The Most Expensive Rolex Watches Ever Sold

Watch collecting has been growing with increasing popularity, and with good reason. First, watches marry fashion with function. They exhibit your personality to the world and can be used every day. Wearing a beautiful timepiece is like displaying a piece of functional art on your wrist.

Plus, watches come in a wide range of styles and there is something for everyone. New or old, vintage or trendy, there is a watch out there that you will love. Properly maintained and cared for, a good watch is able to be passed down from generation to generation.

Often, a high-end watch such as a Rolex can be an excellent investment. Certain investors purchase a watch with no intention of ever wearing it, but rather to hold onto with the hopes of making a substantial profit in the future. Other people enjoy the quest of seeking out and finding a particular vintage watch, especially when the desired model is rare or hard to acquire.


The Story of Rolex Auctions

For over 100 years, the name Rolex has been synonymous with quality, precision, and prestige. This luxury Swiss watchmaker has been manufacturing high-end timepieces since just after the turn of the 20th century. While many people view Rolex as a status symbol, true watch aficionados know that these beautiful timepieces are much more than that and eagerly wait to see what materials and designs will be incorporated into forthcoming collections.

In fact, in the world of high-selling watch auctions, the materials a watch is crafted from are often less important than the rarity and scarcity of the watch when it comes to commanding a premium selling price. The pedigree of a watch, however, can also be very important. Rolex watches previously owned by celebrities have procured some of the highest sales prices of all time at various auctions.

Collecting watches becomes an addictive pursuit, and collectors themselves relish learning not only the history of the manufacturer but also facts and statistics about these major transactions. Even non-watch collectors are curious to learn more about the most expensive Rolex watch. And, watches that were owned by the late great actor, director, and producer Paul Newman have multiple spots on the list of most expensive Rolex watches. Read below to learn the fascinating details behind these luxury watch auctions.

The Paul Newman Cosmograph Daytona – 1968

The most expensive Rolex sale in history isn’t just about the watch itself – it is also about the story behind the watch. Paul Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward bought the watch from Tiffany & Co. as a gift for her husband, knowing that he was quite the wristwatch enthusiast. This was back in 1968, when Newman had first become enthralled with auto racing as a hobby, and his nervous wife had the item engraved with the admonition “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME” on the back.

The watch, a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, is a very rare watch. It has Art-Deco style numerals on its subdials which make it quite unique and therefore well-known to wristwatch admirers. Interestingly, the original purchase price of this timepiece is unknown.

Rumor has it that Newman thereafter wore the watch for the next decade and a half before giving it as a present to his daughter Nell’s then-boyfriend James Cox. Cox was helping Newman with fixing a treehouse on his property and when Newman asked for the time, Cox said he didn’t have a watch. Apparently, Newman took the watch off his wrist and handed it to Cox.

Newman had been photographed many times wearing this gem, so the public knew it was out there. Amongst watch connoisseurs, the location of the piece became quite a mystery. Meanwhile, Cox wore the watch for several decades, keeping quiet for a long time after he realized it was a perplexity to many.

In October 2017, this watch was sold at what became the most well-attended wristwatch auction ever at the Phillips on Park Avenue in New York City. The piece commanded $15.5 million plus a 12.5% buyer’s premium, bringing the total sale to $17,752,500 and making it the most expensive Rolex watch ever sold. And, Cox donated a portion of the proceeds to the Nell Newman Foundation, a philanthropic organization.

The Oyster Cosmograph Unicorn – 1971

Not surprisingly, after the sale of Paul Newman’s Cosmograph Daytona, there was an even bigger surge in interest in Rolex watches. New collectors joined the frenzy around Rolex Daytonas in particular. Just over six months after the Newman sale, an uncommon Rolex dubbed “The Unicorn” came to auction.

The Unicorn is truly a one-of-a-kind watch. This 1971 Rolex is a rare specimen as it was created with 18-karat white gold. As most other Daytona watches of its era were generally crafted out of stainless steel, the white gold justly sets it apart. These unique materials and unusual color also make it a beautiful sight to behold.

Auctioneers knew it would be one of the most expensive Rolex watches to be put up for sale, but were still surprised when this watch received $5.9 million at a Phillips auction in Geneva in May of 2018. Similar to the big Newman sale, the collector owner of this watch donated the proceeds to a charity called Children Action. This transaction demonstrated once more that the Rolex Daytona obsession shows no indication of waning.

The Bao Dai – 1954

The 1954 Bao Dai Rolex was nicknamed for its famous owner, His Majesty Bao Dai of Vietnam. Dai was the 13th and final emperor of the last ruling family in their country. Born in 1913, Dai abdicated his throne in the mid-1950s and spent the rest of his life living a pleasure-seeking existence in France. He died there in 1997 at the age of 83.

Dai’s hedonistic lifestyle matched his passion for fine objects, and this watch was no exception. Made of 18-karat yellow gold, the 36mm watch is a rare and unusual timepiece. This timepiece has an extraordinary black dial and common to form among the most expensive watches, it is one out of only three of this particular Rolex model known to be in existence.

Another rare feature of the Bao Dai watch is that it has diamond markers at the even hours. In order to achieve the cosmetic result of having a diamond at the 12:00 position, both the Rolex crown logo and “ROLEX OYSTER PERPETUAL” words had to be shifted downwards during creation. And instead of the phrase “OFFICIALLY CERTIFIED CHRONOMETER” being in the center of the dial, it is underneath the moon phase indicator.

These anomalies as compared to more the traditional watches are what makes it incredibly unique and appealing to collectors. They are also no doubt intrigued by the story of how this watch made its way to Dao’s wrist. During negotiations for the Geneva Accord, Dai left his hotel and went across the street to a Rolex dealer named Chronometrie Philippe Beguin, asking for the most precious and rare Rolex that ever had been made. Nothing in their inventory appealed to Dai, so they turned to Rolex for assistance with finding him that very peerless specimen.

The watch was not only enthralling to Dai but is to modern day enthusiasts as well. In fact, when it came up for auction in May of 2017, it was so desired that it caused an eight-minute bidding war between over a dozen collectors at auction. Eventually, this watch sold for just over $5 million dollars, an incredible increase over the $235,000 it had previously sold for at an auction just fifteen years prior.

The Paul Newman Oyster Cosmograph Legend – 1969

Another Paul Newman-owned watch is in the top five of the most expensive Rolex watches ever sold. Dubbed “The Legend” this watch is quite attractive, with its 18-karat yellow gold and an inimitable lemon-colored grené dial. Rolex fanatics marvel at the “fluffy” appearance of this unique specimen.

While Newman’s ownership undoubtedly drove the price of the watch up, collectors were independently fascinated by the mechanics of this watch, which started production in 1969. Its distinctiveness derives from its screw down pushers. At the time of manufacture, Rolex was trying out various dial configurations in their new watches. As a result, instead of being signed as “Rolex Cosmograph Oyster,” the nod to the screw down pushers prompted it to be signed “Rolex Oyster Cosmograph.”

It had been rumored for years that the unique configuration with this watch existed, and when it came to light at auction, it caused a bidding war between two gentlemen at the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction, finally selling for $3.7 million.

The GMT Master – 1958

Like the Daytona model discussed above, the Rolex GMT Master was usually made in stainless steel. However, in 1958 this rare model was crafted in 18-karat gold. And what really sets it apart from other watches is its Bakelite bezel, in a gorgeous cognac brown color.

This particular watch is highly prized by collectors because it was kept in pristine condition by its previous owners, who had elected not to do any restorations to the watch. As a result, it sold at a Phillips auction in Geneva for a whopping $3.5 million in May of 2016, well above the $1.8 million to $2.9 million that had been estimated.

The Antimagnetique Split-Seconds Chronograph – 1942

This watch, also sold at auction at Phillips, is one of just a dozen known manufactured stainless-steel manually wound split-seconds chronograph watches. With a diameter of 44 mm, this is large for a watch and in fact is the most sizeable Rolex ever made. It fetched an impressive $2.4 million in May of 2016.

Another fact that makes this particular model watch unusual is that it had never been offered for sale to the public. Rather, it had been given by Rolex to some specially chosen automobile race car drivers and their teams. Descendants of the original owner had possession of the watch until it was auctioned for the first time just a few years prior to this auction.

The Paul Newman Cosmograph Oyster Sotto – 1969

It should come as no surprise by now that yet another watch owned by Paul Newman is in the top sales of the most expensive Rolex watches. What is surprising about this sale, however, is that this watch did not achieve great popularity during the time it was originally sold by the watchmaker.

This early chronograph watch is noted for the “OYSTER” designation just beneath the “ROLEX” nomenclature and black dial. It was sold at a Phillips auction in 2016 and commanded a very respectable $1.95 million.

The Eric Clapton Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Albino – 1971

This stainless-steel watch has been given the moniker of “Albino” due to its unique color palate. It is one of only four known watches that were made using a silver dial and same-tone chronograph totalizer subdials, as differentiated from the customarily black totalizers.

Although the watch was manufactured in 1971, it was purchased just before the turn of the millennium by musician Eric Clapton. It sold first at auction back in June of 2003 at Sotheby’s for approximately half a million dollars, but at a Phillips auction in Geneva in 2015, it skyrocketed to a selling price of $1.4 million.

Start or Enhance Your Own Rolex Collection

Finding the new or previously-owned Rolex of your dreams can happen in one of several ways, such as through a jewelry store, private collector, auction or friends or family. Enlisting a trusted, reputable jeweler like Gray & Sons to assist you with your search is a safe, efficient way to find that Rolex you have been wanting for ages.

First, they will be able to assure you that the watch is in impeccable condition. A good jeweler will also have an ample staff of experienced, trained watchmakers to assist with any restoration or repairs your watch may need. They can also advise you on the proper future maintenance of the watch.

It’s easy to see why Rolex watches hold such universal appeal. If you are interested in purchasing a Rolex, or becoming a collector of Rolex watches, learning the history of the brand and its many unique models should guide you toward finding the particular one you desire. Contact us to learn more about Rolex Daytona and other collectible timepieces.