In the last few years, auction prices for classic references have spiraled out of orbit into the realm of super-rich fiction. And with every unique or ultra rare model that breaks the previous record, the bar is raised for those that follow.
It’s a fascinating time to be a Rolex collector, and nigh impossible to predict what the future holds. But, for now, we’ve put together a list of the top most expensive Rolex watches ever sold.
(And there’s literally no prizes for spotting the theme that runs through our list!)
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “Paul Newman Oyster Sotto”
6. 1969 Rolex Daytona Ref. 6263 ($2,001,562)
Formerly a highlight of one of the world’s most important private collections, the reference 6263 shown here is one of only two such known Tropical “Oyster Sotto” – aged to perfection with some beautiful chocolate and creme patina. The unique and stunning dial was one of the most important Paul Newman Daytona’s offered up at auction when it was listed in 2016. It has since been eclipsed in price throughout the years, but this was one of the most important Daytonas to go up at auction.
This 1942 Antimagnetique ref. 4113 was sold at a $2.4M (credit: Forbes)
5. 1942 Antimagnetique Rolex Ref. 4113 ($2.4M)
One-upping the Clapton Daytona’s achievements, this ref. 4113 Antimagnetique chronograph has held the record for most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction not once, but twice. The most recent $2.4M hammer drop at Phillips’ START-STOP-RESET auction in 2016 more than doubled its former sum just three years previously – testament to the runaway popularity of the brand’s vintage collection.
Measuring 44mm in diameter, the largest watch Rolex ever made, only 12 were produced – all in steel and never made available to the public. Instead, they were given as gifts to a handpicked selection of famous racing teams and their drivers. The brand’s close ties to the glamorous world of motorsport goes back as far as the 30s, and several of these oversize gems have made their way to auction through the families of the original recipients.
Now one of just eight thought to still exist, Rolex’s only split-seconds chronograph could well set more records tumbling in the future.
This Paul Newman is nicknamed “The Legend” (Credit: Watchcollectinglifestyle.com)
4. 1969 Paul Newman Daytona ref. 6263 ($3,717,906)
When a vintage Rolex is given the nickname ‘The Legend’, you know it’s not going to be cheap. When you then consider it’s one of just three ever made, and that it’s an example of what battle-hardened collectors describe as their grail watch, you realize a standard size check probably won’t be big enough to fit all the zeroes on.
Sold earlier this year, and marking the third time in just 12 months Phillips auctioned off a record-breaker, the yellow gold Oyster Paul Newman Daytona’s final tally of $3.7m more than doubled its initial estimate.
The ref. 6263, with screw-down pushers and the same Cal. 727 movement as Eric Clapton’s Albino (which now looks like something of a bargain), is topped with an exquisite lemon grené dial with contrasting black sub-dials, complete with their Newman-esque Art Deco font.
In perfect condition and with an incredible rarity value, it’s easy to see why this legendary example achieved the price it did—surely the most anyone will ever pay for a Rolex Daytona!
The Bao Dai was once the reigning champion and held the title as the most expensive Rolex until… (Credit: SJX)
3. 1954 Bao Dai ref. 6062 ($5,060,427)
The Bao Dai ref. 6062, the only one of its kind to be outfitted with a black dial and diamond indexes, represents one of the savviest. Last coming up for public auction in 2002, it could have been yours for just $235,000—a record breaking amount for a Rolex way back in those more austere times.
15 years later, and the yellow gold triple calendar with moonphase watch sold for more than 20 times that. It took over $5m to wrest it away from its previous owners, their sense of loss at losing a unique piece of Rolex history presumably dampened once they’d done the sums.
Specially created in 1954, it was commissioned by the last Emperor of Vietnam—Bao Dai, or Keeper of Greatness. A man known for his excellent taste as well as his progressive attitudes, he had an eye for the finer things in life, and gained a reputation as a jet-setting playboy once his Emperor duties were no longer required following Vietnam’s split in 1955.
With the rest of his life centered around golf, bridge and women, in Paris and along the French Riviera, he eventually died, smiling, in 1997 at the age of 83.
His watch aged even more gracefully. Original in every respect, the one of a kind model with exceptional pedigree was always destined to be a world-beater. We can only guess what it will fetch in another 15 years.
The Rolex Daytona Unicorn is the second most expensive Rolex watch ever sold
2.1971 Rolex Daytona Reference 6265 “Unicorn” ($5,900,000)
The watch is a reference 6265 Rolex Oyster Cosmograph Daytona, and this particular timepiece is the only known example of the reference 6265 to have ever been manufactured in 18k white gold.
The reference 6265 was first manufactured in 1970, and uses the same Oyster case and screw-down chronograph pushers as the reference 6263; however the reference 6265 was fitted with a metal bezel rather than one made from acrylic.
Vintage Rolex Daytona watches were traditionally manufactured in either stainless steel or 18k yellow gold; and while some 14k yellow gold examples were produced for the North American market, this white gold reference 6265 is truly unique, and is the only known example of its kind.
While the watch itself is absolutely gorgeous and truly about as rare and exclusive as Rolex timepieces get, the most important detail about this white gold, reference 6265 is that 100% of the proceeds from its sale went to the charity, Children Action.
This incredibly rare watch was sold by Phillips at auction in May 2018 for $5.9 million USD, instantly becoming the second most expensive Rolex watch ever sold.
Last but not least, we have the Paul Newman worn by Paul Newman.
1. 1968 Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239 ($17,752,500) – The Most Expensive Rolex Ever Sold
When Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona resurfaced in 2016 after a three-decade absence, its fair to say the vintage watch world lost its collective mind.
The scale as to just how much that mind had been lost was revealed when the hammer dropped after just 12 minutes of furious bidding at Phillips’ inaugural New York auction in October. An anonymous voice on the end of a phone gained ownership of the most important timepiece to be made public in a generation, and at $17.7m this white whale of the horological world became the most expensive Rolex ever sold.
It obliterated the previous record for most expensive Rolex ever sold, held for just six months by the bargain basement Bao Dai moon phase.
Owned by the movie legend from 1972, when his wife Joanne Woodward presented it to him as a gift to commemorate the start of his professional racing career, Newman gave it away to his daughter Nell’s boyfriend James Cox in 1984. Why? The boy didn’t have a watch of his own.
Cox wore the horological Holy Grail in blissful ignorance as to its prominence for thirty years before it was spotted on his wrist by a clued-up collector.
By then, he was the treasurer of the Nell Newman Foundation, a charity set up by his former girlfriend to carry on her father’s extensive philanthropic legacy. The mammoth proceeds of the sale of the Daytona are going to help fund the organization.
To say the auction was highly anticipated would be an incredible understatement. A watch that was only rumored to still exist, the model that had launched the vintage market as we know it today and the most sought after variant once owned by the man who gave it its nickname—perhaps we shouldn’t have been so shocked at the financial lengths someone was prepared to go to secure it.
Even so, $17.7m is likely to be the price to beat for some time, perhaps until Paul Newman’s owner decides to sell it on again.
If and when that happens, or other Rolex’s break into the top six, you can be sure you’ll be able to read all about it here.