The State of the Vintage Watch Market
September 28, 2018 | By J. W. Sotak | Photo by Christies Friday, Sep 28, 2018
Note: J.W. Sotak, Gear Patrol’s Content Director, Gear Patrol Store, was previously the C.O.O. of Analog/Shift, a vintage watch retailer based in New York City.
It took twelve minutes for Paul Newman’s personal Rolex Daytona to rewrite the horological history books. Hammering at Phillips Auction House in October 2017 for a record-shattering $15.5 million ($17.75 million after buyer premiums), the steel Rolex chronograph has become the most widely celebrated watch sale in recent history.
It would be easy to disregard the sale of Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona as inflated, fueled purely by the man’s fame as an actor, race car driver and celebrated philanthropist (regular exotic dial Rolex Reference 6239 Daytonas in similar condition trade for roughly $200,000).
There’s evidence to suggest it’s actually part of a larger picture. In May of 2017, a solid gold Rolex Reference 6062 belonging to Bao Dai, to the last emperor of Vietnam, sold at Phillips Geneva Watch Auction for over $5 million, simultaneously smashing the previous records for most expensive wristwatch and most expensive Rolex ever sold. In July of 2018, a stainless steel Reference 6538 “Big Crown” Submariner sold at Christie’s, fetching over $1 million and becoming the most expensive Rolex Submariner ever sold.
Surrounding each of these watches was a significant amount of lore. Paul Newman’s Daytona bore an engraving from his wife and famous actor Joanne Woodward and was gifted to the boyfriend of Newman’s daughter, in the 1980s. Bao Dai’s Reference 6062 is the only known example of the reference that features a black dial with inset diamonds at the even hour markers and was known to be worn by the dethroned playboy monarch during escapades on the French Riviera. The rare Explorer-dial Reference 6538 Submariner had a single owner who bought it new and wore it for over five decades before bequeathing to his son.
Despite the variance in case material, condition and relative celebrity, all three watches shared a single characteristic: uniqueness.
Every vintage watch is a product of its life on the Earth. The materials used in watch dials react differently to varying levels of sunlight and moisture over time. Cases and bracelets will take on differing degrees of wear from the passage of years depending on who’s owned them and how and where they were worn. It’s similar to how a single malt whisky resting in the Scottish Highlands ages differently from one nestled in a storehouse on Islay. It took twelve minutes for Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona to make history, but it was the watch’s unique history that made it worth millions.
Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona 6239 which hammered in October 2017 for a record-shattering $15.5 million. Photo: Phillips
Six years ago, if you wanted to purchase a vintage watch, you were generally confined to the shops and dealers in your area. In the last five years, buying and selling vintage watches online has progressed light years.
“No longer do we need to be at our desk with our desktop computers, or even our laptops,” said Ken Jacobs, owner of WannaBuyaWatch, a watch retailer in Los Angeles. “Now with our smart phones and pads, we can all connect to the marketplace via Instagram, when we have as little as fifteen seconds downtime.”
“The tens of thousands of Instagram accounts focusing on watches in general and vintage watches in particular attest to the increasing interest and appetite for watches,” he added.