For the two weeks since Phillips announced that it would be selling a Rolex Submariner reference 5513 given by Steve McQueen to his stunt man Loren Janes, the watch world has been buzzing. It’s not uncommon for watches with rich provenance to come up at auction, to cause lots of excitement, and to hammer for big money. Last year we saw Paul Newman’s Paul Newman sell for $17.8 million at Phillips, breaking nearly every watch-related world record in its wake. Before that there was the Bao Dai, and long before that there was Steve McQueen’s other Rolex Submariner that sold for $234,000 in 2009.
But with those watches the stories were pretty straightforward. For provenance to matter, it needs to be reliable and everyone needs to be on the same page. With the Loren Janes Submariner though, a number of people have called the official Phillips story into question, most notably questioning the lineage of the watch on the block and whether or not Steve McQueen actually wore the watch himself for years before giving it to Janes. When there started to be smoke, we went looking for the fire. After lots of phone calls, emails, and text messages, it was looking like most of the commotion was nothing more than speculation.
However, after reaching out to Steve McQueen’s son Chad McQueen, our call was returned by a lawyer for the McQueen Estate who, in an official statement, said that the family disputes the provenance as stated. While not quite fire, that’s pretty darn close.
What We Know
Before we get into the controversy, let’s start with the story that Phillips is telling and that we shared with you on June 4 when news of this watch being auctioned first broke. According to this version of things, the watch in question was born in 1964 as a reference 5513, likely with a gilt two-line dial. The watch was supposedly purchased by Steve McQueen some time in the 1960s, worn by McQueen for years, and then gifted to Loren Janes some time in the 1970s. Janes was McQueen’s stuntman in 19 of McQueen’s 27 films. Janes was also a renowned Hollywood stuntman in other classics such as Beverly Hills Cop, Hook, and Robin Hood Men In Tights.
In 2016, a wild fire called the Sand Fire swept through Janes’s Los Angeles neighborhood, destroying his home. He lost all of his possessions, including his collection of memorabilia from his time in Hollywood. According to this Forbes article, collector Michael Eisenberg read about the fire and the destruction of Janes’s home in the L.A. Times and then reached out Janes’s family, urging them to look for the watch in the rubble (he likely heard about it in this 2011 story in the Wall Street Journal). You might remember Eisenberg from the HODINKEE Magazine Vol. 1 cover story, where he was one of pursuers of the Paul Newman Daytona prior to it being consigned to Phillips. Eisenberg is a well-known Hollywood memorabilia collector and is constantly on the hunt. At his behest, Janes’s daughter Erika did go back to the site of the fire to search for the watch in the ashes. By this account, she was successful. The watch was in rough shape (to put it lightly) and was promptly sent to Geary’s in Los Angeles and then on to Rolex for repair.
There are two letters that accompany the watch at Phillips. One from Loren Janes, dated February 22, 2017, confirming it as a gift from McQueen. Janes passed away from complications related to Alzheimer’s Disease just a few months later on June 24, 2017. The second letter is from Rolex, addressed to the Janes family, thanking them for submitting their father’s watch for restoration and expressing what an honor it was to service it.
As the watch exists today, it has a matte, four-line 5512 dial, despite being a 5513 from the mid-1960s. Clearly this is a replacement, but that’s only natural given the condition of the watch after the fire. The watch also has a new bezel (with the pearl intact), new hands, and a new bracelet, and it also received a thorough polishing. The watch is being sold with a period-correct 5513 dial and hand set that are not original so any future owner could switch them back should they so desire.
This is where things end, according to Phillips. But, as we mentioned, some people have raised concerns that this might not be the full story. So, what is?
What We Don’t Know
The two biggest questions seem to be: 1) Is the watch currently in the same state it was in when Rolex finished restoring it or has it been tampered with since? 2) Was this Steve McQueen’s watch that he later gifted to a friend or was this a watch purchased separately for Janes?
The letters from Janes and Rolex are used as two critical supporting documents for the provenance of the watch. However, neither seems fully reliable for confirming the full story. Rolex’s letter does not contain enough detail about the state of the watch to give us a true sense of what was done to it, and Janes’s letter was written only four months before he passed away due to Alzheimer’s complications.
In an attempt to answer the first question, we were able to gain access to the photographs provided to the Janes family by Rolex after the watch’s restoration. In them the watch looks very similar to the state it’s in today, though we cannot tell for certain due to the quality of the photos. These photographs are not published here because we do not have the rights to do so, however in our estimation they confirm that the watch is being sold in the condition it was in upon leaving the Rolex Service Center.
We don’t know exactly what year the watch was gifted to Janes or if McQueen ever wore this watch prior to giving it to him. Given the timeline of events that Phillips provides, with the watch dating to years before it was given to Janes, it would only make sense that it lived some kind of life with McQueen. But without an independent confirmation of these dates in some kind of sales record or photographic evidence, it’s impossible to know for sure.
Jake Ehrlich has also been investigating the situation at his blog Jake’s Rolex World. In addition to contacting the auction house, consignor, and McQueen family, Ehrlich also reached out to a number of people in the Hollywood stunt community to try to verify whether or not McQueen and Janes worked together on particular films in order to solidify a timeline of their friendship. At the time, many of the stunt roles were uncredited, making this harder to pin down than you’d think. What is clear, regardless of the exact timeline, is that Janes and McQueen did work together and did know one another quite well.
To be honest, at this point we don’t know what the full story is. Through our investigating we have come up against a number of key players who do not want to provide any additional information to what is already out there.
We have reached out to Phillips for comment, and various representatives of the company have either declined to comment or not responded to our requests. We have also made attempts to contact Eisenberg, who has not returned our calls. Additionally, Rolex has not responded to any requests for comment or clarification, though that’s not surprising at all.
The only person who has responded clearly is the lawyer for the McQueen Estate, who sent us this official statement: “The McQueen estate disputes the provenance attributed to the Submariner Rolex watch we understand will be offered for sale by Phillips.” We asked for further clarification and were told that this is all they would like to say on the matter for now.
So where does this leave us?
It seems like the watch was almost certainly a gift from McQueen to Janes and that the watch was restored to its current state by Rolex after it miraculously survived a house fire in 2016. However, there is no proof that Steve McQueen himself ever wore this watch, which is a major part of its supposed allure. The McQueen Estate contesting the provenance adds to feelings of unease here, though without knowing their particular complaints we cannot draw any final conclusions or even know what exactly they are contesting about the watch’s history.
Stay tuned, as we will continue to pursue this story and will update you as we learn more. This story is surely not over yet.
Photo (Top): Courtesy Phillips