The Swiss watch industry has faced and overcome a number of challenges in its history. The quartz crisis of the seventies and eighties decimated the luxury mechanical end of the market, a trail of destruction that was only halted by a consortium of Switzerland’s finest grouping together to found the Swatch—a cheap, disposable and, ironically, quartz watch that beat Japan at its own game.
These days, the threat comes from the Smartwatch. Wearable electronic tech is again causing havoc in the Swiss enclaves, with Apple especially giving manufacturers with hundreds of years of tradition behind them some serious headaches.
Except one. Throughout the various calamities that have befallen their industry, Rolex have climbed steadily onward, seemingly unaffected by the upheavals that have swallowed up so many competitors. From the mid 1950s to the present day, the red line on Rolex sales charts only goes in one direction, and it isn’t south.
Their meticulously cultivated reputation has moved them away from being mere watchmakers and has made them the world’s top luxury brand. Ever find yourself stranded and penniless in some far-flung exotic locale? Your Rolex will be accepted as hard currency in more places than your credit cards.
The most reliable gauge of just how valuable a brand name it is can be found in the vintage Rolex market. 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 on impossible to predict what the future holds. But, for now, we’ve put together a list of the top five most expensive Rolexes ever sold.
(And there’s literally no prizes for spotting the theme that runs through our list!)
An albino Daytona that was worn by Eric Clapton. (credit: Forbes)
5. 1971 Daytona ‘Albino’ ref. 6263 ($1,418,000)
When it was sold at auction in 2015, it marked the second time in three years this particular watch had come up for grabs. Previously only reaching the paltry sum of $505,000, becoming the most expensive Daytona ever in the process, it briefly held the record for most paid for a Rolex of any type when it went under the hammer again.
Harking from 1971, the ref. 6263, with its silvered face and matching chronograph sub dials that have garnered it the nickname the ‘Albino’, is one of only four in existence—and the only one to have been owned by guitar legend Eric Clapton.
Old Slowhand (or ‘God’, to give him his 60s title) has always been something of a pioneer, not just in music but in fashion trends as well. Rumor has it, he owned the first pair of drainpipe Levis 501s London had ever seen, back in his Yardbird heyday.
He reportedly bought his Daytona in the late nineties, an exquisite example of the most celebrated watch of recent years. Powered by the manually wound Cal. 727, Rolex’s reworking of the original Valjoux 72 movement, it is an effortlessly refined and tireless performer—much like the man himself.
This 1942 Antimagnetique ref. 4113 was sold at a $2.4M (credit: Forbes)
4. 1942 Antimagnetique 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)
3. 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)
2. 1954 Bao Dai ref. 6062 ($5,060,427)
Rolex watches have long been known as a savvy investment. 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.
Last but not least, we have the Paul Newman worn by Paul Newman.
1. 1968 Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239 ($17,752,500)
When Paul Newman’s Paul Newman resurfaced in 2016, after a three-decade absence that saw it elevated to mythological status, it would be 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 a $17.7m hole in what one suspects is an offshore bank account.
It obliterated the previous record for most expensive Rolex ever sold, held for just six months by the bargain basement Bao Dai above.
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 to slightly understate matters. 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 the Paul Newman’s owner decides to sell it on again.
If and when that happens, or other Rolex’s break into the top five, you can be sure you’ll be able to read all about it here.