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Paul Newman's watch could make $10 million at auction

Actor's Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, made in 1968, was a gift from his wife

High-end timepieces command huge prices - especially rare vintage item from makers such as Rolex and fellow Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe. Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters
High-end timepieces command huge prices - especially rare vintage item from makers such as Rolex and fellow Swiss watch manufacturer Patek Philippe. Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

Among vintage collectors, certain timepieces are known as "holy grail" watches.

They are the ones that inspire bidding frenzies and, subsequently, bragging rights.

So far, nothing tops a stainless-steel Patek Philippe that sold for US$11.1 million at Phillips auction house in November. Patek produced only 281 of these 1941 wristwatches, mostly in gold; only four are known to have been made in stainless steel.

Also among the most coveted is the Daytona Rolex, a limited run of sports watches produced from 1966 until the mid-1970s, made famous by the actor and philanthropist Paul Newman, who wore one daily in the 1970s. In May, an 18-carat gold “Paul Newman” Daytona fetched $3.7m at Phillips in Geneva. A year earlier the company sold a stainless-steel version for $2m. But neither of those had ever graced the blue-eyed star’s wrist.

Now some lucky person will be able to buy the holiest of holy grail watches: Paul Newman’s actual Paul Newman Daytona.

“You ask 100 collectors over dinners what’s on their shopping list - the Paul Newman Daytona Rolex,” Aurel Bacs, a senior consultant for watches at Phillips, which is running the auction in New York on October 26, tells Bloomberg.

Phillips estimates that Newman’s stainless-steel Daytona Rolex wristwatch will fetch more than $1m. That is conservative; given its provenance and good condition, vintage watch enthusiasts are throwing numbers as high as $10m.

Rolex began making Daytona chronographs in 1963 to meet the needs of professional race car drivers. The main innovation had to do with the tachymeter, a scale that works in conjunction with the chronograph (the stopwatch), according to Paul Boutros, the head of watches for the Americas at Phillips. Around 1966 the company came out with a Daytona version featuring an “exotic” dial, he says. It had art deco-style fonts and multiple colour details such as a red, outer seconds track.

Newman got his “exotic” watch - a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, reference #6239, made in 1968 - as a gift from his wife, actress Joanne Woodward.

“It’s worth all the hoopla surrounding it,” says Jason Singer, a vintage watch collector in Phoenix who believes Newman’s Daytona could set an auction record for a wristwatch.


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While it may worth the hoopla, it will have to go some to top the world's most expensive Rolex. In May, a vintage Rolex wristwatch sold at Phillips in Geneva for $5,060,427, becoming the world's costliest Rolex ever auctioned.

The watch, a 1952 reference 6062 called the "Bao Dai," led a record-high watch sale by Phillips on May 13 and 14 that totalled $32.6 million, the highest result ever in the history of watch auctions, according to CNBC.

The Bao Dai is named after its former owner, the last emperor of Vietnam, who purchased the timepiece in Geneva during peace negotiations in 1954.

Mr Bacs, who spent more than 20 years as a watch specialist for high-end auction houses, formed his own company, Bacs & Russo, with his wife, Livia Russo, in 2014, according to Bloomberg. They have done wonders for Phillips since they started working with the company about a year later: In 2016, Phillips had $106m in watch sales, outpacing Christie’s $81.8m and Sotheby’s $55.7m.

Given the intense competition among the three houses, the stakes are high for Newman’s Rolex. Phillips has built an entire auction - Winning Icons: Milestone Watches of the 20th Century - around the trophy.

He obviously cannot name names, but Mr Bacs’ strategy for finding a buyer is to tap into his team’s personal networks. This calibre of collector is a “self-made billionaire in his 30s or 40s”, Mr Bacs says. Someone who has made his fortune in finance, commodities, or social media. The house will send the watch on a global tour - Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong, London, Miami, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, and Greenwich, Connecticut - hosting receptions and personal viewings.

In Seattle, there is a cocktail party planned with Ferrari; in Greenwich, there will be an event with Miller Motorcars. Investment banks are also lining up special events for their high-net-worth clients. Phillips has formed a partnership with UBS, for example, which serves 6 out of 10 billionaires in the world. The auction house is also publishing a lavish catalogue and promoting it on social media - the watch surely has a story worth sharing.

In the decade after Newman received it from his wife, the Rolex travelled the world with the star, appearing on his wrist in promotional materials, magazines and documentary footage. Then, in 1984, the star passed it on to an unlikely recipient: James Cox, a college student who dated Newman’s daughter Nell.

That summer, the two men got to know each other as Mr Cox spent several weeks renovating a family treehouse that hung over a creek on Newman’s Nook House property in Westport, Connecticut. The actor would often come by to check on “the kid” and invite him to grab a bite to eat. On occasion, Mr Cox recalls, Newman introduced him as “family” to visitors such as the film director Martin Scorsese.

“Hey, kid, you know what time it is?” Newman asked one day. Mr Cox had no clue. He did not own a watch. “If you can remember to wind this each day, it tells pretty good time,” the actor said, taking the Rolex off his wrist.

“It was kind of astonishing that he gave it to me,” says Mr Cox, 52, who is selling the watch to raise money for Nell Newman’s nonprofit foundation.

Mr Cox says he wore Newman’s watch proudly for years. But as prices for vintage timepieces began to escalate, he put the token away in a safe deposit box. Although the romance ended after 10 years, Mr Cox remains close with his ex-­girlfriend and volunteers as the treasurer of the Nell Newman Foundation.

“The watch was a beautiful gift,” he says. “It’s now my turn to do something beautiful with it.”

Mr Bacs’ mission is more mercenary. “It’s priceless,” he says of the rarest Rolex in the world. “But priceless doesn’t mean it won’t eventually have a hammer price.”

Updated: August 27, 2017 04:56 PM