The final stretch of watch auctions of 2019 are taking place next week in New York City, with all the major houses taking part. First up will be Phillips, with the much-talked-about Game Changers auction. The reason that sale is getting so much attention is because of two star lots, a Rolex Day-Date belonging to golf legend Jack Nicklaus and a Rolex GMT-Master worn by Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. But if you stopped perusing the Game Changers catalog there, you’d be missing out. There are a ton of interesting watches that offer a nice overview of where watchmaking’s been, where it’s going, and the state of collecting today. Here are five odd-ball lots that tell us a lot more than you’d think at first glance.
LeCoultre ‘Lucky 13’ Watch For Astronaut John Glenn
No, your eyes aren’t playing tricks on you: all 12 hours are marked here with the number “13.” In the 1940s, a club called the Anti-Superstition Society of Chicago, focused on – you guessed it – dispelling superstitions was founded. Their meetings were all on Friday the 13th, they opened umbrellas indoors, and so on. During a special meeting held on April 13, 1962, they presented astronaut John Glenn with this special watch just two months after he became the first American to orbit the Earth. The capsule in which he achieved this feat was capsule number 13, so the tribute was even more fitting.
The watch itself is a unique piece created by LeCoultre, the American arm of Jaeger-LeCoultre through the middle of the twentieth century. In fact, only the movement is of Swiss origin. Everything else, from the 10k-gold-filled case to the gold-tone Speidel bracelet, and even the custom silver-finish dial, was made right here in the U.S. of A. The watch is engraved to Glenn on the back and it was purchased by the current consignor at Glenn’s estate sale in 2018 (which you can read more about here).
This watch is Lot 13 and carries an estimate of $20,000-40,000.
A Factory Sealed Patek Philippe Ref. 5950A
Now we’re getting into real die-hard collecting territory, people. On its own, this watch would be plenty impressive. The ref. 5950A was introduced in 2010 and is a monopusher split-seconds chronograph with a cushion-shaped case made of stainless steel. Weird, right? Patek Philippe very rarely makes complicated watches in steel, and to do something this ornate, this over-the-top in the humble metal was, and continues to be, a big deal. The scrolling detail on the dial is taken from a piece in the Patek Museum, and it’s fair to say there’s no other watch on the market quite like this. Additionally, they were only produced on application, so you had to be a top-tier Patek Philippe client in good graces to get one, even if you could afford it.
What makes this watch truly over-the-top though is that it’s still factory sealed. There are actually two seals on every new Patek – a piece of blue “Quality Control” tape over the bottom of the box and then the plastic pouch containing the watch itself. This watch is still in its original pouch but the piece of tape has been broken. That makes this watch a “single-sealed” watch instead of a “double-sealed” watch. These watches command a huge premium from collectors, and in a move to suppress people flipping pieces like this, Patek actually banned its authorize retailers from selling sealed watches back in 2017. That makes pieces like this even rarer than they used to be.
This watch is Lot 7 and carries an estimate of $160,000-320,000.
Rolex Big Crown Submariner Ref. 6538
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but this watch is only going to be the second most expensive bezel-less Rolex sport watch sold at Phillips next week. The Brando GMT is sure to outdo it, but this watch is still plenty fascinating. Back in June 2018 a bezel-less ref. 6538 with an Explorer dial sold for over $1,000,000 at Christie’s New York, making it the most expensive Submariner ever sold at auction. At the time, that achievement seemed like a bit of an isolated incident, a result of the watch in question having an exceptionally rare dial variant that almost never surfaces for sale. But here we are, 18 months later, in a similar situation.
The watch that we have here isn’t quite as rare, but it’s pretty darn close. This 6538 is a four-line variant and everything on the dial appears to be correct and original, down to the white seconds hand. (If you need to brush up on your Subs, check out Reference Points: Understanding The Rolex Submariner right here.) The reason the watch is in rough shape is an interesting story itself. The father of the consignor actually found the watch while diving in the Niagara River in the mid 1970s, took it home, and, thinking it was fake, stuck it in a drawer. When he passed away, the family had the watch looked at and realize what they had on their hands. It was tuned up and here we are. It’s kind of the perfect story for a watch like this, isn’t it?
This watch is Lot 56 and carries an estimate of $80,000-160,000.
Extremely Early Omega Wrist Chronograph
When you think of collectable Omega chronographs, it’s almost certainly the Speedmaster that comes to mind first. But the brand has been making chronographs for well over 100 years, and the watch we have here is one of the very first wrist-worn chronographs the firm ever produced. Dating back to 1924, this yellow-gold watch is basically a small pocket watch on a strap. It measures 45mm across and has slim wire lugs at the top and bottom of the case. Interestingly, the button for the monopusher chronograph is at six o’clock, right between the lugs. The enamel dial is absolutely stunning, with black, blue, and red scales, and everything from the hands to the strap are believed to be original to the watch. This is real time capsule stuff.
Known as the KOT 741, this is one of the rarest Omega chronographs ever produced. However, in 2018, Omega used the watch as inspiration for a throw-back limited edition called the First Omega Wrist-Chronograph Limited Edition. A total of 18 pieces were made in white-gold cases with Sedna Gold accents, all using new-old-stock movements from the early twentieth century. Now you’ve got a chance to own the original.
This watch is Lot 26 and carries an estimate of $30,000-60,000.
Urwerk Atomic Mechanical Control
If you followed our Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève coverage at all this year, you probably know what this is. The Atomic Mechanical Control, or “AMC” for short, is Urwerk’s take on a crazy horological concept invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet himself: the Sympathique. As Breguet conceived it, this was a combination clock and pocketwatch set, in which the pocket watch could be docked in the clock, and then each night at midnight the more accurate clock would mechanically adjust the watch to match it. When you think about the brainpower, creativity, and engineering chops that it would have taken to bring that to life in the eighteenth century, it’s nothing short of staggering.
But, as I said, the AMC brings this concept into the present (or the future, even). The watch is now a wristwatch and the clock an atomic clock. Because of course, right? You just eject the mechanical wristwatch from its strap system, dock it into the atomic clock unit, and the atomic clock mechanically sets the watch perfectly. If you’re a precision nut, this is catnip. The AMC was first announced back in 2018 and Jack gave us his take on it here, but this set is engraved “001” and is one of just three sets that will be produced. This is seriously innovative stuff and I find it really exciting that people are still pushing the boundaries of timekeeping like this as we head into 2020.
This watch is Lot 8 and carries an estimate of $1,000,000-2,000,000.