Credit: Anwar Hussein/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Rolex believed to have belonged to Steve McQueen up for auction
A stainless steel Rolex Submariner said to have been owned and worn by actor Steve McQueen might set records when it comes up for auction this fall, despite the fact that the timepiece's history is somewhat murky -- although that hasn't deterred deep-pocketed collectors from paying eye-popping prices in the past.
The Submariner, a 5513 model made around 1965, was formerly owned by Loren Janes, one of McQueen's longtime Hollywood stunt doubles, and is engraved with the words "Loren, the best damn stuntman in the world. Steve."
Pre-sale estimate puts it at $300,000--$600,000, which would be a relative bargain if provenance could be proved. And it must be noted that the same auction house sold Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona, estimated at only $1 million, for an astonishing $17.8 million last fall; designer Ralph Lauren is among those rumored to have placed bids. The world record for a Submariner, designed as a diving watch and fairly inexpensive when it first came out, was set by Christie's in June and stands at $1 million.
McQueen is said to have given the watch to Janes sometime in the 1970s after wearing it himself, but since both parties are now deceased this has proven difficult to verify. A letter about the watch purportedly penned by Janes before his death last summer, stating that McQueen gave it to him with the engraving, turns out to have been written by his daughter and contains some inaccuracies. Auctioneer Phillips Watches wouldn't comment for this article or provide any further information, while the McQueen estate has said that it "disputes" the watch's provenance, without providing specifics.
McQueen aside, the Submariner in question has an incredible backstory -- Janes' house was destroyed in the massive wildfire that devastated Los Angeles in 2016, and the watch was initially lost in the scorched wreckage. An enterprising Rolex and memorabilia collector urged Janes' family to literally dig through the rubble and find it, and then guided the almost obliterated timepiece's restoration, purchasing it from the family in the process. And though some important parts including the dial were replaced during the Submariner's refurbishment, the fact that it's still ticking is pretty impressive.
"Any watch with a connection to someone like Steve McQueen has the potential to break records, but with a Rolex it's almost guaranteed," Paul Altieri, one of the world's top Rolex collectors and founder of online luxury watch emporium Bob's Watches said in an email interview. "It may not get close to Paul Newman's Daytona but all it takes is one bidder with a bottomless bank account to make headlines. Every time we think that the collectable Rolex market has plateaued, it manages to attain new heights. As investments they've proven to be just as good as classic cars and modern art."
Still the top?
But is Rolex still relevant, especially after the Apple Watch outsold the entire Swiss watch industry in 2017? Reginald Brack, Director of market researcher NPD Group, notes that despite this and "a worldwide shortage of steel Rolex as a brand is doing better than ever." There is now a waiting list of more than a year for its most popular models such as the Daytona and GMT-Master, the value of which has steadily climbed, and in some markets like Dubai it's nearly impossible to purchase a new Rolex at any price.
Rolex's tight control of retailers and refusal to increase production has always helped maintain its exclusivity and aspirational appeal. Though official numbers are never released, the Swiss firm is said to sell about $4.5 to $5 billion worth of new watches a year, with billions of dollars more in pre-owned pieces are bought and sold as well. Meanwhile, the company has to wage a constant battle against a flood of knockoffs which are getting more convincing every year.
Altieri says the Submariner owes its status as the world's most desirable timepiece to devotees like McQueen and Sean Connery's James Bond, who famously wore one on-screen. He won't say for certain whether he plans to bid on the McQueen watch himself, though he notes the provenance issues wouldn't deter him from doing so. He does say he'll be watching the auction very closely, as the results might affect the value of his collection and comparable ones.