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The market for vintage mechanical wristwatches, which began in earnest in Europe in the 1990s, is not yet fully 30 years old but is maturing rapidly.

Increasingly, there is a substantial premium to be paid for those watches that are in original condition and have escaped the periodic refreshing that many ‘better kept’ watches have enjoyed.

In particular ‘tropical’ dials, those which have faded over time, are favoured over the gleaming black replacement dials that Rolex would provide whenever a watch was sent for service. These are the horological equivalent of the ‘barn find’ or the ‘oily rag’ classical car.

‘Grail’ watches

The sale of Clocks, Watches & Scientific Instruments held by Skinner (25% buyer’s premium) of Marlborough, Massachusetts, on April 6 included two such ‘grail’ pieces – both of them iconic Rolex tool watches.

Sold at $160,000 (£123,000) was a Daytona ref 6239 c.1968. The consignor recalls purchasing this watch – made famous by Paul Newman – in 1970 or 1971 following the sale of a car. He wasn’t able to afford the stainless steel bracelet (that was a later addition) but the watch was in a rare state of preservation with a softly aged dial with its complete lume plots intact.

The movement was also undisturbed: the case back was opened by Skinner for the first time since its manufacture date for authentication and to install a new case gasket. It was sold with box, papers and an original receipt for $235. The estimate was $80,000-120,000.


1958 Submariner ref 5508, an unserviced Rolex watch sold by Skinner for $42,500 (£32,700).

A ‘James Bond’ Submariner Ref 5508 was also another ‘never serviced, one-owner-since new’ watch – remarkable for a timekeeper that was dated to the case back 5508/III 1958. This ‘small crown’ model with Mercedes hands and pumpkin-coloured indices was the last of the Subs to carry the ‘100=300ft’ rating to the dial.

The hammer price this time was $42,500 (£32,700).