Rolex 6263lemon 4.jpg?ixlib=rails 1.1 Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Rolex 6263Lemon 4

The Paul Newman Daytona, owned by Paul Newman, and given by him to his daughter’s boyfriend, has been called overhyped, and there is no denying that the accusation is essentially correct – in fact, you could say that for the PNPND (so I’ll call the Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona, for the sake of brevity) being overhyped is essential for it to be what it is. Without the hype, what you have, after all, is a somewhat quirky take on a mass-produced, mid-century sports watch, with slightly offbeat aesthetics, good quality construction given the manufacturing technology available at the time, and a reliable if ubiquitous chronograph movement, of interest (in terms of horological history) for what it represents in the evolution of timekeeping technology. Without the hype, in other words, you have a watch that is difficult to distinguish in every major respect from many, many other wristwatches of its time – hundreds of thousands of them, in fact, and of course, none of them stand a snowball’s chance in hell of auctioning for even $170,000, let alone $17 million.

Paul Newman Daytona Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp 3H0A5481 copy 2

All this is fairly obvious; as anyone who is seriously involved in collecting vintage watches as a hobby probably knows, the PNPND was something of a perfect storm. It’s the ancestor to, and originator of, what is to those who don’t share it, an inexplicable passion for a particular Rolex model. But it’s also a watch with a connection to a major figure in American arts (Paul Newman, after all, was hardly a garden-variety Hollywood pretty boy, although he could certainly step into those shoes if the role demanded it) and in its own right, a piece of Americana; if you were a collector of anything from watches to Hollywood memorabilia to Paul Newman ephemera, you were probably going to take at least a passing interest in the watch. 

Whether or not the actual design of exotic dial Daytonas has anything to do, even in the slightest, with the high prices paid for them, depends on who you ask; I struggle to see anything more than happenstance quirkiness in them, but people whose taste I respect a great deal (some of whom, more relevantly, have taste that is widely respected and used as a benchmark for defining quality in watch design, and for other watch collectors) have said, and written, with a straight face, that it’s “one of the most beautiful watches of all time.” (If it could read, the Daniels Space Traveller would probably go white to its bow, rush to the mirror, and, like the queen in Snow White, demand who the fairest of them all really is.) 

The whole thing raises two questions, which form the center of most of the conversation about not only the PNPND, but also the seemingly endless drumbeat of record-setting prices in watch auctions in general. The first is, “Is it worth it?” and the second is, “Is it bad for watch collecting?”

Rolex Reference 6200 Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp 6200

Rolex Submariner Reference 6200.

Let’s look at the second question first. Fairly regularly, when a watch some of us think of as utterly unprepossessing sells for an eyebrow raising sum of money, the assertion is made – the words vary but the basic substance is the same – that it’s “ruining the hobby.” A recent example was the “barn find” Speedmaster we covered earlier this month, but there are any number of other examples. It seems to mostly have passed unnoticed that in the same Phillips auction in which the PNPND set its record, a Rolex Submariner reference 6200 (a first year Sub) sold for $579,000. I’m not sure that this isn’t at least as insane as paying $17 million for the PNPND, assuming you think this sort of thing is insane in the first place. 

Now, is this bad for watch collecting? Maybe so. Prices for both new and vintage watches of good quality, and from blue-chip names like Rolex and Patek Philippe, seem on an endless upward trend. Even ten or fifteen years ago, good vintage watches weren’t exactly cheap, but the enormous sums of money flowing into vintage watch collecting have, it’s true, changed the game. When I first got interested in watches, the watch magazines, such as they were, were on newsstands along with the model railroading, doll collecting, and stamp collecting magazines. Things have obviously changed dramatically since then.

Aurel Bacs Phillips Paul Newman Auction Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp 3H0A5752

Aurel Bacs during the bidding war for Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona.

The general incredible increase in the auction prices – and not just records, but auction prices in general – for the most collectible models are indeed bad if you’re not a wealthy individual, and what were affordable collectibles ten years ago, have become unachievable for many of us. (Of course, if you’re selling those models and got them ten to twenty years ago, it’s the best thing that ever happened to watch collecting.) I don’t know that it’s necessarily good or bad in any absolute sense, but it has fundamentally changed the nature of watch collecting, and what was once a somewhat quirky, slightly inexplicable, occasionally expensive but basically low-visibility hobby has become, to some extent, a high-stakes media circus. Like most circuses, it’s great for the ringmasters, with decreasing benefits the further you go down the chain of authority, and I can’t blame people who used to be able to afford a rarer Speedmaster or Sub from being both irritated and annoyed at being priced out of the game – and resenting the individuals and institutions whom they deem responsible.

The other question – is it worth it? – has two answers. The first of course, is “no.” The price paid for the PNPND is indefensible by any sensible measure; it is out of any plausible – never mind logical – relationship to either the design intelligence behind, or quality of craft of, or ingenuity contained within, the PNPND or any other Daytona. The second answer, however, is “yes” and that is because by definition, the worth of something is what someone is willing to pay for it – or in this case, and more relevantly, for not just the object, but what it represents. We’ve already talked about what the PNPND and Daytonas in general, represent beyond the basic physical and design characteristics, of the watches – the PNPND especially is valuable largely not for what it is, but for what it symbolizes.

Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp daytona

The 2013 Rolex Daytona sale at Christie’s changed the game for vintage collectors – or did it?

It’s true that you can argue this for just about any expensive non-essential luxury – the social signaling and status value of luxury goods can represent anything from some, to almost 100% of what you can ask in any given market. You are by definition paying for symbolic value rather than utility. With mechanical watches you have the amusing situation of seeing symbolic value sometimes strongly associated with utility: my watch can resist magnetic fields you only find in particle accelerators or MRI machines: thus, I’m a walking symbol of no-nonsense toughness and technical superiority. However with collectibles, the situation is slightly different than with luxury goods in general – where it may be important for luxury goods to be in fact, at least slightly ubiquitous (it’s not much fun wearing a watch as a status item if no one recognizes it) in collecting, the less ubiquitous something is, the better: rarity rules.

In collecting art, the problem is relatively simple: there’s only one of anything to begin with (unless you are making multiples; multiple photographic prints, lithographs, multiple castings of a statue or what have you, in which case you had better stick to your promise about how many you are making if you don’t want value to be lost).  In collecting manufactured goods, however, it’s often the one-offs that command prices wildly in excess of the baseline.

British Guiana One Cent Magenta Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp Editorial: Price, Value, And The Strange Case Of The Nine Million Dollar Postage Stamp British Guiana 13

The British Guiana One-Cent Magenta, in the collection of Stuart Weitzman. (Image: Wikipedia)

As a case in point, I present for your consideration the British Guiana 1-Cent Magenta stamp. This stamp was produced in very limited numbers in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856 and only one is known to have survived down to the present day. In philatelic circles it is legendary, and has been for some time. Its history is well known, and by 1922 when it sold at auction for $36,000, it had already become one of the most sought after stamps of all time, having appeared at auction several times before. More recently, and more notoriously, it was in the collection of Du Pont heir and convicted murderer John E. du Pont, who paid $935,000 for it in 1980; du Pont died in prison at 72, and his estate put the stamp up for auction. On June 17, 2014, at a Sotheby’s New York auction, the stamp sold for $9,480,000 to shoe designer Stuart Weitzman.

Now, this is as unprepossessing-looking a piece of paper as you could ever hope to see. An exceptionally ugly shade of bruised purple (“magenta” is putting on airs if you ask me) it looks like nothing so much as a dried scab, trimmed – apparently with nail scissors – to the shape of a postage stamp. It is not artistic; it is not charming; it commemorates nothing other than itself. It looks, in a word, nasty. And yet in philatelic circles, this is the Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona (and by extension, every “honest” time-worn, battered, so-called tropical dial collectible watch ever spawned). To the non-philatelic eye it is merely a scrap of irregularly shaped paper, noticeably the worse for wear. But to the stamp collector, it has everything: history, rarity, exclusivity, an interesting back-story (somewhat lurid, but maybe so much the better) and a decades-long trail of gradually increasing value, which makes it – and which will continue to make it, should Weitzman ever decide to sell – catnip to any well-heeled philatelist.

The point here is that single examples of record-breaking results in collectibles, almost by definition have limited repercussions. When there is a bubble in the art auction market, it’s visible across a range of artists and works. The PNPND may be riding a bubble, but it’s not driving it, nor will it drive one. While it’s true that a single spectacular result can have some repercussions across lesser but related lots, it seems rash to conclude that such a result – which is inherently and intrinsically bound to the uniqueness of the record-breaker – will dramatically upset the existing market.