Many years ago – so many years, in fact, that I can’t even locate it on this site – I wrote an analysis of a watch auction that I was always fond of. What I did was examine a few interesting lots, and challenge myself to make an argument both for and against why that watch was worth the price it fetched. I thought I’d revive that concept today, because Phillips’ Racing Pulse auction, ostensibly based out of New York, but auctioneered from London, was the most interesting day of 2020 by a country mile for vintage lovers. Things got a little crazy. And that’s crazy even by the admittedly crazy world of luxury watches, HODINKEE, and public auctions.
The fun part of watches is the sheer irrationality: As we’re always the first to say, none of this makes sense. But at the same time, within a very particular context, spending oodles of money makes a ton of sense (if you can afford it). Let’s run through a few sales and why they make sense, and why they didn’t. Because both are almost always equally true.
1. Rolex Reference 5517 MilSub Sells For $ 567,000
Why This Makes Sense: The Submariners made for and issued to the British defense forces have always been popular with serious collectors – they are, in some ways, the archetype of what makes Rolex cool. They’ve always been dramatically more expensive than a normal matte dial Sub – and that delta jumped considerably on Saturday. This particular example of a MilSub is one of the most compelling I’ve seen. It is, of course, a full-spec watch, but beyond that, it is a rather rare variant, the full reference 5517. The earliest and most often-seen watches are reference 5513s, then you have the dual-reference 5513/5517 wherein the watch is engraved 5513 between the lugs, and 5517 on the lug, and then finally, the full 5517, which is what this example is. I’d not realized it, but Phillips had never sold a full 5517 reference before, which could well have been a factor in driving up this price. Beyond that, the watch was damn pretty, with an extremely full case, and what’s more, papers from Rolex Bexley verifying the authenticity of this watch. Rolex stopped issuing these papers many years ago, so examples that include them often come with a serious premium. But this extreme of a premium?
Why This Makes No Sense: MilSubs are great. Hell, it was the very first big-time watch I bought for myself – and I paid for it in installments because I for sure could not afford it when I found the one I wanted. But in many ways, along with COMEX watches, they’re a bit like entry-level mega-Rolex watches. They’re not exactly common, but they’re not hyper rare either. This one was undoubtedly great, but the market for a good MilSub as of late has been, what, half this price? Phillips itself sold two 5513 MilSubs in 2018 for $ 175,000 each. Then, just one year ago, in the December 2019 sale, it sold a dual-reference example with a very cool original owner’s kit, for $ 218,750. Let’s put a 5517 premium on that and you’d be in mid 200s. Doubling that number for this watch? It feels really strong. But, as we know, all it takes is two guys on Planet Earth who both really want something to make an auction watch go crazy. I’m not saying they’re wrong to do it, but this is already being viewed as an outlier result, not any indication of a market shift.
2. The Heuer Monaco Gifted By Steve McQueen Sells For $ 2,208,000
Why This Makes Sense: McQueen, Monaco, LeMans, you know the deal. It’s absolutely iconic, and absolutely a killer watch with a story that rivals the best of ’em. Also, the connection to motorsport in this case is really real, and that makes car guys go crazy. It’s also one of the most honest of the six known watches from that filming. And the simple fact that its owner was around to verify the entire story goes a very long way. Beyond that, it’s 2020, and this is Phillips! All the other McQueen Monacos sold many years ago, and with hardly the same enthusiasm behind the vendor, or the macro-level watch market at all. I was in the room in 2009 when Antiquorum sold one for $ 80,000, and we all thought it was insane. In 2012, another sold for $ 799,500, and we called that insane. This? Of course paying $ 2 million for a watch is certainly insane, but this wasn’t surprising at all. Will it spur a re-birth of the vintage Heuer market? That’s another story. One we’ll cover soon enough.
Why This Makes No Sense: There are six McQueen Monacos. Six. Which of them were really used in filming or really worn by Steve McQueen is hardly an exact science. This watch was given to the consigner by McQueen, and there is no doubt about it, so again, it’s likely the purest of the six. But still. The quality of the watch itself is wonderful, but this is so far out of whack for a vintage Heuer result, the watch surely must’ve been purchased by a film or automotive buff as opposed to a watch buff. I can’t say the same for the Newman 6263 which we’ll get to later.
3. Patek Philippe 5170P Sells For $ 107,100
Why This Makes Sense: I’m a huge fan of this reference – I own one – and I bought it at retail, for less than this watch sold for yesterday. When I chose this watch for this article, I fully intended to link to the Patek.com website showing it remains part of its collection and showing its price south of yesterday’s result. However, the 5170P is no longer on the Patek website, and that means it’s out of the collection. So maybe, in fact, this result could make sense. It’s a platinum, 39mm, hand-wound chronograph from the most prestigious watchmaker in the world. For the same price as a 5711R in the open market? Hell yes, it makes sense.
Why This Makes No Sense: The 5170P, as far as I know, is still available with authorized dealers around the world. And that means, for the same price as this person paid at auction, you could get one brand new with your name on the papers and build that relationship with a great Patek authorized dealer to perhaps work toward a position where you can be offered some other hard-to-find stuff at retail. Why this person chose to buy it via Phillips, I’m not sure. Then again, why would someone buy a modern Pepsi GMT at auction versus any other platform? Anybody’s guess.
4. Paul Newman’s Rolex 6263 “Big Red” Sells For $ 5,475,000
Why This Makes Sense: Ah, the other Paul Newman Daytona – the watch that continues to befuddle casual watch fans around the world. “Wait, I thought the Big Red wasn’t a Paul Newman?” “No, no, you’re right, this is actually Paul Newman’s Daytona, and it happens to be a Big Red.” “But I thought Paul Newman’s Daytona sold a few years ago for like a billion dollars?” “Yes, around $ 18 million, but this is a different one.” “Oh, okay, so he had two Daytonas.” “Well, actually, he had more than that…” You get it. Still, this is a watch owned by the man himself, given to his daughter Clea, with the now-famous “Drive Slowly” inscription on the back. It’s very freaking cool, and the provenance is indisputable, as is the charm of the watch itself. The Big Red is an easy Daytona to understand for the uninitiated, and the caseback engraving absolutely makes this watch. Without it, I think it would hardly have the following it does. So for a mega-Rolex collector, perhaps even the man/woman/child with the 6239PN, this is a must-have. And for the folks who were just priced out of the original Paul Newman, this would make an excellent trophy piece.
Why This Makes No Sense: This is over $ 5 million for a Big Red Daytona. That’s the third-highest amount ever paid for a Rolex. Consider that. The other Paul Newman (6239) was a category-defining, nay, category-creating watch. Without it, I’m not even sure there’d be a website called HODINKEE on which its founder could frenetically spout opinions on a whim – so that watch and that result, to many, was fully warranted. This watch, the 6263, may actually have meant more to Newman himself, having worn it for longer and sometimes even more publicly, but it’s not the watch that created anything. It was just his watch. Beyond that, Newman owned at least three more Daytonas – all more modern – so what does this sale inform us about the value of those? Is mere adjacency really that much of a value driver? We’ll almost certainly find out when those other watches surface.
5. Sylvester Stallone’s Panerai Sells For $ 214,200
Why This Makes Sense: This is probably the only watch on this list that I expected to go for more than it did. $ 214,200 is an extraordinary amount of money for a very simple Panerai, but to me, it’s actually the watch that built the brand. I would maybe even argue that it is as close to Paul Newman’s 6239 as one can come in the world of Panerai. It was, in many ways, the brand’s introduction to the mainstream when Stallone wore it in the 1996 film Daylight. To think of the millions of dollars spent on Panerai watches since, and the still massive following it has, much of it can be drawn to this very watch. I would not have been shocked to see this one go even higher simply for its importance to the world of Panerai.
Why This Makes No Sense: This is a very simple watch featuring a very simple caliber (ETA 6497-1), and while it is a “Pre-Vendome” watch, these watches can be had if enough time and money is applied. Further, Sylvester Stallone is an icon of Hollywood, and of Panerai, but not in the greater watch world the way Paul Newman is. Actually, you know what, forget it. I’m grasping. This watch should’ve gone for more.
6. Patek Philippe 3448 Yellow Gold Sells For $ 529,200
Why This Makes Sense: It pains me to write this one because I was in hot pursuit of this very watch. I placed a bid or two, but came nowhere near winning. And that sucks. But this watch was the highlight of the sale for me. It’s a first series 3448 from the original owner with original certificate, and absolutely an unpolished case. The watch is spectacular, and in the right condition these 3448s are divine. I wrote about an incredible white-gold example a few weeks back that also set a record price, and what we’re seeing is the best quality watches making numbers significantly higher than good, or even great watches. This result makes sense because of the reference’s overall importance, the lovely design of it, and this particular example’s condition. It also being a Patek Philippe from the golden age, the big boys were certainly involved with the result here. I have zero first-hand knowledge, but my guess is that some names you’ve seen on Talking Watches might’ve been after this one. And when they’re involved, anything goes.
Why This Makes No Sense: Come on. Over half a million dollars for a yellow-gold 3448? These watches are not that uncommon in the market or in auctions. Phillips has sold a bunch, and most of the yellow-gold watches didn’t break $ 200,000. One did, which was similar to this one, and it sold for $ 300,000 in 2018. They’ve even sold a handful of white-gold 3448s in recent years for less. Oh, and Phillips themselves sold another example, a later watch, but also with a full set, literally two weeks ago for less than half the price (~$ 276,000). This watch was a perfect storm of quality and collectibility, and my guess is this price was driven by two mega-collectors simply looking to own the best of the best of the best, at almost any cost. Again, when a price is so outside the norm for a particular reference, we find it often doesn’t impact that market as much as those within a standard deviation. This feels like an outlier to me, not a shift in the market, similar to the MilSub. Still, this is an unbelievable result for an unbelievable watch, and I doff my cap to whoever was the victor.
7. Omega Seamaster 300 For The British Royal Navy Sells For $ 258,300
Why This Makes Sense: The Seamaster 300 for the British Navy is exactly what it looks like: Omega, too, had a contract with the British MOD that delivered watches much in the same vein as the aforementioned Rolex 5517. You’ll notice the fully graduated bezel, sword hands, circled T, and fixed spring bars are also here – for those astute to this world, you’ll notice the date of the Rolex was 1979, the date of this Seamaster is 1970. So these pre-dated the MilSub. It’s a very cool thing and rather rare relative to the world of Seamasters, and while I don’t have the data in front of me, I see more MilSubs on the market than issued Seamaster 300s. This particular watch is a nice example, and it comes from arguably the best home for a watch such as this. Also, it sold for half the price of the MilSub in this sale, which feels like a relative bargain.
Why This Makes No Sense: When I say “relative bargain,” I say that in the context of the simply remarkable results of Saturday’s Racing Pulse sale. There is absolutely zero precedent for a Seamaster 300 selling for a number anywhere near $ 250,000. Again, Phillips sold another watch in very similar condition TWO WEEKS AGO for a literal fraction (~$ 89,000). The only justification I can see here for such an outsized price in this sale – and I’ve seen this happen many times – is someone took a look at the crazy result of the MilSub earlier in the day and thought to him or herself, “OK, for half the price, seems like a good deal!” Auctions are crazy things, and the emotion and impulses of otherwise pragmatic and intelligent people can go haywire. Let’s remember the estimate on this watch was $ 30,000 to $ 60,000, and it sold for over $ 250,000. For further data, here is every military Seamaster Phillips has ever sold. You’ll notice that prior to Saturday, December 12, none had ever cracked $ 90,000. To me, this was completely driven by the outsized MilSub result, and I wish the very best to those Seamaster 300 owners thinking they’ll be able to replicate the magic of a blue-chip auction with Aurel Bacs behind the rostrum and a room full of well-heeled, hungry collectors looking to blow off some steam after the weirdest year in a generation.
8. A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus Sells For $ 81,900
Why This Makes Sense: Hear me out for a minute here: I would posture that as a percentage of a full collection, there are more Langes trading at or above retail than there are Pateks. We all know how crazy the world for Nautilus and Aquanauts are, but what about, you know, everything else? Patek has a massive breadth of models, and very few of them benefit from the same resale value as the sport watches. Meanwhile, getting a great Lange from an authorized dealer can be extremely difficult. Look at the Datograph Lumen. Look at the recently released 1815 Rattrapante. I can’t tell you how many friends/associates pinged me for help getting one of those (hint: I can’t help anyone get anything). The Saxonia from last week? All gone. So it’s not a surprise to see Lange’s first steel sports watch going above list by a wide margin (list is $ 28,800). I have seen several colleagues who I respect greatly be among the first to purchase the watch (Quill & Pad’s Gary G, Francois-Xavier Overstake being two examples). And I believe this is the first auction appearance for the Odysseus. So it makes sense that the most wearable Lange ever has a long list of people looking to get one. Also, in the metal, it’s a hell of a nice watch.
Why This Makes No Sense: I’m just one of those people who will never buy a watch that’s currently in production above list or from anyone but an authorized dealer. Granted, the list for an Odysseus is likely years-long right now, if you can even get one without being a long-time Lange client, but I believe in long-term relationships with authorized dealers and brands. Also, it’s hard for me to internally justify paying above list when the brand itself is telling us, by listing its prices publicly, that that is what it feels a watch is worth. If the people at Lange, the folks who spent the years developing it, tell me it’s worth $ 28,800, then that’s the price I feel one should pay for it. Not more. (Now, of course, there are folks with money who say, “I just want it now,” and that’s understandable.) I’m also surprised to see this watch come for sale so soon, as Lange has a very good relationship with its small network of dealers – I’d imagine whoever sold this watch is likely getting a call from someone in Germany soon. Because brands don’t like it when hard-to-find watches go to people who don’t love them and hang onto them.
Saturday’s Racing Pulse sale was a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It gives us so much to talk and think about as a community. The prices for some watches were remarkable. Are they warranted? To those who bought them, absolutely. To the rest of us? It truly doesn’t matter. Because as you know, just like there is #instagramversusreality, there is often a case of #auctionversusreality. And what a public sale tells us is not what any watch is worth. It’s simply what one person was willing to pay for that watch in that moment on that day in that format. So don’t read too much into these results, or my thoughts on them. It’s only watches, after all.