Why Collectors Will Vie for Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona

The iconic Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239, once owned by Paul Newman, accompanied by a letter from Newman's daughter, Nell.

By: Tom Mulraney

On the 26th of October, Phillips, in association with Bacs & Russo, will hold its inaugural New York watch auction entitled Winning Icons: Legendary Watches of the 20th Century. Just about everyone in the world of luxury watches, from seasoned collectors to brand executives, is expected to attend, coming in droves from across the globe to witness the sale of one of the most significant vintage watches of the 21st century: Paul Newman’s original “Paul Newman” Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.

The Paul Newman Effect

Film star, style icon, thrill seeker, philanthropist: Paul Newman is a man that needs little introduction. A Hollywood favorite throughout the 1960s and 70s, the Academy Award winner continues to have an outsized impact on the world he left behind almost a decade ago. Newman’s Own, the food company he co-founded and which donates 100% of its post-tax profits to the Newman’s Own Foundation, has generated over $485 million to date for various educational and charitable organizations. Such was, and still is, his allure that it seems anything Newman put his name to was destined to be successful and highly sought-after.

The latest example of this comes in the form of the 1968 Rolex Daytona reference 6239 with exotic dial, owned and worn by Newman himself: the so-called original “Paul Newman” Daytona, which will be auctioned by Phillips in New York next week. Now, for those uninitiated in the ways of vintage Rolex, or even vintage watches in general, this may not sound like a big deal. After all, Newman was a movie star and a race car driver; it’s not like he wore this watch into outer space. The fact is, however, that this could quite possibly be the most important vintage watch to be sold in this century. To help explain why that is the case, a brief bit of background is helpful.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

In 1963, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona made its debut. The watch had been specifically designed to meet the demands of professional racing drivers and featured the manufacturer’s first three-register chronograph to be paired with a tachymeter scale on the bezel for measuring speed. Although moderately successful, it was by no means a runaway success in the first few years following its launch. In fact, it wasn’t until a certain Paul Newman wore his – complete with exotic dial – during the publicity tour for the 1969 racing movie “Winning” that watch lovers really started to pay attention.

The watch, a gift from Newman’s wife Joanne Woodward, is engraved on the caseback with a note that reads, “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME.”

It is that very same watch that Phillips offers on October 26th. It was actually a gift from Newman’s wife of 50 years, actress Joanne Woodward, who had the caseback engraved with a special message for her husband: “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME“. Apparently, it was his role in “Winning” that had ignited Newman’s interest in racing, much to Woodward’s dismay. As his wife and co-star in the movie, however, she wanted to give him a gift that would offer not only encouragement but also to serve as a gentle reminder not to do anything too reckless.

It was not a particularly expensive gift – back then a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona retailed for around $250 – and was seen more as a practical watch for motoring enthusiasts, rather than a luxury timepiece. Helping this particular model stand out was the unusual white dial with three black sub-dials, a red outer track and Art Deco-style numerals on the sub-dials, (referred to by Rolex as an “exotic dial”). There were a few variations of this style of dial but they were in production for a relatively limited period, and it’s estimated that only a few thousand remain today. Regardless, Newman was not known for being particularly attached to material things and he simply viewed it as a tool watch designed to serve a purpose.

Re-Gifting the Gift

That’s why, approximately sixteen years later, he didn’t hesitate to give his daughter’s college boyfriend, James Cox, this same watch right off his wrist, after the young man had helped him repair a treehouse on Newman’s property. In an interview, Mr. Cox said he was helping with the repairs when Newman asked him for the time. “I said, you know, ‘a hair past a freckle,’ or some comment meaning ‘I don’t have a watch,’” Mr. Cox (now 52) said. “To which he replied: ‘Well, here, here’s this watch. If you remember to wind it, it tells pretty good time.’” And so it did.

The iconic Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239, once owned by Paul Newman.

For the next decade or so, Mr. Cox wore the watch daily, a sentimental reminder of the time spent with the movie star who had gifted it to him. Unbeknownst to him, however, the popularity of the so-called “Paul Newman” Daytona was beginning to build. With the advent of the internet, this popularity has morphed into an outright frenzy over the past decade or so, with high-quality examples achieving record prices at auction. Most recently, an 18-karat gold “Paul Newman” Daytona hammered for a record $3.7 million at Phillips in Geneva, while a stainless steel version sold for $2 million the previous year. Incredibly, neither watch had been worn by the blue-eyed actor.

It’s not surprising then, that Paul Newman’s own original reference 6239 is expected to attract multiple seven-figure bids when it comes to market for the first time ever next week in New York. In a recent interview with the “New York Times,” Paul Boutros, the head of the Phillips watch division in the Americas, gave some insight into the incredible interest the watch has generated. “Our best clients have been asking, ‘Please reserve me a seat at the auction.’” Boutros explains. “That immediate response, so many months in advance, has just not happened with any property we’ve offered [before].”

Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure: Paul Newman’s legacy of helping others will be carried on. Mr. Cox has already confirmed that a “big portion” of the proceeds will be going to the Nell Newman Foundation, set up by his former college sweetheart and Paul Newman’s daughter, Nell Newman. Although Mr. Cox and Ms. Newman’s romantic involvement ended a few decades ago, they remain good friends and he volunteers as the treasurer for the non-profit foundation. In an interview with “Bloomberg Pursuits,” Mr. Cox explained that he felt it was the right time to sell the watch. He said, “The watch was a beautiful gift, it’s now my turn to do something beautiful with it.”

Suffice to say, the collective eyes of the entire watch world will be on New York next week when the original “Paul Newman” Daytona goes under the hammer. The only question now is, how much will it bring?

See more upcoming sales from Phillips here.

About Tom Mulraney
Tom Mulraney is the Founder and Editor of The Watch Lounge, a popular online luxury watch publication dedicated to enthusiasts and collectors alike.