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The 13 Most Expensive Rolex Watches Ever Sold at Auction, From the Paul Newman to the Unicorn

When considering which Rolex models have hammered for the greatest amounts of money in recent years, one bumps up against an irony of the modern horological climate that simply can’t be ignored: Many of these timepieces are steel sports models that, upon their debut, were (relatively) affordable to the average buyer. At least two are highly complicated watches in precious metals, the Bao Dai and the Ref. 4113 Split-Seconds—the type of timepiece Rolex no longer really produces, with the exception perhaps of the Sky-Dweller. But many are less complex models, such as a time-only Day-Date or the Daytona, whose basic design language remains the same well into the 2020s. In examining why this is the case, some historical context is necessary:

Despite its modern status as a global luxury juggernaut whose wares can easily double as cold, hard currency, when it was founded by Hans Wilsdorf in the early 20th century, Rolex didn’t produce what was considered a luxury product. Rather, it manufactured timepieces that were meant to be used as tools—worn while climbing mountains, diving deep into the ocean’s depths and soldiering into combat the world over.

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It wasn’t until roughly the 1970s that Rolex began taking on the aspect of a luxury brand in the modern sense, one whose wares were no longer strictly utilitarian. (Solid gold dual-time watch, anyone?) In more recent years, soaring demand for steel Rolex sports models—Submariners, GMT-Masters, and Daytonas—has injected a wild twist into the story of Rolex in the 21st century that would have seemed unthinkable to someone looking for a well-built wristwatch in the 1960s. Indeed, these most utilitarian of Rolexes are so highly sought after that a customer must develop a long history of purchases with an authorized dealer in order to secure a spot on what can still be a years-long waiting list. (That, or purchase one on the secondary market—often at a significant markup.)

Perhaps it’s a modern longing for those 20th-century days of adventure—days when maps had vast, blank spaces and a sense of wonder at the world’s mysteries still remained—that has driven interest in early, steel tool watches to such dizzying heights, and especially those from Rolex. Who doesn’t want to look down at his wrist and be reminded of the feats of great men and women who wore them? Of course, there are other factors at play, such as provenance. A watch owned by someone as widely admired as Paul Newman is going to command significant money no matter what brand name is on the dial.

Then there’s the growth of social media, dedicated online watch publications and horological communities such as Red Bar, and hype from the auction houses themselves—not to mention the pandemic, which saw discretionary spending redirected from experiential purchases to luxury goods such as watches. The fervor for Rolex watches grows organically as more and more people are easily brought into the fold, digitally. On top of this ever-expanding knowledge base, folks with the means to invest in a growing marketplace will do so in betting on the same sort of returns they chase in the art market, or the stock market. And Rolex is widely perceived to constitute the most liquid of watch “investments”—a term that admittedly rankles certain horological purists. Buy a new Rolex watch today—especially a steel sports watch, if you can get your hands on it—and there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to sell it tomorrow for what you paid for it, and then some.

But even a cash-flush customer unversed in Rolex’s early history as a manufacturer of tool watches, one hopes, can recognize the importance of these objects. It’s not always expensive precious metals or sparkling diamonds that capture the mind of the watch aficionado. Sometimes it’s purely about the stories of those who owned them or the hunt for a timepiece that symbolized a unique moment in the history of this pioneering company whose early models have withstood the test of time.

Oyster Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6239 “Paul Newman” 

Paul Newman Rolex Daytona
Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona

Technically, any Daytona with an “exotic” dial—recognizable for its contrasting outer seconds track, funky modern typeface used in the sub-dials combined with block indices, and squarish 1-12 indices—is now known as a “Paul Newman” variant. But when the venerated actor and racer’s own reference 6239, gifted to him by his wife, came up for auction in 2017, the watch world collectively went berserk. The watch hammered for $17.75 million, including buyer’s premium—not bad for a Daytona variant that languished on dealer shelves, when it debuted in the 1960s, for lack of interest.

Price: $17.75 million at Phillips in October 2017
Diameter: 36.5 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 72B handwound


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6265 “Unicorn”

Rolex Unicorn
Rolex Daytona “The Unicorn” in 18 karat white gold

While a typical stainless steel, Oyster-cased Ref. 6265 might run you a cool $70,000 or so, they’re comparatively commonplace. This unique 18-karat white gold version, however, is rarer than, well, a unicorn, which is reflected in its final hammer price. The watch’s seller was none other than famed collector John Goldberger, who donated it to Phillips auction house (the proceeds from the sale were gifted to Children Action, a charity). As of 2020, this is the second-most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction after Paul Newman’s Daytona. 

Price: ~$6.5 million at Phillips in May 2018
Diameter: 37 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 727 handwound


Ref. 6062 “Bao Dai” 

Rolex Ref. 6062 “Bao Dai"
Rolex Ref. 6062 “Bao Dai”

In 1954, while in Geneva attending a convention that would split Vietnam into two distinct states, Bao Dai—the final emperor of Vietnam and then-head of state—walked into a Rolex boutique and requested, essentially, “the rarest and most precious Rolex ever made.” The Ref. 6062 presented to him is a triple-calendar moon phase in yellow gold with a black dial and diamond indices. Though two other diamond-dial 6062s are known to collectors, the Bao Dai features a unique layout with five diamonds, further increasing its rarity. 

Price: $5.06 million at Phillips in May 2017
Diameter: 36 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 655 automatic


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6263 “The Legend”

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6263 "The Legend"
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6263 “The Legend”

Another absurdly rare Daytona configuration, this Ref. 6263 is one of only three known “Paul Newman” variants executed in a yellow gold Oyster (water-resistant) case. Its “lemon grené” dial features black contrasting subdials, a black outer seconds track and a black bezel, making for a look that grabs your eye from across the room. After a heated bidding war, it hammered for over $3.7 million, making it the second-most expensive Rolex ever sold at the time (May 2017) after the Bao Dai. 

Price: $3.7 million at Phillips in May 2017
Diameter: 37.5 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 727 handwound


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 16516

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 16516
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 16516

A platinum-cased Daytona is a special-enough thing. But one with a dial crafted from turquoise and an automatic, Zenith-derived movement? Priceless. (Or, to be more accurate, ~$3M worth of price.) A Ref. 16516, the watch is said to be one of five platinum Daytonas commissioned by previous Rolex head honcho Patrick Heiniger back in 1999. (The others had Tahitian mother-of-pearl, coral, and lapis lazuli dials—the latter example having hammered for a cool $3.27 million.) Reminiscent of the colored lacquer “Stella” dials of the 1970s, this piece is arguably more notable for its use of a slice of stone—making it unique by definition.

Price: ~$3.14 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, 2022
Diameter: 40 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 4030 (Zenith base)


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6240 “The Neanderthal” 

Rolex Daytona The Neanderthal
Rolex Daytona “The Neanderthal”

You may recognize some of the hallmarks of this Ref. 6240’s dial—it’s got the exotic font and indices of a “Paul Newman,” but it’s not quite a Paul Newman: dating from 1966, this possibly unique Daytona is a sort of “pre-PN.” Its oversized subdials have the exotic-dial look, but the watch’s face is otherwise adorned with only the Rolex coronet and Rolex wordmark. The 6240 was also the first Cosmograph Daytona model to be equipped with the water-resistant Oyster case, making this a compelling, important timepiece in the Daytona continuum.

Price: $3.01 million at Phillips in May 2018
Diameter: 37.5 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 72B handwound


Ref. 4113 Split-Seconds 

Rolex Ref. 4113 Split-Seconds
Rolex Ref. 4113 Split-Seconds

Another complicated watch rendered in steel, the Ref. 4113 features an oversized 44 mm case—the largest case size of any Rolex model ever produced—and the caliber 55 VBR chronograph movement equipped with a split-seconds complication. Only 12 of these watches are thought to have been produced during the early 1940s, and they were never offered for sale commercially. Rather, it’s thought they were gifted exclusively to members of certain racing teams, making them some of the rarest Rolex watches in existence. 

Price: ~$2.6 million at Phillips in November 2019
Diameter: 44 mm
Movement: Valjoux Cal. 55 VBR handwound


GMT Master ref. 1675 “Apocalypse Now” 

Marlon Brandon on the set of Apocalypse Now wearing his Rolex GMT-Master, ref. 1675
Marlon Brandon on the set of Apocalypse Now wearing his Rolex GMT-Master, Ref. 1675

Marlon Brando wore this 1972 GMT Master as the renegade Col. Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s award-winning Vietnam war classic, “Apocalypse Now.” Either Brando or Coppola decided to remove the bezel from the watch, giving it a worn, somewhat crazed look—much like Brando’s character. An otherwise standard Ref. 1675 with a well-preserved matte dial, Brand’s watch—into which he hand-carved his name and which he wore on a black leather strap—hammered for an incredible $1.95 million at the Phillips Game Changers auction in 2019. 

Price: $1.95 million at Phillips in December 2019
Diameter: 39 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 1570 automatic


Paul Newman’s Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 116519

Paul Newman’s Cosmograph Daytona ref. 116519
Paul Newman’s Cosmograph Daytona ref. 116519

While this lot may not be a “Paul Newman” Daytona in the design sense, it’s most definitely a “Paul Newman” Daytona in the literal sense—while it lacks an “exotic” dial, it actually belonged to the famed actor and philanthropist. The final Cosmograph Daytona given to Newman by his wife, Joanne Woodward, in 2006, it’s also the only white gold reference he owned. Before he died in 2008, he took it to the track at Lime Rock and burned around the track in his Corvette GT1, the chronograph strapped firmly to his wrist. When it came up for auction in June of 2023, it hammered for an impressive $1,079,500. (Not the nearly $18 million that his ref. 6239 brought in 2017, perhaps, but still a respectable sum!)

Price: $1.07 million at Sotheby’s in 2023
Diameter: 40 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 4130


Submariner Ref. 6538 

Rolex Submariner ref. 6538 
Rolex Submariner ref. 6538

Though it barely crested the $1 million mark, this Ref. 6538 is notable for being the most expensive Submariner ever sold, hammering for $1.06 million during a Christie’s auction back in 2018. What makes it so special—especially considering it’s missing its famous bezel—you might ask? Well for starters, it features an “Explorer” dial, which is fairly rare in early Subs in and of itself. Secondly, it’s a “Big Crown” model, so called for its 8mm “Brevet” crown that was used on just a few references in the late 1950s. Third, it’s got the ever-desirable red depth rating, which Rolex aficionados love to obsess over—and to pay lots of money for. Add to this excellent patina, an “honest” dial, and the reference’s association with Sean Connery’s James Bond, you’ve got a recipe for one hell of an auction standout.

Price: $1.06 million at Christie’s in 2018
Diameter: 38 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 1030


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6264 “John Player Special” 

Sotheby's Rolex Daytona "John Player Special" Ref. 6264
Sotheby’s Rolex Daytona “John Player Special” Ref. 6264

Now here’s a watch that broke several records at once: the most expensive watch ever sold at an online auction ($1.54 million); the record price for a “John Player Special” Daytona (so named for its black and gold livery); and the record price for a watch sold in the UK. Auctioned online in July 2020 during the spread of COVID-19, this “JPS” is one of only ten Ref. 6264 Daytonas known to exist in 18k gold, and of these, only a small handful were outfitted with exotic Paul Newman dials in black. 

Price: $1.54 million in July 2020 at Sotheby’s
Diameter: 37 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 727 handwound


Submariner Ref. 6538

Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538
Rolex Submariner Ref. 6538

Though it barely crested the $1 million mark, this Ref. 6538 is notable for being the most expensive Submariner ever sold, hammering for $1.06 million during a Christie’s auction back in 2018. What makes it so special—especially considering it’s missing its famous bezel—you might ask? Well for starters, it features an “Explorer” dial, which is fairly rare in early Subs in and of itself. Secondly, it’s a “Big Crown” model, so called for its 8mm “Brevet” crown that was used on just a few references in the late 1950s. Third, it’s got the ever-desirable red depth rating, which Rolex aficionados love to obsess over—and to pay lots of money for. Add to this excellent patina, an “honest” dial, and the reference’s association with Sean Connery’s James Bond, you’ve got a recipe for one hell of an auction standout.

Price: $1.06 million at Christie’s in 2018
Diameter: 38 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 1030


Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6263 “Albino” 

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6263 "Albino"
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref. 6263 “Albino”

Purchased by none other than Eric Clapton in the late 1990s, this 6263 is unique for featuring an all-white dial (Daytona subdials are typically rendered in contrasting colors to the main dial). Only four examples of this particular configuration are known to exist, and Slowhand’s actually sold twice: once in 2003 for $505,000, and finally in 2015, for $1.4 million. A similar reference 6263 in an Oyster case with a standard dial might run you somewhere in the $80,000 range, but add in Claptonian provenance and a rare factory dial, and you’ve got a recipe for greatness.

Price: $1.4 million at Phillips in May 2015
Diameter: 37.5 mm
Movement: Valjoux cal. 727 handwound


Day-Date Ref. 1803 “Jack Nicklaus” 

Jack-Nicklaus’ Yellow-Gold Day-Date-Ref. 1803
Jack Nicklaus’ Yellow-Gold Day-Date Ref. 1803

The story of this gold 1803 is special in part because it was Rolex itself that gifted the watch to golfer Jack Nicklaus back in 1967. As the Golden Bear himself said: “It has accompanied me at U.S. Opens, Masters Tournaments, PGA Championships, Open Championships and countless other events for over five decades, and has served me well at every step along the way.” Phillips auctioned off this otherwise fairly common Day-Date in December, 2019, which realized a final price of $1.22 million. Fittingly, all of the watch’s proceeds went to Nicklaus’s own Children’s Health Care Foundation.

Price: $1.22 million at Phillips in December 2019
Diameter: 36 mm
Movement: Rolex cal. 1556 automatic

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