glance at a vintage watch the same way you do a modern one, as rarely two are the same. You want to look closer. How is the condition of the dial, case? What is the history? Where did it come from? Vintage tends to strike a compelling ‘tell me more’.

Vintage and modern Rolex sports models

Vintage and modern Rolex sports models

While I was at a cocktail event in Hong Kong some years ago, as usual, looking around the room at the various watches being worn by the attendees, one caught my eye. It was. Vintage (early 1970’s) Rolex Daytona Ref.6239 with an exotic dial known as the ‘Paul Newman’ dial. The wearer was talking with a group of people and I just couldn’t resist finding out more so went to say hello. It turns out he had inherited it and follows the market closely, although waits for such events to actually wear it. We remain friends to this day. Vintage Rolex sports watches are perhaps the most ‘used’ vintage examples as they are relatively robust and as long as you are not foolish you don’t have to be too concerned about damaging it. Although I have seen clients wear their multi-million-dollar vintage Patek Philippe watches, they do so only on an occasional basis as the idea of damaging one would be just too heartbreaking. 

Patek Philippe Ref.2499 second series

Patek Philippe Ref.2499 second series

For those who, like the collector I met, own so many modern watches they want to diversify, or if someone likes the idea of owning something different and has an interest in vintage, I advise before you start, research yourself, or find a reliable person who is knowledgable and ask for advice. Only recently a friend reached out to me on an opinion if the vintage Breilting they were about to buy was worth the money; it was a fake. 

Other than that, finding several people and asking all their opinion is often the safest way, just be aware when using online forums, in this business everyone considers themselves an expert; yet very few are. Alternatively there are numerous dealers located worldwide for vintage watches, although there will only usually only be a few that stand out in terms of their stock and knowledge, and again, dealers tend to stick together to protect themselves so do your research, sometimes the biggest, including those that have written books, are the baddest. Buying directly from a vintage dealer has the advantages of receiving a guarantee should it stop working, and being able to buy immediately at a fixed price. One the other hand, auctions are a good alternative way for collectors to start as they offer, usually, a large variety at one time and potentially more competitive prices. Just do you research first as auction specialists can easily, and often, over-over-estimate the value of an item by the time auction fees are added, in addition they are are human and can make mistakes on originality. Make sure you view the watch in person, research the model taking into account condition and if it has box/papers, set your highest bid amount calculating auction fees and don’t exceed that figure, it’s easy to get carried away on the day and then regret it. Believe me, I know. Most people tell me if the auctions cover against buying fakes or vintage with replaced parts; read the fine print. In world of real estate the guide is always location, location location, well, in watches, it should be research, research, research. 

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A version of this article was originally written by Charles Tearle for Hong Kong Sprial magazine