When I had the opportunity, in Geneva this past summer, to get my hands on the 20th century’s most famous Rolex wristwatches UK and talk about it with the man who will be holding the hammer when the watch is auctioned by Phillips in New York in a few days, my immediate thought was I-love-my-job-I’m-so-lucky.
Followed by a few key questions: Would the watch feel more special on the wrist than your typical Cosmo Daytona? Does Aurel Bacs, auctioneer supreme, regard this as anything more than another (likely) record-breaking piece? And, on that note, just why was the pre-sale estimate — “In excess of $1 million” — so low?
The importance of provenance
When I found out that this watch was entering the market I was intellectually excited but emotionally detached. It’s a watch, right? With a very good story. A watch that loads of collectors would willingly sell their furniture (if not their mother-in-laws) for. But it’s a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with an exotic dial, Ref 6239, circa 1969. It’s only a watch.
That’s how it looked and felt for about the first three seconds after Alex Ghotbi from Phillips handed it to me. Then something took over – the knowledge that this, THIS, is the grail copy watches for men for thousands of collectors. THE Paul Newman limited edition Rolex was in my hands. Ouff! And the knowledge of its provenance: the first owner had not only pre-dated my dislike of the cult of celebrity but was the subject of a major (major) crush throughout and well beyond my schooldays. Double ouff!! And then I saw the little scratches and dings on the case sides and back – the story of the watch’s life (no matter whether those bumps had been from its Paul Newman days or its James Cox days, the man to whom Newman had given the watch towards the end of the 1970s). That, more than anything, makes this watch beyond special in my eyes – the lives it has witnessed on the wrists of its owners. And then Alex said, “Go on, put it on.” I did. No words.
Grown-up professional detachment totally out the window. And so to my second question, which was pretty much about that: Does this watch mean more to Aurel Bacs than another potential record price?
Feeling professionally detached, Aurel?
Here’s his answer, in a few verbatim snatches of our conversation. But first, he insisted that contrary to some reports, he didn’t find Paul Newman’s Paul Newman.
“Let’s be very clear: it’s the exact opposite. One day I got a call from a collector who told me that, through a [lawyer] friend, he had met the man who owned the watch and that man was interested in selling and had asked who should be the auctioneer. I did not find the watch. The watch found me.”
Cut to a dinner in Los Angeles in summer 2016, the first time Bacs met the owner, James Cox (to whom Newman had given the watch when Cox was dating the actor’s daughter, Nell Newman).