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How much would you pay for a watch? What if it was the only one of its kind, or a record-breaker in terms of complications, or once owned by someone famous or historically significant? And just how expensive are the most expensive watches to ever change hands in a sale? In today's red-hot watch auction market, the answers, and the sums, may surprise you. Here we run down the list of the top 25 watches in descending order of the price they fetched on the auction block, while spotlighting some of the timepieces with the most fascinating backstories and representing the most impressive technical achievements. You'll find the expected abundance of watches from Patek Philippe and Rolex (the clear leaders in the category) but also a few from other watchmakers, large and small, who've recently broken into the upper echelon. At the end, we'll spotlight the highest selling watches from a few other brands that didn't crack the top 25 but maintain a robust presence on the watch auction scene.
Patek Philippe unveiled the first Grandmaster Chime watch in 2014 as part of the many celebrations around the Genevan maison’s 175the anniversary. The reference that made history at the Only Watch auction in Geneva in 2019 was a unique piece, the only Grandmaster Chime ever crafted in stainless steel; the Grandmaster Chime models in Patek’s regular collection are all made in precious metals. The watch is the most complicated Patek Philippe wristwatch ever made (distinguishing it from the maker’s most complicated pocket watch, as detailed below), with 20 complications, displayed on two dials, one ebony black, the other salmon, for each side of the swiveling, reversible case with its elaborate hobnail guilloché-patterned sides. Among the cornucopia of complications are two patented world-premieres — an acoustic alarm that chimes at a pre-programmed time and a date repeater that can strike the date on demand — along with a Grande and Petite Sonnerie, moon-phases, and a perpetual calendar. In the tradition of the biennial Only Watch auction, proceeds from the staggering, record-breaking hammer price of $31 million went toward research into a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.
Henry Graves, Jr., was a New York banker and avid watch collector who, legend has it, was engaged in a competition with fellow tycoon James Ward Packard (of Packard Motors) to become the owner of the world’s most complicated watch. In 1933, the timepiece that Graves commissioned from Patek Philippe, aptly named the Henry Graves Supercomplication, earned that distinction with its 24 complications, blowing away the 10 complications of the watch Patek had made for Packard in 1927. The array of horological functions built into the unique, gold pocket watch include Westminster chimes, perpetual calendar, sunrise and sunset times, and a celestial map of New York as seen from Graves's Fifth Avenue apartment. After Graves died in 1953, the watch changed hands several times throughout the years, and was auctioned for the first time by Sotheby’s in 1999, bought for a then-record price of $11,002,500 by Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al Thani of the Qatar Royal Family. After his death, the watch was auctioned again by Sotheby’s in 2014, sold to an anonymous buyer and breaking another record.
Legendary actor and motorsports enthusiast Paul Newman famously wore a very particular and rare Rolex Daytona wristwatch (Ref. 6239), during his successful racing career, and examples of that watch, which has been nicknamed the ‘Paul Newman Daytona,” have been among the most valuable timepieces on the secondary market. Thus it was little surprise that the “Paul Newman” actually owned by Paul Newman made such an earth-shaking impact when it went on the block in New York on October 26, 2017. The 37mm-diameter stainless steel chronograph, with its telltale off-white dial, contrasting black subdials and minute track, and engraved tachymeter-scale bezel, was a gift to Newman from his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, its caseback engraved with the affectionate note of caution, “Drive Carefully - Me,” a reference to the beginning of Newman’s racing career around that time. Acquired in 1968, the watch had been kept within the Newman family for nearly 50 years before consigned for auction. At $17.75 million, the model remains the most expensive Rolex watch ever sold.
This perpetual calendar chronograph from Patek Philippe briefly held the title for most expensive watch sold at auction when it went for 9.6 million Swiss francs at a Phillips Auction in Geneva in 2016. Dating to 1941, it is significant in several respects: the reference is the first wristwatch with both a perpetual calendar and chronograph, and it is one of only four total models made in steel — a complicated watch of any kind being an extreme rarity during the World War II years, when most steel was earmarked for the war effort. The 35mm case houses an extensively modified Valjoux caliber with exquisite Patek finishing.
Another Patek Philippe reference with perpetual calendar and chronograph functions and a noteworthy provenance, this timepiece with a 35mm rose-gold case belonged to Prince Mohammed Tewfik A. Toussou of Egypt. The Prince, who acquired the watch in 1951, was a direct descendant of Muhammad Ali, the founder of modern Egypt. The watch was believed to be one of only about 340 pieces that Patek made, and released in 1941. This version, with its copper-pink dial, is even rarer, with only 14 known to exist. The Prince’s heirs consigned it to Sotheby’s in 2021 after his death in April of that year, and it sold for more than $9.5 million at a December 2021 auction in New York.
Dating back to 1953, this extremely rare Patek (only seven pieces were made) went on the block at Christie’s in Hong Kong in 2019. Endowed with a world-time function designed by legendary watchmaker Louis Cottier, it has a rose-gold case and blue enamel dial and it’s the only known example of this reference to bear the signature of both Patek Philippe and the prestigious Milan retailer Gobbi. Its silvered outer ring hosts the engraved, enameled names of 40 world cities and encircles a two-tone 24-hour ring divided into gray (nighttime) and white (daytime).
Another Patek Philippe world timer, this model that sold for $7.8 million in Geneva in 2021 set the record price for a watch with a “Heuer Universelle” world-time function and simultaneously became the highest-selling watch ever in a yellow-gold case. Nicknamed “The Silk Road,” this reference is noteworthy for its cloisonne dial depicting Eurasia.
Selling for more than $7 million at the Only Watch Geneva in 2015, this steel-cased Patek Philippe combines three elite horological complications: a minute repeater, a tourbillon, and a perpetual calendar with moon-phase. Driven by a 506-part manually wound movement, the watch also features a retrograde date hand that flies back to the beginning of the next month after every 28, 29, 30, or 31 days. Mounted on a dark blue alligator strap, this watch is also desirable for its understated size — just under 37mm in diameter despite its ultra-complex inner mechanism.
Patek Philippe announced it was discontinuing its megapopular Nautilus model (Ref. 5711), kicking off a frenzied panic among that watch’s wannabe owners and in effect making the existing examples of it even more unobtainable than before. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, Patek gave the Nautilus a memorable curtain call in late 2021, producing a limited run of models that would be retailed exclusively through Tiffany & Co., the watchmaker’s longtime U.S. retail partner, and bore an eye-catching Tiffany Blue dial. Out of the 170 pieces, all inscribed with a special 170th anniversary inscription on the caseback and quickly snapped up by Patek’s most devoted, connected, and deep-pocketed patrons, one single piece was put up for auction in December 2021 and acquired for $6.5 million by longtime Patek collector Zach Lu. Proceeds from the sale at Phillips’ New York HQ went to the Nature Conservancy.
Holding the record for second-highest price fetched at the biennial Only Watch charitable auction (the first was the Patek Philippe steel Ref. 5016A mentioned above), this one-of-a-kind timepiece is the first and only model of the Ref. 5208 “Triple Complication” to be made with a titanium case. The watch’s three complications, powered by the R CH 27 PS QI movement, include a minute repeater, a monopusher chronograph, and an instantaneous perpetual calendar. Patek also went above and beyond the call for the movement decoration in this piece, adding a black rhodium finish on the bridges and a guilloche treatment on the platinum rotor.
Claiming the title for the second-most expensive Rolex ever sold publicly, behind only the iconic Paul Newman-owned Daytona, is this white-gold Cosmograph Daytona model, the only known one of its kind, hence its nickname, “Unicorn.” Made circa 1970, the watch is also notable and collectible due to its bark-pattern bracelet, also made of white gold. During the era from which this watch emerged, Rolex was known to use only steel and yellow gold for the Daytona, so the discovery of a white gold model was destined to generate heat in the collectors’ market, and this watch did not disappoint. Inside its 37mm Oyster case is the manually wound Caliber 727, with 17 jewels.
Sold at Christie’s in 2010 and still holding its spot in the top 25, this exceedingly rare perpetual calendar chronograph with a yellow-gold tonneau case more than doubled its pre-auction estimate. Its matte silver dial features applied Arabic numerals, a tachymeter scale, and three subdials for chronograph minutes, running seconds, date, and moon-phases. Its movement is stamped with the prestigious Geneva Seal, attesting to its elite level of finishing as well as its chronometric performance.
This timepiece, dating to 1953, is one of only four of these two-crown world timers ever made with a guilloche dial and a rose-gold case. (One of the others resides in Patek’s museum in Geneva.)
A few years after the record-breaking sale of Paul Newman’s Ref. 6239 Daytona, another watch owned and worn by the actor/racing driver went up for auction, consigned by its owner, Newman’s daughter Clea Newman Soderland. The so-called “Big Red” Daytona, purchased by Joanne Woodward in 1983 and worn by her husband until his death 2008, got its nickname from the red-script “Daytona” over the subdial at 6 o’clock, one of three white registers on the black dial. The stainless steel case was notable for its screw-down chronograph pushers, which Newman was known to have frequently left unscrewed so he could quickly use the stopwatch to time racing laps. The “Drive Carefully - Joanne” inscription on the caseback attests to Woodward’s continuing concern for the blue-eyed actor’s safety on the racetrack.
Swiss watchmaker Philippe Dufour, creator of the first Sonnerie wristwatch and the first dual-escapement wristwatch, is independent watchmaking royalty, and the timepieces under his personal brand are known to fetch enormous sums at auction. The world record for most expensive watch from an independent maker ever sold belongs to Dufour’s Grande et Petit Sonnerie No. 1 wristwatch in a yellow gold case. The watch, made in 1992 and boasting a lavishly finished movement, is a marvel of miniaturization, incorporating a complex chiming mechanism that strikes the hours and quarter hours independently, rather than on demand as in a minute repeater; the striking mechanism can be set by sliding levers in the 41mm case. The grand feu enamel dial, with its Roman numerals and small seconds sundial, is classically elegant.
Looking ahead to the big 50th anniversary year for its emblematic Royal Oak collection, Audemars Piguet launched a partnership with entertainment giant Marvel to produce a series of high-end timepieces, the first of which was this unique piece in white gold. (250 additional pieces were made in titanium.) The large, sculptural Royal Oak Concept case sports a hand-engraved motif inspired by the fictional African nation of Wakanda and a hand-painted 3D figure of that nation’s ruler, Marvel’s Black Panther character, aka Price T’Challa, poised on the dial above the flying tourbillon. The piece was sold not at an auction house but at a 2021 celebrity event hosted by comedian Kevin Hart, with star athletes and vocal AP ambassadors LeBron James and Serena Williams in attendance.
When we think of valuable Rolexes, we usually think of the brand’s coveted sport watches like the Daytona and Submariner, but one of the most expensive Rolex watches ever sold at auction was this classically elegant 36mm yellow-gold model, the only vintage Rolex of its kind to feature a moon-phase as well as a triple calendar (day, date, and month indication) on its dial. It derives its name from its most famous owner, Prince Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy, better known as “Bảo Đại” (translated as “Preserver of Greatness”), the 13th and last Vietnamese emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty, which ruled from 1802 to 1945. In 1954, shortly before he was ousted from power, he bought the watch in Geneva while attending the international conference that would result in the division of Vietnam. First auctioned in 2002 for $232,000, and again in 2017 for $5.06 million, the Bao Dai held the title of most expensive Rolex watch in the world until it was eclipsed by the Paul Newman references we visited above.
Francois-Paul Journe teamed up with legendary Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola to conceptualize and produce this unique piece that took center stage at the 2021 Only Watch auction and subsequently became the highest-selling F.P. Journe watch in the indie brand’s nearly 25 years of existence. The unusual dial of the tantalum-cased FFC Blue is, dominated by a large blue glove whose fingers are cleverly deployed to display the hour while a pointer at the tip of the glove indicates the minute on a perpetually rotating minute track. At 1 o’clock, all the fingers are closed in a fist except for the pointing index finger, for example; the index finger and middle finger are both pointing at 2 o’clock, and so on until 5 o’clock when all five digits are in evidence, the next cycle begins with a single thumb at 6 o’clock and different combinations of thumb and fingers. To reference the most famous line from Coppola’s most famous film, this unusual and totally unique time display was an offer that at least one buyer couldn’t refuse.
The oldest timepiece in the top 25 most expensive watches sold at auction is a rare pocket watch made circa 1814 by Abraham-Louis Breguet, the legendary inventor of the tourbillon escapement and one of history’s most influential watchmakers. The case is made of yellow gold and engraved with a unique, distinguishing number. The engine-turned dial hosts a minute track and subdials with Arabic and Roman numerals, one with yellow-gold hands, the other with blued hands, one for local time and one for mean time, and a small central sundial for the seconds. The gilded brass movement inside the 63.7mm case is actually made up of two independent mechanisms, both with their own barrels, a remarkable horological feat at the time, along with pare-chute suspension and blued Breguet free-sprung balance springs.
Offered in the same 2021 Phillips auction as the Philippe Dufour piece spotlighted above, this Omega reference shattered the record for the most expensive Speedmaster ever sold (and the most expensive Omega, period). The 1957 model, with its brown “tropical” dial, classical “Broad Arrow” hands, and manually wound Caliber 321 movement blew past its $80,000-$120,000 estimate to sell for more than $3.5 million, demonstrating the growing popularity of the “pre-Moonwatch” versions of the Speedy. Distinguishing this generation of Speedmasters, launched in the model’s very first year, are the plain metal bezel (sans black insert or tachymeter scale) and the oval “O” in the Omega logo.
In its more than 275 years in operation, Vacheron Constantin has made timepieces for crowned heads throughout history, including King Fuad I of Egypt, the first Egyptian monarch in the modern history of the middle eastern nation since it was granted independence by Great Britain in 1922. This historically significant and immensely complicated 18k yellow gold pocket watch was presented to King Fuad in 1929 by the country's expatriate Swiss community. Among its array of complications are two striking functions powered by two gear trains, a grande and petite sonnerie with three gongs and two hammers, a split-seconds chronograph, and a perpetual calendar with moon-phase and age of the moon indication. Behind the caseback, with a French inscription that translates "To His Majesty King Fuad I Tribute from the Swiss Community of Egypt," the movement is equipped with two barrels accessed by a single keyless winding crown, one for the gear train, the other for the additional energy required by the striking mechanism.
The Heuer Monaco from 1969 (now retroactively known as the TAG Heuer Monaco) was one of the very first self-winding chronograph wristwatches and the first watch with a water-resistant square case, but it achieved its highest level of fame as the watch worn by Steve McQueen in the 1971 auto-racing movie Le Mans, becoming indelibly associated with the legendary actor and with motorsports. One of the only six Heuer Monaco watches worn during the filming of Le Mans went on the block in 2020, this particular piece being one worn by McQueen and gifted by him to Haig Alltounian, chief mechanic for the film and McQueen's own personal mechanic. Speaking to the watch's provenance is the personalized engraving on its caseback, "TO HAIG LE MANS 1970."
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