Phillips Racing Pulse: Attending an Auction Preview (During a Global Pandemic)

The most honest auction preview you’ll read.

By: Rich Fordon

The newsletter with a funny name was offered at least a day pass into the big leagues last week when Phillips (in association with Bacs & Russo) trusted us with a private auction viewing—during these unprecedented times, no less! Rescapement (in association with Rich & Fordon) is pleased to bring you the only Phillips Racing Pulse auction preview that matters. I never knew how these things worked, only hearing collectors and dealers give the advice, “if you can, go to auction previews and see the watches in person, it’s the best way to learn.”

While slightly different due to COVID, the process at Phillips is smooth. Head to the office at 432 Park Avenue — that’s the fairly new and extremely skinny skyscraper on Billionaires’ Row that resembles a matchstick to some. Luckily, Phillips occupies a few floors right near street level. After checking in and heading up a floor or two to the watch department, I walked into a maybe 350 square foot room that contained all 138 lots in jewelry cases. A few Phillips representatives greet entrants to the room, asking if there’s anything you would like to see, as if at Tourneau. But instead of new Nomos or dress Rolex, in the case were Pateks with price tags competing with suburban Chicago 3 beds and, of course, Paul Newman’s Daytona.

The process was extremely easy, the Phillips reps very kind, and I too recommend the experience. A few rules to note: gloves are necessary to handle the watches, some of the lots cannot go on your wrist and some can (just ask before posing for the wrist shot), and, generally, don’t be an idiot—handle the watches you are graciously allowed to view with respect.

Shout out to Noah Phillips who helped me during the viewing. He insists his family does not own the auction house and he’s simply a Seiko Turtle-wearing volunteer preview assistant with no relation. I don’t buy it. He refused to show me Mr. Newman’s Daytona without a free ad so check out his habanero-infused Hellisøy vodka at hellisoy.com and @hellisoy on IG (this one is free Noah but please talk to Rescapement about rates going forward, sponsor the gd newsletter).

Here’s what we’ll be watching this Saturday, Dec. 12 at 10am EST.

Zenith SP1301 Lot 12

Billed as one of the under-the-radar lots of the auction, this Zenith El Primero ref. SP 1301 is one meant to drum up interest and get a bunch of bidders eyeing it, but don’t be surprised when it sells for significantly over the $4k-6k estimate. The catalog notes it dating to circa 1970; to help them a bit we can say Zenith used xxxExxx serial numbers from 1971 into early 1973. Last June in Geneva Phillips offered a very similar SP 1301 with a xxxDxxx serial dating to 1969 or 1970. That watch sold for a touch over $49k all in, with another El Primero ref. A3817 selling far over estimate and market in the lot behind it—rumored to be the same buyer. With a strong, surprising, and hazy precedent set, lot 12 could see some spirited bidding on Saturday.

Rolex Explorer and Tornek-Rayville TR-900 Lot 17 & Lot 18

Paired next to each other in lots 17 and 18 are two watches that are refreshing to see from Phillips and show a continuation of a trend at the most visible level of watch transactions. More so than perfect, time capsule examples, collectors have drifted towards provenance and honesty over the past few years.

The Explorer was consigned by the original owner himself. After being gifted the watch by his wife on a trip to Switzerland, he wore it scuba diving, octopus wrestling, spear fishing, cycling, and on a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. The next owner of this ref. 6350 will have massive shoes to fill. After all that action, the case remains in surprisingly sharp condition—guess he didn’t have much time to polish the case between octopus wrestling matches. The dial really blew me away in person: I was ready to see flaws covered up by the catalog photos but none were noticeable. The crazed crystal adds a nice touch. Estimate is $50k-90k.

A U.S. Navy workaround for Blancpain, Tornek-Rayville-signed Fifty Fathoms are extremely rare and sought after. Because of the “Buy America Act,” the U.S. military could not purchase watches directly from Switzerland-based Blancpain, so it turned to Tornek-Rayville, a makeshift U.S. distributor of Blancpain, to supply dive watches instead. Lot 18 was consigned by the family of the original owner, a Vietnam veteran serving in the US Naval Mobile Construction Battalion, known as the SeeBees. The ref. TR-900 is preserved in great case, dial, and hand condition with some cracking and scratching present on the bakelite bezel. A Phillips comp, in slightly lesser condition and with no stated provenance, sold back in December of 2018 for $106,250. Heritage Auctions sold a TR-900 for $97k all-in just this week; but there’s nothing quite like a Phillips auction. Estimate on this one is $50k-100k.

Paul Newman’s Big Red Daytona Lot 38

This is not Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona but, rather, Paul Newman’s Daytona. Of course the film, racing, and Instagram moodboard legend’s exotic dial ref. 6239 sold at Phillips in 2017 for a world record price of $17.8M. If you value the decision making of the man himself, consider this. After owning the 6239 PN dial for 15 years, his wife Joanne gifted him this Big Red 6263. The next year, Mr. Newman gave the older 6239 away to a boyfriend of his daughter and never looked back.

Obviously, the Paul Newman exotic dial has come to mean more to collectors than just the man having owned one. That said, considering only provenance, the man’s Big Red Daytona was worn far more and owned for much longer. Estimate is “in excess of $1,00,000” and condition doesn’t matter.

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 1675 Lot 54

This one flat out blew me away in person. Lot 53 is a pristine example of the all yellow-gold case GMT-Master “Concorde” on a, at least, period-correct if not original yellow-gold riveted Oyster bracelet. Phillips allows you to take three watches at a time during a viewing and, if you look at the cover photo at the top, this one came out with Paul Newman’s Daytona and lot 37, a yellow-gold ref. 6239 Paul Newman exotic dial Daytona. Provenance aside with the Big Red, this Concorde jumped off the tray. Condition here is stunning and the patina of the lume is very attractive.

Since it’s really only fair to compare a Phillips watch to a Phillips auction result, back in 2017 a similar example—condition-wise and on an Oyster, albeit with full set box and papers—sold for over $115k all in. Let’s just call the $25k-50k estimate on this one conservative.

Kevin O’Leary’s Daytona and Vacheron Constantin x Hodinkee Lot 63 & Lot 77

Tony made me feature a couple modern watches so might as well pick the two that are most vintage-inspired in the sale. Lot 63 is a Rolex ceramic bezel Daytona ref. 116500LN offered from the personal collection of Kevin “Mr. Wonderful” O’Leary, of Shark Tank fame. Look no further than his signature red strap to identify it in the catalog. The watch has been donated by Mr. Wonderful with the proceeds of the sale benefitting The One Drop Foundation, for sustainable access to safe water, sanitation, and hygiene for the most vulnerable communities—as well as The Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation—acting against the environmental dangers threatening our planet and making populations vulnerable.[1] Mr. O’Leary considers, or considered after Saturday, his ceramic Daytona a daily wearer, putting it on his wrist for most tapings of his show. Estimate is $8k-10k.

Lot 77 may look like a fancy dress watch but I found it to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing—I would wear this Vacheron Constantin x Hodinkee Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 every day and not think twice. Unique details include a stainless-steel case, English pulsations scale, and grey opaline dial meant to change colors as you view the watch from different angles. An early collab watch from Hodinkee released in 2017, this VC was limited to 36 examples and trades hands infrequently. Phillips last offered one in 2018 with an estimate of $20k-30k, and it sold all in for $93,750. Estimate of the VC x Hodinkee this go around is $25k-50k.

Patek ref. 1463 and Movado M95 Lot 97 & Lot 104

Brothers long separated, as in the Patek was told it never had a brother and the Movado given up for adoption, lots 97 and 104 share the same Swiss case maker, Francois Borgel (then owned by Taubert & Fils), and were probably manufactured within a couple years of each other. As a long-time champion of the M95 (read my in-depth reference article on it here), it was a pleasure to have the two side by side. 

Lot 97 is a Patek Philippe ref. 1463 “Tasti Tondi,” the renowned brand’s first water-resistant chronograph, cased in pink gold. Condition is good to great, described in the catalog as “wonderful,” where the dial shines more than the case, it was beautiful in person. Estimate is $200k-400k.

The Movado on offer in lot 104 sat on eBay unsold coming from a local jewelry store who bought it off the street from, presumably, the original owner. It was scooped up by a Movado collector following the failed eBay listing and sold privately once again shortly after. As a ref. 19038 with a type 1 stainless steel case, the unique case number 369 puts production around 1958 or 1959. Condition wise this one is say a 98 out of 100. The case is the sharpest type 1 I have seen, the luminous material is completely full, and dial stunning. The Movado has been paired with a new Private Eyes Japan bracelet in the style of Gay Freres. Estimate is $7k-14k. I can see it touching $16k hammer.

The prices these two fetch will be incredibly dissimilar. I have always been the first to point out that Movado played with the big names back in the 1950s; look no further than the case maker similarity and the extremely well made, in-house developed M95 movement. Handling the two side by side, I begrudgingly understood and felt the difference in value. Engaging the chronograph on the 1463 felt like shutting the door on a 1970s Mercedes 280SE Coupe, and the Movado more akin to a Lexus LS400.

Rolex GMT-Master ref. 6542 Lot 123

Later in the sale is a ref. 6542 GMT-Master worth sticking around for. Lot 123 has some really interesting provenance and a recent comparison that surprised some. The watch is in honest and good condition, described as “fresh-to-market” in the catalog, and comes with a bunch of personal effects from the original owner. Mr. David L. Pratt served as an engineer for the Trans-Antarctic Expedition from 1957 to 1958, and the watch is engraved with a commemoration of the trip. The catalog makes vague reference to the watch accompanying Mr. Pratt on the journey but, at least, the engraving seems to have been done after the expedition’s completion. Regardless, condition is above average for this fragile reference and the story is interesting.

At the last Phillips sale, Geneva in November, lot 48 was a ref. 6542 in near perfect condition that failed to sell at an estimate of $131k-261k. That watch was part of a group of 22 watches in the sale consigned by the same U.S. based collector, nicknamed “Mr. Green” for the color of the background of these lots. Mr. Green’s early GMT was one of only 2 watches of his 22 to go unsold. With the estimate on lot 123 set at $60k-120k, it will be an intriguing round of bidding to keep an eye on.

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[1] For each lot that supports a charitable cause, Phillips is also donating 100% of its buyer’s premium for the benefit of these foundations. 


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