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 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 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 it 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 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 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 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 watch? 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.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. 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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