If ever there was a master of the three-word novel title it was the late Robert Ludlum. He may not have been a writer of Chekhovian depth or Tolstoyan sweep, but when it came to conjuring a sense of urgency and expectation from the definite article in front of two words he was hard to beat: The Scorpio Illusion, The Icarus Agenda, The Rhinemann Exchange and, of course, his trilogy of masterpieces, The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum.
But now the Ludlum laurels have a challenger – and he is not even a thriller writer. Aurel Bacs is the senior consultant for Phillips watch department and on May 12, at Geneva’s hotel La Réserve, he will preside over an auction he has named The Daytona Ultimatum: a sale of just 32 examples of Rolex’s signature chronograph, with a total pre-sale low estimate of about SFr13m (about £9.7m). Even if you are not interested in watches, you will probably have heard about the Rolex Daytona owned by Paul Newman that Bacs sold at Phillips in New York last autumn for $17.8m, a result that catapulted the Rolex oeuvre into the eight-figure territory more usually associated with works by Picasso and Matisse.
The Ultimatum is a different sort of sale. “Celebrity provenance played no part in the selection,” Bacs explains with unwonted understatement. This time his hyperbole is of an altogether different order, describing the event as the “smallest, most tightly curated themed sale ever”. He has worked with Daytona expert Pucci Papaleo to put together what he describes as the ultimate Daytona collection, hence the “ultimatum”. “Of hundreds of watches that were brought forward after the Newman sale, Papaleo only kept 32. It is as difficult to enter this sale as the 00 ranks at MI6,” Bacs jokes. “Papaleo applied the most stringent criteria, with condition as the top parameter: not lavishness, nor the fact that a watch is previously unseen.”
The majority of watches in this sale were made before the late 1980s, when Rolex introduced the self‑winding Zenith El Primero movement (which it replaced with an in-house self-winding movement in 2000). The automatic Daytona was a mainstream success but also the catalyst that made collectors’ pieces of the thitherto almost unsaleable handwound examples.
“These are watches that are truly the crown jewels of the Daytona collecting world. In most cases they have never been polished,” says Bacs, drawing a parallel with cars: “It is like a vintage Porsche sale at which many of the vehicles will not have even a thousand miles on the clock.” In other words, Bacs is positioning this as the sale for the purist, with watches set apart by tiny details that would escape the uninitiated eye. For instance, there is a yellow-gold Daytona (estimate about £37,485-£74,989) with a dial co-signed by Van Cleef & Arpels.
The watches have been given catchy names to highlight these distinguishing features. The Neanderthal (estimate in excess of £1.86m), for example, is presented as a sort of “missing link” in the history of the Daytona; another goes by the name of Gandalf (estimate about £75,000-£149,000), with a dial echoing the wizard’s white robe; while the Black Rose (estimate about £60,000-£119,000) is so called because of the colour (black instead of the usual red) of the word Daytona on top of one of the subdials – “Like the mythical black rose, its rarity cannot be overstated.” Indeed, the world of the Rolex Daytona is a maze of strange nomenclature: Panda (a c1969 stainless-steel version is estimated to fetch about £299,910-£599,819), Cherry Logo, Big Red, Panna and Patrizzi are just a few of the better-known pieces of jargon that Daytona geeks can come out with.
Bacs stresses the importance of what he calls scholarship: forensic knowledge of the philatelic details that make a watch worth six or seven figures, such as dates, production statistics, hallmarks, reference numbers, sub-supplier details, ink colours, typefaces and so on. So close is the attention paid by these “scholars” that even the angle of a serif at the top of a letter, invisible except when under a loupe, becomes a matter of extreme importance.
But all this scholarship is of little use unless one knows where the best watches are and can persuade their owners to put them up for auction. So it was that one day in early March a breathlessly excited Bacs called to tell me that he had secured the rarest of all Daytonas for this auction. I had thought that the one sold for $17.8m last year was the rarest, but apparently that was just the most expensive.
He started to tell me about a reference 6265, a screw-pusher, manual-wind Daytona that was made from the early 1970s until the late 1980s in steel or yellow gold; a “basic” example is worth around £50,000. “But this is a white-gold version [The Unicorn] and there is only one known to exist. It is going to be an earthquake,” he said, groping for appropriate similes. “It is like the White House selling its portrait of George Washington, and that is why it is estimated to sell above SFr3m [about £2.25m].” Bacs tells me the watch was made specially for a German customer in 1970 and has an unusual white-gold bracelet, but since I am used to auction hype I was not entirely convinced of the seismic nature of the news. I asked where it came from. “It is from John Goldberger’s collection.”
“The Goldberger Provenance”, as Ludlum might have put it, is something that makes all the difference. John Goldberger is the nom de plume of a highly respected horological author who some consider the world’s greatest collector of vintage wristwatches. He is certainly one of the most stylish: a tall, softly spoken Italian who looks like he was born wearing a Caraceni suit. He seeks beauty and rarity, and as well as important Rolexes he likes more recondite pieces; for example, he and I bonded over our mutual love of watches made by Cartier London during the 1960s and early 1970s. And it was during the 1970s as a teenager, following his art-collector parents around flea markets, that he started buying rare Pateks and Rolexes for little more than their gold weight.
Agreeing to talk exclusively to How To Spend It, Goldberger tells me why he is selling such a rare watch. A man of few words, he gives me just one: “Charity”. He has a habit of mumbling, especially when trying to downplay points such as the quality and value of his collection, which he tends to describe as “nice” – which is a bit like François Pinault saying he has one or two pretty pictures. When I asked Goldberger to explain his motive, he says, hurriedly, “Children Action is a good charity foundation – I’ve met its founder, Bernard Sabrier, and I like its projects. But everybody has to focus on the watch, which is very… nice. Forget the consigner. I am happy to sell it for charity and that is it.”
According to Bacs, Goldberger decided to give the proceeds to charity because he doesn’t want people to think he is profiting personally from his collecting. “I am not really a Daytona man,” says Goldberger, a little disingenuously. “I just love nice watches and now, with the knowledge on the internet and in books by Papaleo everybody is discovering the difference between references and periods, and prices are climbing a lot. There is a three- or four-year waiting list for new Daytonas, which makes this sale attractive to collectors.”
Speaking of the world’s super-rich Bacs says, “They can go to their bank at any time and withdraw three million, but there is only one day, May 12, when they have the chance to bring home this watch.” Bacs is the silver-tongued salesman par excellence and it is easy to get swept along by his highly infectious enthusiasm. Listening to him talk, my mind begins to fill with images of the world’s ultra-high-net-worth individuals battling it out next month in the civilised lakeside surroundings of La Réserve to possess this rare timepiece, and I am reminded of the title of a 1995 book by Ludlum: The Apocalypse Watch.