In the glistening world of luxury timepieces, Rolex stands as the undisputed crown jewel, and its enduring appeal at auction houses is nothing short of legendary. What is it that elevates the brand to such remarkable heights, making every piece a veritable treasure of horological history? Join us, as we explore this through the iconic and most expensive Rolex watches sold at auction.
Discover the allure of the brand’s most exquisite timepieces that transcended utility to become symbols of status, craftsmanship, and history. From the iconic “Paul Newman” Daytona to the unique ‘Unicorn’ and the legendary ‘Bao Dai’, delve into the stories and special features behind these watches that fetched jaw-dropping prices at eminent auction houses. These timepieces are more than just watches; they’re testaments to Rolex‘s enduring legacy.
The 10 most expensive Rolex watches sold at auction
Rolex Daytona “Paul Newman” Oyster Sotto – USD 17.8 million
There is no greater Rolex legend than the Daytona “Paul Newman” Oyster Sotto, which commanded a staggering USD 17.8 million at auction. This is the highest auction price ever! What elevates this horological marvel to unparalleled heights is its exquisite dial design, an Art Deco symphony of numerals, contrasting sub-dials, and the iconic “Paul Newman” signature. An embodiment of rarity, this magnificent chronograph wristwatch boasts the coveted ‘Oyster Sotto Paul Newman’ dial, complete with a tachymeter bezel, guarantee, and presentation box, an ensemble coveted by collectors worldwide.
This timepiece is not merely rare; it’s a masterpiece that endures time, design, and, with its association with the legendary actor and race car driver Paul Newman, was able to achieve a record-breaking price. The absence of serifs in the “Oyster” designation on the dial further emphasises its distinction. Now that’s a boast-worthy living relic from Rolex’s past!
Rolex Daytona ref 6265 ‘Unicorn’ – USD 5.9 million
The Rolex Daytona ref 6265 ‘Unicorn’ is a watch that weaves an intriguing tale of rarity and luxury. Originating in the 1970s, this timepiece stands as a paragon of distinction. What sets it apart is its ethereal white gold case, a splendid deviation from the commonplace stainless steel or yellow gold cases of Daytona models. The allure of white gold bestows upon it an aura of exclusivity and opulence, a true unicorn among Rolex’s creations. This ‘Unicorn’ earned its title by being the sole vintage white gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ever crafted. Until the appearance of the rare ref 6265, it was widely believed that Rolex exclusively fashioned manual-winding Daytonas in stainless steel or yellow gold cases. Rumours swirl that this particular watch was a bespoke creation for a German patron, adding an enigmatic layer to its history.
In 2018, the Rolex Daytona ref 6265 ‘Unicorn’ took centre stage at an auction, securing an astounding USD 5.9 million. This soaring price was not a mere coincidence but a reflection of its exceptional rarity, distinctive design, and the fervour of collectors vying for one of the rarest and most coveted Daytona models ever manufactured. In a heartwarming twist, the proceeds from this remarkable sale were channelled towards Children Action, a foundation dedicated to enhancing the lives of youths worldwide. The ‘Unicorn’ Daytona, a captivating blend of scarcity and magnificence, continues to enchant and inspire the world of watch enthusiasts.
Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, ‘Big Red’ – USD 5.48 million
In the grand symphony of Rolex auctions, a crescendo was the USD 17.8 million sale of the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona at Phillips in 2017. It set a high benchmark for vintage Rolex collecting. Now, Phillips has orchestrated another stunning performance by selling another vintage Daytona owned by the late actor, a ref. 6263 “Big Red,” for USD 5.48 million, including fees. This horological treasure was gifted by Newman to his daughter Clea in 2008, bearing an engraving from his wife, although somewhat less clear, that reads “Drive slowly, Joanne”. While this ‘Big Red’ Daytona fetched less than its predecessor, it claimed the title of the third most valuable Rolex sold at auction. With Newman purportedly wearing it for 25 years, this watch has witnessed some of Hollywood’s most iconic moments. It remained in the family until Clea, in the spirit of her father’s charitable causes, allowed its sale.
Rolex GMT-Master II Ice – USD 5.5 million
Enter the dazzling Rolex GMT-Master II Ice, a product that bewitched both watch enthusiasts and auction-goers with its staggering USD 5.5 million price tag. This timepiece boasts a white gold case adorned with a stunning 30 carats of brilliant-cut diamonds, extending even to the dial and bracelet. Its design and opulence make it a true statement piece, showcasing Rolex’s exceptional ability to blend high-end craftsmanship with sheer extravagance.
The Bao Dai Rolex – USD 5.1 million
The saga of the Bao Dai Rolex is one cherished by watch aficionados. In 1954, the final emperor of Vietnam, Bao Dai, walked into a local Rolex boutique during a Geneva convention and requested to be shown the rarest Rolex ever made. Presented before him was a reference 6062 in yellow gold, boasting a black dial adorned with diamond indices.
While two other 6062s with diamond dials exist, the unique five-diamond layout of the Bao Dai renders it utterly one-of-a-kind. Initially sold by the family in 2002 for $235,000, it became one of the most expensive Rolex watches sold at auction, when it fetched USD 5.1 million at auction in Geneva in 2017. Bao Dai, whose full name is Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy, was the 13th and final emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty. He assumed the title Bao Dai, meaning “Keeper of Greatness” when he ascended the throne in 1925 at the tender age of 12.
Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6263 ‘The Legend’ – USD 4.1 million
In the Rolex pantheon, the Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6263 ‘The Legend’ stands as a testament to its legendary status. Auctioned in 2017 for USD 4.1 million, it was, at the time, the second-highest price ever paid for a Rolex, trailing only the Bao Dai. Today, it still maintains its legendary aura. As one of merely three Paul Newman Daytonas housed in a yellow gold oyster case, this arresting wristwatch is among the rarest Rolexes on the market, believed to be one of the earliest examples of iconic 6263 references.
Cosmograph Platinum Zenith Daytona Ref. 16516 – USD 3.2 million
The next name on our list of Rolex extravagance also ranks among the most recognisable. This Platinum Zenith Daytona boasts a mesmerising dark blue lapis lazuli hardstone dial, a true rarity, if not entirely unique. Presented at auction for the first time in Hong Kong in 2020 by Sotheby’s, it fetched a staggering USD 3.2 million, effortlessly earning its place in the Rolex hall of fame.
Rolex Antimagnetique Ref 4113 – USD 2.5 million
The Rolex Antimagnetique ref 4113 is a piece of watchmaking history with a special place in collectors’ hearts. Crafted from stainless steel, this Rolex produced in 1942 remains the only split-seconds chronograph Rolex ever made, never offered for public sale. Just 12 of these 44mm marvels were created by Rolex and gifted to various renowned racing teams and their drivers, including Ettore Bugatti. With its split-seconds chronograph complication, the Antimagnetique ref 4113 allowed users to measure two separate events concurrently, a feature highly coveted by racing enthusiasts and professionals.
Its rarity is further accentuated by its stainless steel construction, in stark contrast to the precious metals typically used in luxury watches of that era. Though ownership histories of specific Antimagnetique ref 4113 watches can be elusive, one of these treasures was sold at a Phillips auction in Geneva in 2016 for nearly USD 2.5 million, setting a new record for the most expensive Rolex watches sold at auction at the time. The buyer’s identity remains a closely guarded secret.
Marlon Brando’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ Rolex GMT-Master – USD 1.952 million
Marlon Brando’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ Rolex GMT-Master is an iconic watch that combines both watchmaking and cinema. The specific GMT-Master worn by Brando in the 1979 film Apocalypse Now, where he portrayed Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, was produced in the late 1970s. Its value and allure are heightened by Brando’s modifications, including the removal of the bezel and replacement of the original bracelet with a leather strap.
In 2019, this cinematic treasure was auctioned by Phillips for an impressive USD 1.952 million, with the identity of the buyer remaining a well-guarded secret. This extraordinary price attests to the watch’s historical significance, its connection to a legendary actor, and its status as a highly coveted collector’s piece. Brando gifted the watch to his daughter in 1995, and a portion of the auction proceeds was earmarked for the betterment of underprivileged children.
Eric Clapton’s Rolex Daytona Oyster ‘Albino’ Ref 6263 – USD 1.4 million
The Rolex Daytona Oyster ‘Albino’ ref 6263, owned by the eminent English guitarist and singer Eric Clapton, is one of a select quartet. Distinguished by its silver dial with matching silvered totalizer chronograph sub-dials, this monochromatic masterpiece earned its ‘Albino’ moniker. It stands apart from other Daytona models, exuding an air of elegance and sophistication. Crafted in stainless steel and produced in 1971, Clapton acquired it in the late 90s.
In 2015, this exceptional Rolex was sold at a Phillips auction for a record-breaking USD 1.4 million, establishing new records for both the sale of a Rolex and specifically a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. The identity of the fortunate buyer remains a closely guarded secret. This sale underscored the watch’s exceptional desirability and collector’s worth, with its unique design, association with the legendary Eric Clapton, and rarity as a vintage Rolex Daytona model solidifying its status as one of the most valuable and sought-after Rolex watches in history.
(Main image: Rolex; Featured image: Phillips Auctions)
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Which is the most expensive Rolex sold at auction?
Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona, which was sold for a staggering amount of USD 17.8 million at Phillips Auction House in New York in 2017.
Which is the most expensive watch in the world?
Graff Diamonds Hallucination. Worth a whopping USD 55 million and crafted concisely from 110 carats of rare and colourful diamonds, this tops the list of the most expensive watches in the world.
Which Rolex watch does Cristiano Ronaldo own?
He owns the Rolex GMT Master II ‘Ice’.