The Most Expensive Rolex Watches Ever Sold

Vintage Rolex watch Rolex (Wilsdorf & Davis) WWI Officers Wristwatch, c. 1915. Sold for $1,875 via Auctionata US (October 2015).

By Kristine Hansen

Because wristwatches are traditionally thought of as a utilitarian item with function, they may seem to some like an auction category not worth – pardon the pun – watching. 

But just like decorative jewelry, the watches category – both men’s and women’s – has been heating up in recent years. In fact, one brand in particular – Rolex – is considered the crème de la crème at auctions. On July 15, Turnicks Auction Gallery hosted an auction for a Rolex Submariner watch with a hammer price of over $7,000. But that’s nowhere near the highest-priced Rolex to ever sell at auction. A Cosmograph Daytona Rolex that once belonged to actor and motorsports racer Paul Newman, and was gifted to him in 1968 by his wife, Joanne Woodward, fetched $17.75 million through Phillips’ Winning Icons sale, held in New York City in 2017. Another key statistic is that, based on this sale, this Rolex furthered the company’s already legendary status by becoming the brand with the third-most expensive watch ever to sell at auction.

Of course, that the stainless-steel chronograph wristwatch in question was once owned by a famed actor heightened a lot of interest and pent-up demand. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take a mathematician to observe how quickly the price of a luxury, high-quality wristwatch can appreciate. 

But before we examine auction performance, it’s important to get a grasp on the history of Rolex as a company in order to help us to understand why the watches are so coveted and why they routinely peak in value.

A Brief History of Rolex Watches

Now headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland, a country long linked with watch technology. Each watch created by Rolex is considered to be an item of luxury craftsmanship. Purchased new, the entry-level price starts at $5,000. Factor in rising values over the years, particularly if these are family heirlooms and kept for decades, and it’s easy to see why the watch category is growing in popularity.

Rolex was founded not in Geneva but in London, England. It was also originally referred to by a different name. The company was founded in 1905 as Wilsdorf & Davis (Hans Wilsdorf and Alfred Davis), before it transitioned to the new Rolex name (Rolex Watch Co.) ten years later. It was at this point that the company was moved to Switzerland. At first, the duo’s business focused on installing Swiss-made movements in watches in England, and selling them under the Wilsdorf and Davis brand, but eventually they transitioned into manufacturing, when the company became so successful that they became known as the largest manufacturer of Swiss-made chronometers.

Hans Wilsdorf died in 1960 and his foundation continues to run Rolex, producing wristwatches and occupying timekeeping roles at events like Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, the PGA Championship and Le Mans 24 Hours. From the collector’s perspective, men’s Rolex watches tend to be more highly sought after, although diamond-inlay women’s Rolex watches are also popular and tend to command a higher price at auction for their added jewels.

Performance of Rolex Watches at Auction

From a watch owned by a Vietnamese emperor to a 1940s stunner, here’s a run-down of three of the four most expensive Rolex watches sold at auction, with the Newman watch described above clocking in at the top. 

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona “The Unicorn”

Auctioned By: Phillips 

Date of Auction: May 2018 (“Daytona Ultimatum”, Geneva)

Sold Price: $5,936,906

News of this watch sale garnered a lot of media attention – especially because it’s one of a kind. Produced in 1970 it featured a black dial, beautiful bark-finished bracelet and white-gold chronograph. The $5.9 million price tag also landed Rolex another huge win as a follow-up to the Newman sale in 2017: this was the second-most expensive Rolex watch sold at auction. Because the estimated sale price was nearly half the hammer price – $3 million – it thrust Rolex even further into the spotlight.

Rolex “Bao Dai”

Auctioned By: Phillips

Date of Auction: May 2017 (“The Geneva Watch Auction: FIVE”)

Sold Price: $5,060,427

The pedigree of this watch is impressive: Vietnam’s last emperor, “Bao Dai,” commissioned this directly from Rolex while in Geneva on business in 1954. With yellow gold, diamond indexes and a black dial, it’s especially striking. From an auction standpoint, the watch was only one of three black-dial models flaunting diamond markers. In 2017 the watch returned to auction five years after it sold for $235,000. At that time, it had been considered the most expensive Rolex sold at auction. The 2017 auction price broke that record – until May of 2018 when “The Unicorn” sold for slightly more. 

1942 Antimagnetique Reference 4113

Auctioned By: Phillips

Date of Auction: May 2016

Sold Price: $2,500,000

There are two things to note about this auction sale: encased in stainless steel, the watch was one of only 12 made like it and it’s among the oldest to be sold at auction. In 2016 it broke the record for a Rolex sold at auction. Three years earlier, Christie’s sold this same watch at auction for $1,160,000. In 2016 the watch was included in Phillips Start-Stop-Reset auction, featuring 88 top-notch watches, including 18 Rolexes.


Looking for more? Browse watches for sale at auction now on Invaluable.

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