This past December, Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo held a star-studded watch auction—though the luminaries were not in the audience, but on the block. At the end, almost 40% of the $27.6-million sale’s revenue was derived from seven celebrity-owned watches.
Headlining the sale was late actor and race-car driver Paul Newman ’s personal, inscribed Rolex “Big Red” ref. 6263 Daytona, a gift from his wife, actress Joanne Woodward .
The well-worn piece was handed down to his daughter, Clea Newman , who decided to sell it, with a portion of proceeds going to charity. The bidding started at $800,000, and within minutes, the hammer fell. It went to an anonymous collector for $5.475 million, placing it among the 10 most expensive wristwatches ever sold at auction.
Earlier, a Heuer Monaco owned by Steve McQueen and gifted to Haig Alltounian , McQueen’s personal mechanic who served as chief mechanic during the filming of 1971’s Le Mans, set a world-record price for a Heuer watch at $2.2 million. That figure was 10 times the estimate and set a new world auction record for Heuer.
“A vintage Monaco without the Steve McQueen provenance would have been a $20,000 watch at most on the secondary market, and it sold for 100 times that,” says Paul Boutros , Phillips’ head of watches for the Americas.
Actor Sylvester Stallone jumped into the ring and offered pieces from his collection, including the Panerai Luminor he bought in Rome during the filming of 1996’s Daylight . Stallone was so smitten with the brawny watches from a then-obscure Florentine workshop that he wore his in the movie and gave Panerais to influential friends, including Arnold Schwarzenegger , who has also worn his on screen.
Stallone’s first Luminor, which sold for $214,200, is arguably the most important modern Panerai because it kickstarted the brand’s cult status. “Before that watch appeared on Stallone’s wrist in that movie, nobody had heard of Panerai,” Mr. Boutros says. “Without the Stallone provenance, that Panerai watch would have been at most $20,000 on the secondary market.” The action star threw in four Richard Mille watches, bringing sales for his pieces to a total of $3.1 million.
But no celebrity watch has come close to matching Paul Newman’s personal Rolex ref. 6239 “Paul Newman” Daytona, a chronograph with a rare exotic dial nicknamed for the actor, who received his from Woodward.
In the fall of 2017, Phillips auctioned that piece to an anonymous collector for $17,752,500, setting a record for the highest price ever paid for a wristwatch. (It has since been broken.)
Paul Newman Daytonas are so rare that they draw seven-figure price tags without any stardust. Last July, Sotheby’s sold an ultra-rare “ John Player Special” Paul Newman for $1,545,723, setting a record for the model and for an online sale.
The blockbuster Paul Newman sale in 2017 was so epic, it prompted others to put their heirlooms on the block. In late 2019, Marlon Brando ’s daughter Petra Brando Fischer offered up her father’s self-signed Rolex worn during the filming of 1979’s Apocalypse Now . Even without a bezel or a bracelet, it sold at Phillips for $1.952 million, with a portion of proceeds going to benefit needy children. The price represented a markup of 130 times compared with a similar model without the Brando mystique.
In that same sale, golf legend Jack Nicklaus ’ Rolex Day-Date sold for $1.2 million, also placing it in the elite category. He donated all proceeds from the sale to his charity, the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.
“Always on the Lookout”
With such dazzling results, it’s no wonder auction houses are searching the planet for these glamorous, rarefied pieces. At Phillips, the dominant force in celebrity watch sales, a designated team scours archives for photos of sports, Hollywood, royalty, and more, looking to spot watches on A-listers from the past. “We are always on the lookout, and if we can hunt them down, we do,” Mr. Boutros says. “But it isn’t so easy to find these historical figures and where these watches are.”
A watch doesn’t even have to be associated with a real celebrity to command top dollar. James Bond’s watches were more than mere props—they occasionally served as plot devices used to get 007 out of a jam. Vintage Rolex models that are the same as those worn by Bond are highly sought-after.
Last November, the Rolex specialty e-commerce site, Bob ’s Watches, auctioned (with no buyer’s fees) a Rolex “James Bond” Submariner ref. 6538, the same model worn by Sean Connery in 1962’s Dr. No , for $180,000. The whereabouts of the original that appeared in the movie remains a mystery, making it a legitimate grail watch.
More recent Bond watches that made on-screen cameos have also proven to be extremely valuable. In 2012, the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean worn by Daniel Craig ’s 007 in Skyfall sold at Christie’s for $254,273. At a 2007 Antiquorum sale, the Planet Ocean Mr. Craig wore in Casino Royale went for $255,565.
Rock and pop stars also carry significant clout in the watch-auction world. In 2018, Elvis Presley ’s Omega Calibre 510 with a diamond bezel sold at Phillips for a whopping $1.8 million.
“Slowhand” guitarist Eric Clapton is also a hardcore watch collector. At a 2015 Phillips sale, his 1971 Rolex Daytona ref. 6263 “Albino” steel chronograph with an all-white dial sold for a record $1.4 million. That same watch had previously sold in 2003 for $505,000.
Even more notable was Mr. Clapton ’s 1987 platinum Patek Philippe ref. 2499 perpetual calendar chronograph, one of two made, that sold in 2012 at Christie’s in Geneva for $3.6 million, then a record.
A Patek ref. 2499 that was photographed on the wrist of Beatle John Lennon , however, is the watch-auction world’s elusive white whale. That piece, shrouded in mystery, is believed to have been given to him by Yoko Ono on his 40th birthday, just two months before he was murdered. But the anecdote, even Lennon’s ownership of the watch, is unsubstantiated.
“People want trophy pieces owned by a childhood hero or someone they long respected,” Mr. Boutros says. “And when a very clear, compelling link is obvious to that global celebrity, people are willing to pay quite a significant premium.”
This story first appeared in the February issue of Mansion Global Experience Luxury