RECORD! Paul Newman’s Own Paul Newman Rolex Daytona Sold for $17.7 Million–a Record for Any Wristwatch (Update Nov 2019)

A 1968 Rolex Daytona "Paul Newman," reference 6239 and owned by the late actor Paul Newman. Purchased for him by his wife, Joanne Woodward, she engraved the back of the case with the words, "DRIVE CAREFULLY ME." Estimated in excess of $1 million, Phillips sold it in New York in October 2017 for $17.7 million, a world auction record for any wristwatch.

Update: In November 2019, a unique steel Grandmaster Chime Patek Philippe wristwatch sold in Geneva, Switzerland for $31.1 million, dethroning Paul Newman’s Paul Newman. The Hot Bid will feature the record-breaker in an upcoming post.

What you see: A 1968 Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman,” reference 6239 and owned by the late actor Paul Newman. Purchased for him by his wife, Joanne Woodward, she engraved the back of the case with the words, “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME.” Estimated in excess of $1 million, Phillips sold it in New York in October 2017 for $17.7 million, a world auction record for any wristwatch.

The expert: Paul Boutros, head of watches for the Americas for Phillips.

How rare are these mid-century Rolex Daytonas with the “exotic” dial that was later nicknamed for Paul Newman? Not especially rare, in the grand scheme of things. The thing with this type of Daytona is they’re really sought-after. There’s far greater demand than supply. The regular Daytona appeared in 1963. The version with the exotic dial, aka the Paul Newman dial, appeared on the market in 1966.

For a long time this Paul Newman watch was considered “lost.” How did you find it? Did the consigner come to you, or did you sleuth it out? It came to us. The consigner, James Cox, had had it in his possession since 1984. [Newman spontaneously gave it to Cox, who was dating Newman’s daughter, Nell, at the time, after he idly mentioned that he did not own a watch.] In 2016, he decided it was time to sell it for a good cause, Nell Newman’s charity. He reached out to his attorney and asked how to sell it. The attorney said he didn’t know, but he had a client with a world-class watch collection, and would ask him. The attorney called the collector and asked, “What would you think if I had Paul Newman’s Paul Newman?” The man said “$100,000 to $150,000.” The attorney said, “No no no, the Paul Newman watch worn by Paul Newman.” The collector replied, “Whoa. You have to go to Phillips.”

Did John Cox know what he had? And did he know that the Paul Newman watch was thought to be missing? He didn’t know its importance initially. He wore it casually. Once he was in Japan, and someone came up to him and said, “Paul Newman! Paul Newman!” and he thought, “Wow, how did they know I have Paul Newman’s Daytona?” He didn’t know the watch was called a Paul Newman until he did some research. Then he understood it was an important watch. He placed it in a safe deposit box in the early 1990s. Maybe he didn’t know collectors were hunting for it.

The Paul Newman Daytona was the top lot in Phillips’s first New York auction of watches. Did you hold and schedule the Paul Newman expressly for this sale, or did it happen to come to you at the right time? We always knew we would launch watch sales in New York, but the time had to be right. We felt that a great way to launch New York, and the best thing for the Paul Newman, was to sell it in New York. It was a great alignment of the stars.

You estimated the Paul Newman Daytona in excess of $1 million. The previous record for any wristwatch was $11 million, set at Phillips Geneva in November 2016 by a 1943 Patek Philippe, ref. 1518. When you set the estimate for the Paul Newman, did you have any notion that it could break the record? No. We did not. We were as surprised as anyone. We took in the watch in 2016. Before that, the most expensive Rolex at auction sold for $2.4 million. While the Paul Newman was in our possession, a Rolex sold for $3.4 million and another sold for $5 million. We thought it had a chance of beating the $5 million record for a Rolex. We didn’t know it would beat the record for any wristwatch.

Phillips sold those two record Rolexes in the same May 2017 Geneva auction. But you didn’t change the $1 million-plus estimate on the Paul Newman. Why not? We were still unsure. And once we agree upon an estimate and a contract is in place, we don’t like to change it unless we have to. We kept the estimate conservative.

Have other Paul Newman-owned watches gone to auction? How did they do? There was a modern 1990s Daytona associated with him that sold at a charity auction in 1995. It was one of many watches in the auction. It probably sold for $30,000. That’s it. He donated it for charity.

How do auction records of charity sales affect how you prepare an estimate for a similar item? There’s a little art and science behind an estimate. We ask, “How much would we pay for this watch if it was presented to us?” Another thing we consider is the price of a standard Paul Newman. In 2016, it was $150,000. With a Paul Newman provenance, it’s maybe eight to ten times that.

What factors drove the Paul Newman watch to such a staggeringly high record price? It’s an iconic watch from an iconic brand. By itself, without the Paul Newman provenance, it was $180,000 to $200,000, maximum. Factor in the Paul Newman provenance, and it’s $17.7 million. That portion above the $200,000 is directly associated with the provenance.

To what extent, if at all, did the charity angle–the fact that the Nell Newman Foundation and the Newman’s Own Foundation would benefit from the sale–help push the Paul Newman watch to its record price? It’s impossible to quantify. But if there was no charity aspect, I don’t think it would have sold as high.

What condition was the Paul Newman watch in? It was all-original. It was worn and enjoyed but it never experienced a polishing. It had its original factory finish, and the engraving was perfectly preserved. Its originality really helped it fly.

Does it work? Oh yes. We only sell watches that work. If it hadn’t worked, we would have sent it to a watchmaker to make it work. It’s a minor cost.

Did you try on the Paul Newman Daytona? Of course, yeah. It was very emotional. Your first time seeing it, looking at it, handling it–it’s the moment many wait for for their collecting careers. It was a breathtaking moment for me.

How long did you wear it? Not too long. I took a couple of wrist shots for my Instagram account.

When you announced Phillips would sell the Paul Newman Daytona, did you have bidders signing up who you’d never worked with before? Yes, many people were new to us. For a typical top lot, we have maybe five qualified people interested in bidding. The Paul Newman was above average. We had 34 registered to bid on Paul Newman’s Paul Newman, and all of them were qualified. All 34 had to show their bank statements.

You sold the watch in a traditional way–no online bids allowed. Why? We always accept online bids, except for this one. We wanted no potential sabotage of the lot. We accepted phone, absentee, and in-room bids. Online bids were turned off.

What was your role during the sale? I was on the phone with a potential bidder. Aurel [Aurel Bacs, the auctioneer, from the consulting firm Bachs & Russo] started the lot with a commission bid of $1 million, and then Tiffany [Tiffany To, a Phillips watches specialist from the Hong Kong office who was representing another phone bidder] interrupted to say “10 million!”

Have you ever seen anything like that happen before at an auction–the auctioneer barely finishes relaying the initial seven-digit bid, and it’s almost instantly trounced by an exponentially larger one? No. It was an incredible jump bid. It decapitated many bidders. My phone bidder, they said they were out. The person who bid $10 million was the underbidder in the end. [Phillips taped the whole thing, and you can see it on YouTube, from the opening promotional film to the final fall of the hammer.]

Was the record acknowledged at the time? I think Aurel knew at $10 million [that it was going to stomp the $11 million record]. He was shocked like the rest of the room, taken aback. [Bachs announces the opening $1 million bid around the 2:06 mark, and Tiffany jumps in soon after. When he realizes that she’s confirming a $10 million bid, he is indeed speechless for a few seconds.] He regained his composure. He knew, but I don’t recall him saying it was a new record [at that moment]. [Around the 10:00 mark, Aurel remarks, “I don’t need to say what this watch does in terms of records. It does everything.”]

How did you feel after the final gavel strike? It was… Wow. We were really shocked. Very happy, of course. Elated for Elinor Newman, for James Cox, and for collectors of watches. It was a great moment for the hobby, for someone to pay so much for an important timepiece. For me, it was the ultimate wristwatch. One thing to note is the fact that it took place in New York. Not Geneva, New York. It was great for the market.

How long do you think this record will stand? What else could challenge it? The watch was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s going to be tough to break, this record. I don’t think it will stand forever. I always hope something new will be unearthed that will give it a run for its money.

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Phillips is on Twitter and Instagram. Paul Boutros is on Twitter and  Instagram also.

Image is courtesy of Phillips.

Read Phillips’s own story about the Paul Newman watch, which includes period photos of Newman wearing it.

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RECORD! The Henry Graves Patek Philippe Supercomplication Pocket Watch Sells for $24 Million (Update November 2019)

The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Graves from Patek Philippe. The Swiss company finished the timepiece in 1932 and delivered it in 1933. It is the most valuable timepiece of any kind sold at auction, and has been for almost two decades. It fetched a then-record $11 million at Sotheby's in 1999, and commanded $24 million at Sotheby's in 2014.

Update: In November 2019, a Patek Philippe steel Grandmaster Chime wristwatch sold for $31.1 million in Geneva, Switzerland, becoming the most valuable timepiece at auction. The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication remains the most valuable pocket watch sold at auction.

What you see: The Henry Graves Jr. Supercomplication pocket watch, commissioned by Graves from Patek Philippe. The Swiss company finished the timepiece in 1932 and delivered it in 1933. It is the most valuable timepiece of any kind sold at auction, and has been for almost two decades. It fetched a then-record $11 million at Sotheby’s in 1999, and commanded $24 million at Sotheby’s in 2014.

So American banker Henry Graves Jr., approaches Patek Philippe to create this timepiece in 1925. How serious a challenge is this project? Is it akin to the moon shot–America devoting itself to sending astronauts to the moon in the 1960s? “In the watch world, yes,” says Daryn Schnipper, chairman of Sotheby’s international watch division. “Patek Philippe would not do it again until 1989.”

Why did Patek Philippe wait until 1989 to do something like this again, with the Calibre 89? “Probably, they didn’t have a commission,” she says. “1989 was an anniversary year for Patek Philippe. They were talking about how to celebrate a very important anniversary [Patek Philippe’s 150th]. They decided to replicate the Graves, but then said, ‘Let’s not stop there, let’s surpass it.’ The people involved said it was not possible. They used computer assistance. One reason the Graves couldn’t be replicated was those who worked on it were dead by 1989.”

Didn’t the people who worked on the Henry Graves Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch leave behind technical drawings of the timepiece? “When they developed a one-off, it was in the watchmaker’s head,” she says, noting that a team of twelve was assembled for the Henry Graves Supercomplication project, and they worked on it for seven years. “I know it sounds crazy, but I didn’t see a drawing [for it] except what was done afterward.”

How does the Henry Graves Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch differ from the Calibre 89? “The Graves had 24 complications and was 74 mm (almost three inches) in diameter. It was never done before. When they did the Calibre 89, [which had 33 complications], it was significantly bigger. It almost didn’t seem like a watch,” she says. “The Graves is not crazy big like the Calibre 89, which weighs almost two and a half pounds. The Graves is one pound, three ounces. They [the Calibre 89 team] couldn’t come close at all. The Graves is a tour-de-force. I think it shows you really can’t replace people with machines.”

Did Henry Graves require Patek Philippe to include any specific complications? “He probably asked for the night-time sky,” she says. “The timepiece that Patek Philippe made for James Ward Packard [Graves’s rival in watch-commissioning] had the night-time sky over Cleveland. Graves wanted one with the sky over New York. At that time, you only saw it on three watches. The Graves timepiece shows the night sky with the Milky Way and various stars. It’s mesmerizing, and it’s done to the latitude and longitude of Henry Graves’s home near Central Park at 834 5th Avenue.”

What was the hardest complication for the Patek Philippe team to integrate? “Making sure they [the 24 complications] worked with each other. Just to sync everything together and make sure it works accurately,” she says, noting that the Graves timepiece is less than an inch and a half thick. “It’s organic. It works together as a system. It’s very complex. If it doesn’t all sync together and work accurately, it’s a failed idea.”

Why do watch-heads love the Henry Graves Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch? “Because it’s everything. It’s a technical tour-de-force,” she says. “It’s the fact that it’s the Supercomplication, the whole ball of wax, and the fact that it was entirely handmade–no use of any computer technology.”

The Henry Graves Supercomplication set a world auction record when it sold at Sotheby’s in 1999 for $11 million. When Sotheby’s sold it again in 2014, it set the record anew by fetching $24 million. You were present for both records. Could you talk about what they were like? “The first time, we didn’t know what to expect, because it had never sold at auction before,” she says, noting that Sotheby’s put an unusually high $3 million to $4 million estimate on the Henry Graves Supercomplication in 1999. “The second time, there was a lot more writing on it. ‘Will it break the record?’ ‘Will it find a buyer?’ I knew the consigner was sad to sell it but wanted to pass it along. There was a lot of emotion involved. It was a roller coaster, those few days. There was so much more emphasis on it. It was a big, big deal.”

How did you experience both auctions? “The first time, I was in a state of shock as it exceeded five million. It was very exciting, and I remember holding my breath until the hammer went down,” she says. “The second time, it was exciting because it was all in the room. It came down to two people. It was still exciting for me to watch, it was just a different environment.”

What is the Henry Graves Patek Philippe Supercomplication pocket watch like in person? “It feels good. It feels right. It feels high-quality. It’s a perfect kind of watch,” she says, and launches into a memory that compares aspects of the two auctions. “In 1999, we hand-carried it from Rockford, Illinois, to Sotheby’s in New York City. [We thought] If it sold for $3 million to $5 million, that’s a lot. Once it went for $11 million and beyond–we had estimated it [the second time] at $17 million to $20 million–we no longer hand-carried it. We had armed guards. We were still handling it, but yeah. As important as it was the first time, it was that much more important the second time. Its value was greater, and its fame was greater.”

How long do you think the record will stand? “I don’t know. So far, it’s been three years,” she says. “Aside from something like the Paul Newman wristwatch, which was about provenance, you know, records are meant to be broken. The fact that it held the record from 1999 to 2014 was something, but with that Paul Newman bringing $18 million, who knows? It’s kind of hard to speculate. Anything’s possible.”

Might one of the four Calibre 89 timepieces challenge it? “Not even close,” Schnipper says. “The Calibre 89 is very important, but it’s not the same. They made more, they had engineers, they had computer-assisted design–it’s just different.” [Editor’s note: The yellow-gold version of the Calibre 89 was consigned to Christie’s in 2016 for $11 million and went unsold. Sotheby’s offered it in May 2017 with an estimate of about $6.4 million to $9.9 million, and it went unsold again. Also, Vacheron Constantin has since claimed the ‘most complicated watch ever made’ title with the 2015 release of the Reference 57260. It measured almost four inches across, weighed just over two pounds, and boasted 57 complications.]

Why will the Henry Graves Supercomplication stick in your memory? “It was the most important watch known in private hands at that time [1933], and it’s still in private hands,” she says. “It’s like selling the Mona Lisa. How do you get your head around that? That’s kind of where it is for me.”

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You can watch Daryn Schnipper talk about the Henry Graves Supercomplication in this 2014 Sotheby’s video.

Image is courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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