It is not so often that a timepiece makes news around the world, but the late Hollywood star Paul Newman’s old Rolex Cosmograph Daytona certainly did at Phillips New York on 26 October — when it fetched a remarkable $17.8 million to become the world’s most expensive wristwatch.
This was the watch that led to Cosmograph Reference 6239s fitted with the same dial design as ‘Newman’s own’ developing a cult following among collectors and being nicknamed ‘Paul Newmans’.
Newman was given the watch by his wife, Joanne Woodward, in 1972. Three years earlier the couple had appeared together in the motor racing film Winning, which inspired Newman to become an amateur racing driver — and led to the gift of the watch with the words ‘Drive Safely Me’ engraved on the watch-case’s back.
In 1984, Newman — who died in 2008 — gave it to 13-year-old James Cox, a friend of his daughter Nell, to thank him for repairing a tree house at the Newmans’ home in Westport, Connecticut. Cox kept the watch for the next 33 years before consigning it to Phillips.
‘Regular’ Paul Newman Cosmographs were already commanding £70,000-plus before the Phillips auction, but values are now expected to climb even higher.
That’s good news for those who already own them, but bad news for those who aspire to. Likewise, the most sought-after vintage Patek Philippe models now fetch six- and seven-figure sums at auction, making them entirely out of the financial reach of most watch-lovers.
The result? People are now turning to more affordable dial names that were once considered run-of-the-mill but which are now being viewed in a more favourable light, either because they have been successfully revived as modern-day brands or because research has shown certain models to combine rarity and quality, or simply because an increasing level of scholarship has revealed fascinating histories.
And there are, of course, plenty of instances where people have suddenly realised that their dial name snobbery has made them ignore some fabulous-looking watches.
Currently, two of the hottest makes on the collector radar are Omega and Heuer, with early versions of the former’s celebrated ‘Speedmaster’ — the watch famously worn on the surface of the moon by Buzz Aldrin during the Apollo 11 mission of 1969 — now regularly fetching £20,000-£30,000 in their most sought-after configurations. One especially rare early example sold for a record $275,000 at Swedish auction house Bukowskis in October.
The market for 1960s and 1970s Heuer sports watches, meanwhile, has benefited hugely from the modern-day TAG Heuer’s recognition of its history and re-introduction of classic drivers’ models such as the Carrera, Autavia and Monaco.
Until relatively recently, good examples of those models could be bought at auction for £5,000 or less — but last month Phillips Geneva staged an auction of 42 quintessential Heuers collected by marque experts Richard Crosthwaite and Paul Gavin that raised more than $1 million, with some individual lots realising $50,000- $100,000. That’s up to 20 times more than they might have fetched a decade ago.
So, although many collectors have been priced out, what has happened to set the vintage watch market alight? One man who certainly knows the answer is Aurel Bacs, the Phillips auctioneer who consigned and sold that record-breaking Paul Newman Rolex.
‘Looking at the way the vintage watch market has been going for the past 15 to 20 years, it didn’t take much to work out that it was shifting rapidly towards a focus on quality that went beyond the dominance of Patek Philippe and Rolex,’ he says. ‘Through increased learning, knowledge being shared on the internet, brands capitalising on their history and individuals carrying out meticulous research, people have now discovered that quality exists in numerous other makes, ranging from Breitling to Longines, from TAG Heuer to Zenith and many more in between.’
So, which makes of vintage watch should we be looking out for now before prices begin to rocket? Two that seem certain to rise in value are, as Bacs suggested, Breitling and Zenith — the former because its historic models have long been undervalued and because it recently recruited a dynamic new chief executive who is expected to major on the brand’s heritage; the latter because it is in the process of a revival that will see new models inspired by a rich history of mechanical innovation.
Classic models from Tudor, the Rolex sister brand, have also soared in value following the revival of the name in Europe and America in the past five years.
But it’s not all about rising prices — perhaps more significantly, people are starting to realise that Breitling, Tudor, Zenith and others made some superbly cool timepieces that fit right in with today’s vintage zeitgeist.
So even if your next ‘new old watch’ doesn’t grow in value, you’ll still have the pleasure of owning something that looks great and that you can wear every day.