You Are There: Experiences And Lessons From The Multi-Record-Breaking Phillips’ ‘Winning Icons’ Auction In New York
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several months, you are well aware that on October 26, 2017 Phillips conducted an auction in New York City at which the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona owned by Mr. Newman himself was sold for more than $17.5 million, a record price for a wristwatch of any kind.
I was fortunate to attend the auction and its attendant events, and while the Newman watch was of course the center of attention, there was much more to see and some lessons to take away about both the current state of the vintage market and bidding at auction.
Phillips ‘Winning Icons’ auction preview
By the time I arrived in New York City, Phillips had completed a multi-week tour around the world with the watches to be sold and had them available for viewing at the firm’s Park Avenue base of operations.
With so much attention centered on the “PNPN,” it was fairly straightforward to spend time looking at other watches of particular interest, including the watch that I was hoping to take home, the Duality #00 in platinum made by The Man Himself, Philippe Dufour.
I can’t stress too strongly how important it is to inspect the watches in an auction before bidding on them; some, like the Patek Philippe Reference 1526 that I was fortunate to buy last year in Geneva, are more captivating in person than in photos. In other cases, careful inspection of a watch can reveal details that are not evident in catalogue descriptions.
A case in point at this auction was another watch of particular interest to me, the Breguet Type XX Big Eye that had suffered a hairline crack in the dial’s coating, visible in the photo below at the bottom edge of the dial.
Phillips ‘Winning Icons’ discussion panel
The evening prior to the auction itself, Phillips presented a panel discussion on the topic of Paul Newman (the man) and the Newman watch with daughter Nell Newman; her former boyfriend and now-former owner of the watch, James Cox; and motor racing legend and close family friend, Mario Andretti. It was moderated by Michael Clerizo, the journalist who first broke the PNPN story earlier this year (see Paul Newman’s Own Paul Newman Rolex Daystona To Go Up For Auction).
Repeat after me: it’s all about the people! For the next 90 minutes, the audience had the sheer pleasure of hearing about Mr. Newman, the Newman family, tales of family life and racing exploits, and many examples of the generosity and humility that characterize the family to this day.
Some of my favorite moments:
- Learning that Cox was wearing Paul Newman’s tuxedo on this evening, which had somehow escaped Newman’s vow to destroy all of his tuxes so that he would not be able to attend any more award ceremonies as well as learning about the actual burning of another less fortunate tuxedo on the front lawn of the family’s home.
- Hearing Mario Andretti describe the many wagers – always for the same amount of $1.79 – he and Newman made and settled over the years, including one bet that Newman attempted to pay in rubles.
- In response to an audience question about whether the famously cool Paul Newman ever lost his temper, hearing Nell Newman talk about the time she rolled over the family’s Volkswagen Beetle convertible, which he had forbidden her to drive. “He never yelled, but he did make me go out and look at it!”
- A tale of the early days of the Newman charities, when a gift was made to “Father Phil” to buy a school bus in Africa, but the funds weren’t sufficient. “He went on the black market and bought two!”
- The hilarious response to another audience member asking Andretti what watch he was wearing: “Heuer . . . five million!”
It was also extremely touching to hear the tales of generosity and family love, and I was also deeply impressed by the way that Andretti, a man voted the top racing driver of the twentieth century, put aside any personal boastfulness to talk about his regard for his dear friend and respect for the way that Newman “went all in” as a racing driver and team owner rather than resting on his celebrity as an actor.
This was already turning out to be a phenomenal experience, and it wasn’t even the day of the auction yet!
Phillips ‘Winning Icons’ Auction night
The next evening, as MrsGaryG and I made our way to the auction room and took our assigned seats, the atmosphere was pretty much as you would imagine it: electric.
The auction got off to a hot start as each of the first six lots hammered above their high estimates (before buyer’s premium), including the aforementioned Breguet Type XX that sold for $60,000 including premium. The pre-auction estimated range was $12,000-$24,000.
Soon enough, we were on to Lot 8, the Paul Newman Rolex Daytona. No sooner had bidding opened than I heard a shout from about 18 inches from my left ear: “Ten million dollars!”
This preemptive jump bid not only took a substantial amount of excitement from the proceedings, but ultimately proved to be unsuccessful as each small incremental bid from the original bidder (if indeed $100,000 can be considered “small”) drew a rapid response from the other remaining bidder that took the bid to the next half million.
As the bidding neared its conclusion, I looked at the row behind us where Nell Newman, James Cox, and their significant others were sitting and received the lovely gift of a beautiful smile from Nell.
As the hammer fell, Nell wasn’t the only happy person in the room! Nathalie Monbaron of Phillips, who took the winning bid from her French-speaking client, and the entire Phillips team took a few moments to celebrate before everyone took a deep breath and moved on to the remaining 41 lots in the auction.
Philippe Dufour Duality: the one that got away
It seemed to take forever, but in reality it was about 70 minutes later that Lot 47, the Philippe Dufour Duality, came up in the auction order.
I’ve personally inspected three of the ten (yes, ten) known Dualities and seen good macro photos of others, and for me the quality of finishing on the no. 00 movement seems just that touch above the others. The case of the 00 is in splendid shape as well.
The only minor issue with the watch is a bit of apparent corrosion on the hour and minute hands, and I’m sure that a quick service by Mr. Dufour would be sufficient to clean that right up.
I was ready to bid at a level that several of my expert friends felt had a good chance of winning the lot, which was also well above the price of the last Duality whose sale I’m aware of, from about 18 months ago. I had my paddle at the ready, catalogue opened to the appropriate page, and my local New York watch buddies standing to the side to join in the fun and cheer me on.
And then “SIX HUNDRED!” came the shout from about 18 inches off my left ear.
Now I can laugh about it, but at the time all I could do was close my catalogue, put down my paddle, and watch in slack-jawed amazement as the Duality went on to sell for an astounding total of $915,000 (including premium).
Lessons and observations From the Phillips ‘Winning Icons’ Auction
Once the dust had settled, I was able to do a bit of analysis of the evening’s results. While it’s not exactly definitive to derive patterns from a sample of 49 watches, here are a few thoughts:
Phillips knows events – and stories: Through clever conception, good relationships, and good old-fashioned hard work Phillips was once again able to create a compelling event that centered on one story but sold 49 watches. With the exception of one lot that was withdrawn prior to the sale, every single watch in the catalogue was sold. Only one lot, a Longines Weems, hammered below its low estimate (but with premium sold well within its estimated range).
Properly sold, vintage is still strong: Omitting the Paul Newman, the Weems, and the withdrawn lot, five other lots hammered at their low estimates. Further, 11 lots hammered in the bottom half of their estimated ranges, 13 in the top half of the estimated ranges, and fully 18 at or above their high estimates, including two pieces (the Breguet and a Rolex Reference 1016 Explorer) that hammered at twice or more their high estimates.
Rolex rout and Patek washout? Not quite: My impression on the evening was that the Paul Newman watch had lifted all of the other Rolex pieces to extreme heights and that Patek Philippe had had a so-so outing. A bit of analysis suggests that isn’t quite so: while a number of Rolex watches did very well, there were exceptions such as a Reference 6236 “Jean-Claude Killy” that sold in the lower half of its estimate range (including premium).
At the same time, two of the nine Patek Philippe pieces (albeit the two least expensive) sold all-in for amounts above their high estimates, while others, including a very tasty Reference 3448 perpetual calendar in white gold, a Reference 1463 “Tasti Tondi” and the second most valuable lot of the evening, a pink gold Reference 1518, sold above the mid-points of their estimated ranges.
Special watches draw special prices: The Audemars Piguet Reference 5516, one of nine examples ever made of the first serially-produced perpetual calendar with a leap year indication, sold all-in for $675,000 vs. a high estimate of $600,000. The Vacheron Constantin “Cioccolatone” nearly hit its high estimate of $400,000, drawing $387,000. The Cartier London Crush smashed its high estimate of $80,000 with a result of $175,000. And, almost without notice, the pristine LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm broke the record price for a vintage Jaeger-LeCoultre piece set only last year by a near-perfect Geophysic by attaining a price of $100,000.
Not all watches or brands are on the gravy train, regardless of quality: The Longines and Panerai pieces on offer hammered at their low estimates or below, and in my view the steal of the evening went to a young New York collector friend of mine who scooped up the very clean A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon in pink gold by bidding the low estimate (recognizing that the papers for the watch were not fully complete). See more about this rare watch at Why I Bought It: A. Lange & Söhne Pour le Mérite Tourbillon.
So now we’re on to the November Geneva auctions, and I’m planning to check out the OnlyWatch event as well as the weekend’s offerings from Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips.
With any luck my loupe and memory cards will hold out, and I’ll be able to share more impressions then!
Also published on Medium.