Grail Quest

Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman,” a Rolex Daytona considered by many the world’s most collectible timepiece, goes on the auction block at Phillips in late October. Here, Aurel Bacs gives Watch Journal an insider’s look.

By Victoria Gomelsky

In the Venn diagram of watch collecting, three overlapping circles—representing the world’s most famous watch brand, most famous watch model, and most famous version of a model—overlap at a single timepiece: The Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona, Ref. 6239, an exotic dial version of the brand’s coveted car racing–inspired chronograph.

The actor became inextricably linked with the model after his wife, Joanne Woodward, bought him the wristwatch as a gift in 1969—most likely from Tiffany & Co.’s New York City flagship—and he was repeatedly photographed wearing it. Newman sported it on movie sets, in car races, and at home with his family in Connecticut until 1984, when he gifted it to James Cox, his daughter Nell’s then boyfriend. For the next 33 years, the watch remained hidden from public view.

On Oct. 26, Phillips will auction the “Paul Newman” at its inaugural New York sale, dubbed “Winning Icons: Legendary Watches of the 20th Century.” Watch Journal caught up with watch-auction expert Aurel Bacs, whose company, Bacs & Russo, has partnered with Phillips, to find out what makes the Paul Newman so dang special.

James Cox contacted you about the watch in the spring of 2016. Why did it take so long to bring it to auction?

Aurel Bacs: This is so huge that you don’t lightheartedly put it into the first auction that comes around. We had to do a lot of legal work, a lot of research. We also knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get documentation and photographs from the period. Most graciously, everyone—James Cox and the Newman family—went to their attics to find photographs showing Newman, James, Nell, and the watch that will be published for the first time in this catalog.

Why did you decide to sell the watch at Phillips’s first New York sale?

AB: The normal reaction would be to put it in Geneva, the home of watches. However, that does not apply to Paul Newman. Paul Newman is a New Yorker—that’s where he started his acting career, on Broadway. He was one of the few überstars who’d chosen to live on the East Coast, not on the West. And we wanted it to be sold in the city where Joanne Woodward purchased it in 1969.

Circa 1954, the Rolex Submariner Big Crown, Reference: 6200.

What’s the secret to the Paul Newman Daytona’s collectibility?

AB: The Rolex name, to begin with. You ask a thousand people on the planet, whether they’re watch guys or not, what is the best watch on the planet? Rolex is number one. Then we narrow down the circle: What is the coolest Rolex model you’d like to have? The Daytona. It has that cachet of hard-to-get, cool, sporty, successful, casual, yet knows-what’s-he’s doing flavor, and is on any Rolex owner’s wish list.

Now we go to the Daytona owners and ask them: From the entire Daytona production, is there one model you’d like to own? They’d say the Paul Newman—it’s a special dial version made from the second half of the sixties to the early seventies. At Rolex, it wasn’t called the Paul Newman. It was called the “exotic dial.” But then, as Mr. Newman was wearing it for fifteen years, from the day he received it to about 1984, when he gave it to James Cox, this was his daily watch. Imagine how many times he was photographed on film sets, in race cars, and at parties! That is, consequently, the best-documented watch in fifty years. So no wonder it’s been nicknamed the Paul Newman Daytona. Ask all the owners of the Paul Newman Daytona, which one would you want most? They’d say Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman.”

What condition is it in?

AB: Exactly how a collector wants it to be: a hundred percent original, a hundred percent unrestored, and really showing the flavor a vintage watch has to have. I’m not claiming it’s perfect. Thank God it has flavor because it adds so much gravitas to it. You see the patina, like a face that has a wrinkle, gray hair, imperfections—that’s the charm.

The estimate is $1 million, but how much do you really expect it to sell for?

AB: This is the first time I categorically refrain from making any comments or estimates, not even an estimate that’s three-hundred percent wide. For a simple reason: For an auction-house specialist, there’s always something similar that allows you to make a deduction. For every rare Rolex, every rare Patek Philippe, there’s always something the market has seen before or a transaction that we can compare it to. There’s nothing comparable we have ever seen of such magnitude, importance, beauty, rarity, freshness, charm, or sex appeal. The only person who knows what it’s going to sell for is the buyer who says, ‘I’m ready to go up to X.’ But it also depends on the under-bidder.

What are some other highlights of the sale?

AB: We chose to select the fifty greatest icons of the 20th century. They weren’t just fashion watches that lasted a season—they lasted decades and centuries. It’s not that important what will fetch the most money—it could be a Patek Philippe Ref. 1518, the world’s first perpetual calendar chronograph. But it could also be a watch by Philippe Dufour, the living legend, a total anachronism of the 21st century, a guy who still makes every watch by hand. Of course, the Cartier Crash is there. Not just any Crash, but the original Cartier London Crash, handmade, hand-numbered. There are watches in the low thousands, the tens of thousands, and the hundred thousands. This is an extremely wide, accessible auction. But it may well become one of the most beautiful watch auctions ever organized.

A platinum Cartier Tank Cintrée, circa 1927.