William Henry - Monarch Fable

Yes, Vintage Watches are Smashing Auction Records, But …

Paul Newman’s Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch sold late last year for $17.75 million, setting a world record for the most expensive watch ever sold at auction. It didn’t take long for reporters and auction house experts to proclaim that vintage-watch collecting was more popular than ever.

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Certainly, segments of the vintage watch market have strengthened considerably over the past year. “And some of that can indeed be attributed to the price achieved by Paul Newman’s watch,” says Jim Wolf, Heritage Auctions’ director of watches and fine timepieces.

Newman, of course, has made the Daytona, introduced in 1963 to meet the demands of professional racing drivers, popular with collectors. Vintage “Paul Newman” Daytonas often realize six figures at auction. “We’re seeing a strong increase in demand,” Wolf says, “in particular for vintage chronographs from the 1960s and ’70s by makes like Rolex, Heuer, Universal Genève and LeCoultre.”

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Rolex Steel Explorer II
This Rolex “Steve McQueen” Explorer II, circa 1979, has a pre-auction estimate of at least $20,000.

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What’s driving this interest? Post-Baby Boomers are fascinated by the “macho man” culture of those times, Wolf says. “Actors like Newman and Steve McQueen exemplify the idea of using a watch for recreation and outdoor activities like auto racing, deep-sea diving and mountain climbing. It was a generation on the move, with an appreciation for the outdoors rather than Wall Street.”

Of course, rarity continues playing a role in higher prices. A vintage Patek Philippe timepiece, the only known platinum-cased Reference 2526 with a first generation enameled dial made for Tiffany & Co., is expected to sell for at least $250,000 when it goes to auction at Heritage on May 1 (HA.com/5363a).

So yes, vintage watches are smashing auction records, but intelligent collectors still do their homework. They know how to grade. They can identify and determine the age of a watch. They know where to find quality timepieces. And they consult with experts to authenticate pieces. “The internet has made the sharing of information and the collecting of vintage watches much easier,” Wolf says. “But ultimately, if you are spending a lot of money, an in-person inspection is paramount, along with having someone you can trust at your side.”

DROP ME A line at HectorC@IntelligentCollector.com to share your stories. I remain interested in your discoveries.

Hector Cantu

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Hector Cantú, Editor & Publisher

This story appears in the Spring/Summer 2018 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.