In the autumn of 1983 Nell Potts began dating James Cox, a fellow student at the College of the Atlantic. In the summer of 1984 she took him to her family home in Westport. While she went off to work at a peregrine-falcon refuge, he helped her father to rebuild an old tree-house.
“Pop asked James if he knew the time,” Nell recalls. “Apparently Pop forgot to wind his wristwatch that morning. James responded that he didn’t know the time and didn’t own a watch.” Whereupon Pop took off his watch, and handed it to the young man with the words, “If you can remember to wind this each day, it tells pretty good time.”
It is a wholesome all-American tale pinpointing the moment at which a quotidian object became an heirloom, a vessel of emotion passed down between generations – the sort of moment from which John Cheever might have carved a short story. It is a family anecdote of the sort that means little to outsiders – except when Pop happens to be Paul Newman (Nell used nomenclatural camouflage to protect her privacy) and when the watch in question, a Rolex Daytona Ref 6239, sold 34 years later for $17.8m.
To the unschooled eye, the Newman Daytona does not look as though it is worth a fortune. The calibrated bezel engraved with the words “Units per hour” is dulled by decades of abrasion, and the cream dial has a pale-brown tidemark reminiscent of an enamel bathtub in a boarding house. But it is clearly unusual: the sub-dials counting hours and minutes and seconds are printed with cross-hairs and little block markers and a red scale runs around the edge of the face. Indeed, it is unique: the back bears the enigmatic inscription “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME”. Joanne Woodward, Newman’s wife, gave him the watch when he took up motor racing in middle age after doing his own driving in the film “Winning”.
Still, it is an industrially produced, stainless-steel second-hand watch. So why is it worth a fortune?
More storable than a stable of Ferraris, more portable than a Picasso, sexier than stamp collecting: old timepieces have seen their value rocket in the last 30 years. At the time he handed it over to his daughter’s boyfriend, Newman would have been lucky if he had recouped the money his wife had spent on it. But history delights in confounding expectations and the obsolete technology of the 1970s and 1980s is now the ne plus ultra of 21st-century desirability.
Enthusiasm for old wristwatches is the latest chapter in a narrative that began 500 years ago. The portable personal timepiece has long occupied a prominent niche in the pantheon of status-conferring objects: Renaissance princes slung the first examples around their necks, today highly paid sports personalities shackle them to their wrists. Money has poured into watches over the past quarter-century as the number of rich men keen to explore their passion has risen, but the boom in vintage watches has been particularly remarkable.
I have a sexist theory that vintage watches provide a combination of the mechanical and the statistical that men find irresistible. They are mechanical objects that bristle with statistics: number of components, number and type of functions, accuracy, production dates, serial numbers – an adult version of the childhood card game Top Trumps, if you like. Ownership of one communicates an advanced level of fluency in the language of timepieces. It shows that you are not just rich, but you also have the knowledge to identify desirable watches and the patience to track them down.
A number of early collectors helped develop this market. John Goldberger – tall, patrician and softly spoken, wearing 30-year-old Caraceni suits and Gatto shoes with as much ease as others wear denim and sneakers – was one of the most important. He trawled through flea markets in the 1970s, a time when mechanical watches had been forced to the brink of extinction, picking up old pieces. It was a niche interest then. Now his books – which include “Patek Philippe Steel Watches” and “100 Superlative Rolex watches” – are hallowed scriptures for collectors.
Thanks to the internet, watch scholarship has spread. Every tiny aesthetic anomaly or mechanical refinement in a model is scrutinised, debated and studied well beyond the small circle of those able to afford them. Facts once scattered around the world in books, auction catalogues or learned articles are now online, ushering in the era of the instant expert. Specialist blogs and websites have created a new generation of watch collectors.
Hodinkee (the Czech word for watch) – a magazine, a shop selling vintage watches, a watch-accessory brand and a resource for a new generation of watch buyers – is one of the richest resources for enthusiasts. Its founder, Ben Clymer, a cashmere-and-chino clad, bearded American who looks like he has just stepped out of an Apple advert, was working at UBS when the economic storm of 2007 hit and suddenly he had time on his hands. “I went into my office every day, sat in my cubicle, and would just browse the internet and I started to get into watches.” The feel of Hodinkee is that of fanzine meets financial tipsheet.
“A big influence on what’s changed the pricing of these watches is the Asian market, buyers in Hong Kong, Indonesia, in Malaysia,” says Clymer. “As a whole, all they care about are Rolex sports watches: they’re wonderful and they’re fun and they can wear them every day.” Hong Kong has long been an important market for new wristwatches and Singapore has become a lively horological hub since the launch in 2005 of Revolution, a magazine devoted to watches created by Wei Koh, an entrepreneur and watch collector, now published in a dozen international editions.
For the sort of people who sneak a look at Hodinkee or Revolution during slow moments at work, buying a Rolex with a “Paul Newman” dial is a rite of passage. Ironically, when these dials were new, they were hard to sell, and languished on jewellers’ shelves. Retailers considered themselves fortunate to get them away at a discount. Many buyers actually swapped what was known as the “exotic” dial for the plainer one. Now the opposite is true. If you are looking for a logical explanation you won’t find it; the same watch from the same year with a normal, sober, standard dial will cost about £30,000-40,000, but the watch with a Paul Newman dial (albeit without the provenance) fetches £100,000-150,000. “They want a cool, Paul Newman dial. They don’t know why, they just do. They don’t care if it’s a movement that you can get in another vintage watch for $1,200,” says Clymer. And the watch that sold on October 26th is not just a Paul Newman, but the Paul Newman.
Which brings us to the final driver of vintage watch prices – the auction house. The chief magician of watch auctions is Aurel Bacs, a suave, silver-tongued Geneva-based auctioneer who used to run the watch department at Christie’s and now has his own company, Bacs & Russo. Like a genie, he can make millions of dollars appear out of tiny, elderly mechanical objects a few centimetres in diameter: this time last year he sold a mid-century steel Patek Philippe for $11m, and earlier this year he sold the “Bao Dai” for $5m and the “Legend” for $3.7m – multimillion-dollar watches tend to have names and detailed biographies to heighten the drama.
Bacs’s extensive catalogues are reference works and their rich, detailed photographs (these days watch photography is a professional niche all of its own) linger longingly on every curve and angle. Bacs’s sales have the sparkle of a well-attended cocktail party. His habit of slipping seamlessly between English, French, Italian and German when taking bids imparts cosmopolitan polish of the sort Ian Fleming would have appreciated. And of course, there is the gladiatorial thrill of seeing financial heavyweights going mano-a-mano.
The auction on October 26th had the air of a major sporting event. Bacs welcomed his audience in the room, online, on the phone and at Luigino’s restaurant in Rome where 25 collectors, unable to make it to New York, had decided to make a night of it anyway. Unusually, he then requested “on behalf of the health department here in New York” that everybody remain seated through the auction so that there should be “no mass panic…the world goes on”. The tense 12-minute struggle over the Newman included one pause so long that Bacs, frozen with the gavel held aloft, complained that his arm was hurting. When the gavel went down, a phone bidder was richer by one timepiece and poorer by $17.8m. As Bacs predicted, “the world goes on”; but it is now a world in which it is possible to pay the thick end of $20m for an old watch.
Nicholas Foulkes is the author of numerous books including a biography of the painter Bernard Buffet and a history of Patek Philippe. He edits Vanity Fair On Time