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Rolex Milisub Ref 5513 – £123,000 at Sterling Vault.

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Dials, bezels, hands and crowns were often replaced during Rolex servicing. So, there is a premium to be paid for watches that escaped regular episodes of restoration and replacement. The watch in good original condition is the rarity.

The auction at Sterling Vault (20% buyer’s premium) in Farnham, Surrey, on February 25 included a version of the uber-collectable Rolex military issue Submariner or Milisub.

Rolex supplied reference 5513 watches for British special forces throughout the 1970s, although over the course of the decade this numbered as few as 1200 units. Of these only a third are thought to have survived in original condition retaining ‘sword’ hands’ and what was a new style bezel calibrated to 0-60. The letter T within a circle to the dial denotes the presence of titanium.

The example here, made c.1974 with the MOD number, military broad arrow and a 1974 issue date to the case back, was considered ‘exceptionally good’ with all elements deemed original. It was sold with a Rolex service guarantee dated June 2008 and is accompanied by purchase receipt dated 2008 from a well-regarded London showroom.

Estimated at up to £80,000, it took £123,000 – a house record. Auctioneer Elliot Franks said the watch had made the vendor a 100% return on his investment across 12 years.

The first Rolex Submariner was introduced to the public in 1954 at the Basel Watch Fair. Among the earliest and rarest references is the 6536-1 released in 1955 and made for four years. This ‘transitional’ model has an unprotected 6mm crown and a gilt 100m depth rating (the ‘big crown’ version made famous by Sean Connery in Dr No has an 8mm crown and a 200m rating) and comes with Mercedes-style hands.

Hannam’s (23% buyer’s premium) offered one for sale in Selborne, Hampshire, on February 23 with a guide of £10,000-15,000. Helped by a private provenance (it came for sale from a south coast resident) and a ‘tropical’ dial (the hands, crystal and possibly the crown were later replacements), it took £22,000 from a Canadian buyer.

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Rolex Submariner ‘small crown’ Ref 6536-1 – £22,000 at Hannam’s.

Explorer discovery

Rolex Submariners with 3-6-9 Explorer dials, the so-called reference 5513, were produced in yet smaller numbers during the 1950s-60s. However, the example offered by Gardiner Houlgate (20% buyer’s premium) on February 24 was the 10th the Corsham auction house had sold since receiving wide publicity for a £160,000 result in 2016.

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Rolex Submariner with ‘underline’ Explorer dial – £60,000 at Gardiner Houlgate.

This latest offering – sold to a UK collector at £60,000 - was ‘rediscovered’ during a lockdown spring clean. “Our client found the opportunity to carry out a tidy of house and home,” said David Hare of Gardiner Houlgate. “On turning out a small family safe, they found this rare Rolex watch which had been forgotten about and had been there for some 30-35 years. The watch was a gift back in the 1980s from an elderly gentleman and his wife in recognition of kindness to them in their later years.”

The vendor had wisely chosen to reject an offer from a Rolex dealer online of £5000.

Dated to c.1963, it had all the trademarks of the reference: Mercedes hands with sweep centre seconds, pointed crown guards with screw-down crown and the 3-6-9 dial. For connoisseurs it is important to point out that this was a rare ‘underline’ variant. A horizontal underline appears below the words Oyster Perpetual.

Gardiner Houlgate has sold these watches for between £40,000-200,000, with dial condition paramount. “The dial gloss is so important,” said Hare. “This one was original but had a ‘crater’ spotted patina. I personally felt it looked great for a 60-year-old watch, but that’s the market.”

Paul Newman races ahead

In the still hot market for vintage mechanical ‘tool’ watches Rolex remains the brand against which all others are compared.

Rome saleroom Bertolami (26% buyer’s premium inc VAT) offered a single-owner collection of Rolex watches in London on February 16. Vintage Panerais, Submariners, GMTs and Daytonas rubbed shoulders with some of the firm’s less trumpeted models.

Rolex Daytona

Rolex Daytona Ref 6240 ‘Paul Newman’ – £195,000 at Bertolami.

The collection was topped by the most celebrated of all Rolex sports watches, the Cosmograph Daytona Ref 6240 with three-colour black, red and white dial c.1969. It is known to collectors as the Paul Newman. The actor was given an example by his wife when filming the racing movie Winning, and wore it frequently.

That Newman’s own watch sold at a hammer price of $15.5m in 2017, an auction record for a wristwatch, has only added to their desirability. This one sold within hopes at £195,000.

Sold to a bidder on thesaleroom.com for £47,500 (estimate £46,000-65,000) was a watch from the first batch of the Ref 6265, the 1971 Daytona produced with a steel bezel and screw pushers. This particular watch retained its sought after ‘mille righe’ pushers that were often changed for later versions when watches were sent to Rolex for servicing. Just a handful of watches now have them.

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Rolex Ref 6238 or pre-Daytona – £23,000 at Fellows.

The Luxury Watch sale held at Fellows (15/20/23% buyer’s premium) in Birmingham on February 15 included the Ref 6238 or ‘pre- Daytona’. It is something of a transitional design with the tachymeter scale on the dial rather than on the bezel. This makes for a rarer beast but also a little cheaper. It is believed that only between 2000-2500 were produced in all metals and dial variations between 1962-68.

The example here from c.1965 with a monochrome dial has solid rather than luminescent baton markers and sword hands. It sold for £23,000 (estimate £20,000-30,000).