Two of the World's Rarest Grail Watches Are up for Sale

Johnny Davis
·5-min read
Photo credit: Phillips
Photo credit: Phillips

From Esquire

It’s the watch world equivalent of one of those mega co-headline tours where two music giants come together, create An Event and annihilate the competition. Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Guns N’Roses and Metallica. Um, Elton John and, er, Billy Joel.

Phillips auction house has announced that on 12 December it will sell two unique, culturally significant watches: a Rolex Ref. 6263 Daytona “Big Red” owned and worn by Paul Newman and a Heuer Monaco worn by Steve McQueen in Le Mans (1971). The event will take place at the auctioneer's Park Avenue, New York address, under the name "Racing Pulse".

The Rolex Daytona was given to Paul Newman in 1983 by his wife Joanne Woodward as a 25th-anniversary present. It is engraved on the case back ‘Drive slowly - Joanne’. Estimated in excess of $1 million, it is the wristwatch Paul Newman was most often photographed wearing for over 20 years, until he gifted it to his daughter Clea Newman Soderlund in 2008, in whose possession it has remained. In excellent condition, it features the original black dial with white sub-dials and the distinctive "Big Red" Daytona logo at 6 o’clock.

Photo credit: Phillips
Photo credit: Phillips

Newman has become synonymous with the Daytona model, and wore several throughout his lifetime. Woodward gave him his first in 1968, a Ref. 6239 – that one engraved "Drive Carefully Me".

Newman gifted it to his daughter Nell’s boyfriend at the time, James Cox, who owned it for more than 30 years until he consigned it to Phillips. In 2017 it made headline news when it was bought for $17.8 million, making it the most expensive wristwatch in the world at the time. Bidding opened at $1 million, but even as the commission bid was being announced, it was interrupted by a $10 million bid, which was raised in increments of $500,000 until it was finally sold. It was after Newman received the “Big Red” Ref. 6263 from his wife on their anniversary, the watch being sold in December, that he made the decision to gift the Ref. 6239.

"He wore the watch nearly every day until he gave it to me. He was photographed wearing it on numerous occasions, as was I,” Clea Newman Soderlund explains in her signed letter accompanying the watch."To me, this watch shows my mother’s tolerance of his continued passion for racing and reflects the enduring love between them which remained for another 25 years until his passing.”

While this watch is evidently one of Paul Newman’s Daytonas it is not a so-called “Paul Newman” Daytona. The style that has become the Grail of watch collecting is subtly distinguished by the use of an art deco font on the sub-dial, red indices on the dial and a small ‘step’ between the outer minute track and the centre of the dial. Such ‘exotic’ dials were produced in small numbers and Rolex had some trouble shifting them – the traditional Daytona dials were much preferred by Rolex customers.

The Daytona sold in 2017 was the Paul Newman “Paul Newman” Daytona the one that prompted watch collectors to nickname the style.

Photo credit: Geoffrey Hewitt Photograph Collection
Photo credit: Geoffrey Hewitt Photograph Collection

The second watch sale sure to make global news in December is the Heuer (the company became Tag Heuer in 1985) worn by Steve McQueen for Le Mans. The association between that movie and this watch has become one of the greatest product placements of all time, an association that only seems to grow in stature as time goes on. Of the six watches used for filming, four were kept by the prop master and two were kept by McQueen himself. The watch up for sale is one of those and was given by McQueen as a gift to Haig Alltounian, the actor’s mechanic and the chief mechanic on the film. It is engraved ‘To Haig – Le Mans 1970’ on the case back.

Photo credit: Phillips
Photo credit: Phillips

Introduced in 1969, Heuer’s Monaco has become a celebrated piece of design. One of the first self-winding chronograph wristwatches, housed inside the world’s first waterproof square-shaped case, it was designed by Jack Heuer, and named for the famed Formula One racetrack. It was personally chosen Steve McQueen as his chronograph of choice when filming on Le Mans began.

“We are honoured to offer this historic Heuer Monaco,” says Paul Boutros, Head of Phillips Watches, Americas. “Preserved in superb, original condition with its fascinating case back engraving remaining perfectly crisp, it can certainly be considered as one of the most important Heuer wristwatches of all time. Worn on McQueen’s wrist while driving the film’s Porsche 917 at speeds above 200 mph, its incredible provenance, wonderful state of preservation, and adrenaline- fuelled history make it an ultimate trophy watch for the connoisseur.” Bidding is expected to clear $1m.

Photo credit: Bernard Cahier
Photo credit: Bernard Cahier

Phillips Watches department achieved sales of $111 million last year, its third consecutive year as market leader in watch auctions. The have already had a bumper and newsworthy 2020. The sale of these two incredible watches, driven by unrepeatable celebrity backstories, will easily make it the biggest auction of the year.

If you were going to tune into one watch auction webcast in your life (hey, in 2020 we take our thrills where we can) – this would be a good one.

Phillips' "Racing Pulse" auction takes place on December 12

The 2020 issue of our luxury watch publication The Big Watch Book is available here

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