On Thursday evening, as I watched Aurel Bacs raise the hammer for the final time on Lot 8, I couldn’t help but think of The Sting, the 1973 classic starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. By the end of the film, through a combination of luck, knowledge and confidence, Newman and Redford schemed a crime boss out of $500,000. After the con is complete, Redford walks away from the money knowing that he’d only blow it away. Somehow I doubt that Phillips will be as magnanimous with the money acquired from selling Paul Newman’s Daytona.
If you’ve been living under a rock all Summer, here’s a quick primer for the Phillips auction that took place on October 26th. In July, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that Phillips would be selling Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona and Aurel Bacs would be in charge of the gavel. Back in 1968, Newman’s wife bought him the Reference 6239 with an added engraved message of concern on the case back, Drive Carefully Me. Newman wore the watch constantly until 1984 when he gave it to James Cox, who was dating Newman’s daughter at the time. Cox wore the watch frequently until 2016 when he decided to sell it through Phillips, with part of the proceeds of the auction going towards the Nell Newman Foundation.
During the years of Newman wearing the watch, it went from an unpopular chronograph that Rolex couldn’t get rid of to a classic staple of their collection. The Reference 6329 became so connected to Paul Newman that collectors began referring to it as ‘the Paul Newman‘.
After months of hype, dozens of articles and videos, and Aurel Bacs touting the importance of the watch, all eyes were watching Phillips on Thursday evening. Bacs opened the watch with an absentee bid of $1,000,000 before a yell of $10,000,000 came from across the room via a telephone bid. After a tense yet humorous back and forth between Bacs and the telephone bidders, the hammer fell on Lot 8 for $15,500,000 (or $17,752,500 including buyer’s premium). In the space of a few minutes, this stainless steel chronograph had become the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction, beating Bacs’ sale of the Rolex Ref. 6062 Bao Dai from earlier this year.
If you didn’t gather from my cynical opening, I’m not all aboard the bandwagon and to me, the final price of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman is madness. In the last decade or so, the average price of a Ref. 6239 was between $150,000 to $200,000 so the question I have to ask is this, is the Newman connection really worth $15,000,000? The after-the-fact love for the watch might have spurred it to becoming a classic, and opened up stainless steel sports watches as a serious field of collection, but ultimately it’s just a stainless steel chronograph worn by an actor. If the Daytona had been marketed and hyped up as a piece important to collecting then I’d be more lenient, but the entire advertising was focused on the Paul Newman of it all. A giant banner of Paul Newman was raised in the window of Phillips, every article written was focused on Paul Newman wearing it and before the lot began, a video was played showing clips of Newman amidst shots of a race car and the watch. This watch is now only worth $3,000,000 less than the Patek Phillipe Henry Graves Super Complication, one of the most complicated timepieces ever created and a one-of-a-kind piece. That piece also came with a story but separating the story from the watch still leaves us with an impeccable and important timepiece.
People are free to do with their money whatever they wish, but I worry about what precedence this will set for watch collecting. The immediate change will of course be the price of Ref. 6239 Daytonas skyrocketing; an expected result after a big result from a publicized auction. What I’m unsure about is the potential impact of cultural providence and hype upon the value of watches.
I love hearing about the stories behind watches, but they should not command a premium over the tangible qualities of the watch itself. Take for example the Wittnauer All-Proof, a watch that I’ve written about here on WristReview before. I love the story about pilot Jimmie Mattern wearing it whilst being stranded in Siberia and how the native peoples thought it to be some kind of magic. It’s a great story, but it shouldn’t impact the value of that watch substantially and seeing how that watch is quite obscure, it obviously hasn’t. But when hype, providence and a famous brand compound on each other, it can lead to valuations and results that are disconnected from reality. Providence and story have a place in collecting but they should be treated as added bonuses, not as the foundation of the watches value.
Regardless of my opinion, the sale of Paul Newman’s Paul Newman is a historic moment in the watch community, it is now the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at auction. I would say I can’t imagine a watch beating this amount, but in a year where the record has already been beaten twice, who knows what to expect.