The vintage Rolex world is dark. It is mired in secrecy and controversy, and at any given time, the number of real, correct watches are dwarfed and obscured by the totemic maelstrom of fake, forged or frakened watches. And in this world, one man named Eric Ku has been like Prometheus, taking a universe that was once plagued by nebulousness and opacity, and bringing transparency to its farthest reaches. Yes, he is a watch dealer and very possibly the world’s most successful vintage Rolex dealer, but Ku has always been distinguished by the fact that he not only felt that transparency and sharing knowledge could go hand in hand with selling watches, but they could also help to grow and ensure the long-term viability of vintage-watch culture. In 2013, he put his money where his mouth is and took over the world’s greatest educational resource on vintage Rolexes, the efficiently, if not imaginatively, named Vintage Rolex Forum. Since then, it has become one of the best level playing fields, allowing every person from the most mature collector to the novice access to the most obscure facts and vigilant verification by educated, informed minds related to watches they might own or might be considering purchasing.
Eric Ku is one of the very few (and I mean very few) individuals in the vintage-watch world that I would personally go out on a limb recommending as one of the best sources for absolutely, irrefutably correct vintage timepieces. I would urge anyone even considering the purchase of a vintage Rolex to first visit Ku’s website, 10PastTen.com. In an exclusive interview with Revolution, I asked Ku in his capacity as the vintage Rolex world’s light-bringer to dispel the rumors, miasmic haze and bullshit related to the incredible Paul Newman Daytona and give us the truth straighter than ever before. Here is our conversation. I hope you enjoy it.
Ok, give me the straight answer. Just how rare is the Paul Newman Daytona because they seem to be theoretically rare, yet in reality plentifully available?
I’ll put it this way. There are a lot fewer Paul Newman-dial Daytonas out there than there are regular-dial watches. But if you look at early internet conversations, there are people saying there were only a few hundred Paul Newman-dial watches ever made. That’s complete BS in my opinion. They are uncommon and very desirable but they are not super rare. Every auction season, you’ll see a new variation or two come out for sale. And if you think of the top five dealers in the world at any given time, at least three or four of them will have one for sale.
I notice a lot of ballers out there with them on. So have they become the point of entry for the rich dude or the celebrity that wants some instantly recognizable vintage Rolex swag on his wrist?
I think the story and the mythology sell the Paul Newman Daytona. Yes, the watch has definitely become the wealthy guy’s point of entry into vintage Rolex. Or anyone if they’ve got the pocket book to buy something like that. Prices are really high right now and people keep talking about the big crash that to this point still hasn’t happened. But think about it this way. USD100,000 is a nice round number. It’s a lot of money. But a number that was generally associated with Paul Newman Daytonas in the past. Historically, a Paul Newman was something that hurt when you paid for it, but afterward it held its value and you had something special. And to me, 100,000 dollars has always been a figure that was fairly substantial but is also attractive to buyers that wanted to get into this type of thing.
So what are prices like right now? Let’s start with the pump-pusher Paul Newman Daytonas (refs. 6239, 6241, 6262, 6264)?
Prices are high right now. For pump-pusher Paul Newman Daytonas, you’ve got a steel-bezel watch (refs. 6239, 6262) and a black-bezel watch (refs. 6241, 6264). For steel-bezel watches, an OK one starts around at USD100,000 but you’re going to have to pay USD120,000 for a nicer one. For a black-bezel one, you’re talking USD150,000 to USD175,000 for a nice one.
How about the screw-pusher watches (refs. 6263, 6265)?
Screw-pusher watches cost even more. They are rarer, in my opinion, and I would say you’re starting at USD250,000 for a decent one. And they go up more.
Right now, a Mark I screw-pusher two-color Paul Newman Daytona with no marks on the dial and nice patina on the luminous indices would trade hands at USD350,000 or higher. The black-dial screw-pusher watches go for much more. As an illustration, I recently bought a black RCO Paul Newman ref. 6263, which is the three-color black-dial watch with the screw-pusher case for around USD800,000. So we’re talking about some really serious money now.
Do you see an influx of new clients from emerging economies shifting away from new, overtly expensive watches to vintage watches?
That’s a very interesting question because in the vintage world, the players were not that plentiful and the world was quite small. You can look back 10 years ago, and we would have these scholastic debates about what happens if these newly wealthy clients from nouveau riche markets like Mainland China or Russia start focusing on the vintage Rolex market. Fast forward to 10 years later and have these clients entered the market? Yes, they have. Though not in the quantities that people would expect. Not yet.
Aurel Bacs said in an interview with us that one growth factor for vintage watches is how the end clients now have so much more direct interface with auctions and with the vintage market. Would you agree?
It’s clear that the single greatest catalyst for this is the Internet. If you look at how information is shared right now, it is really different from 20 years ago. In the past, collectors could share information in a primarily local way, through gatherings. But today with a site like Vintage Rolex Forum, you correspond with people all around the world on a daily basis. And if there is a topic of discussion, there is this global critical mass that chimes in. Information is at your fingertips. To give you an example: if you want to know the average price of a watch, you can go on eBay or the Vintage Rolex Forum collectors market and have it in a few minutes.
I would absolutely urge any person buying a high-dollar vintage Rolex to first post an image of the watch to be vetted on Vintage Rolex Forum. To me, because of how vigilantly it’s patrolled, it has become an amazing asset to the vintage community. Was this always the intention?
I was posting on the forum for many years before I took it over in 2013. And to me, it’s always been an incredible resource. You had some people that might have some insider information and they would share little bits. You had this interesting mix of dealers with mature, intermediate and even beginner collectors. All gathered together to share this passion. Being a dealer, I believe in a transparent marketplace. Which means a marketplace where everybody has access to equal amounts of information. I think that this really helps to grow a market. And one key factor in having a transparent market is to have some kind of vibrant discussion forum, where people can have a dialogue. Sure, we’ve had people get their feelings hurt occasionally. We’ve even had to deal with a few lawsuits here and there. But the best thing about the forum is it’s a great place for people to exchange ideas and learn about their watches. Or give information about other people’s watches.
When did you take over Vintage Rolex Forum and why?
It has always been a collector-supported community. The site started to gain traction in the mid- to late-’90s. I took over the site in August of 2013 because I really treasured what it was, both as a resource for education and as a gathering point for passionate individuals. There is a lot of work behind the scenes to moderate things. One aspect about the dialogue-based format of forums is there are sometimes petty disputes that arise from disagreements or divergent perspectives. So there is some amount of regulating that people don’t see, almost acting as a judicial or problem-solving branch. What is really important is that even though all human beings can have a vindictive streak, when I or any of the moderators are on VRF, we have to be totally impartial.
“Being a dealer, I believe in a transparent marketplace. Which means a marketplace where everybody has access to equal amounts of information.”
You’ve got to be like Gandhi?
Totally, man. Totally.
One very prominent moment in Vintage Rolex Forum’s history was when singer John Mayer came out in defense of the three-color ROC or Texas Paul Newman dials, and there was considerable public debate over this. Do you see this as demonstration of the educational potential of the forum? Read more about this here.
The unfortunate thing, as you know, is that Rolex doesn’t chime in on these kind of things. You can have a very nice scholarly debate on why something is real or false. But unless the mothership chimes in, you’re going to get the guys going into and leaving the fight believing what they believe. But having a place where all the facts and opinions are laid out really benefits a new collector who might be coming into this market. He might have been offered a Texas-dial Daytona and doesn’t yet have a formed educated opinion on the watch and he can read through this and decide for himself.
What exactly is a Texas-dial Paul Newman Daytona?
A Texas dial (generally considered to be fake) is any dial where the seconds track is not stepped down. You get fooled by the optical illusion because of the contrast in colors. But when you look at it under a loupe, you see that it’s flat. They come in all kinds of color variations such as the red-dial Daytonas, which also have this flat seconds track.
What’s the story behind these dials?
There’s a rumor that a dealer in Texas bought these dials from Switzerland in the ’80s. The truth is that at that time these dials were not trading for significant premiums. People were selling refinished-dial Daytonas for the same price as the original-dial watches. My theory — though it is completely unsubstantiated — is that some enterprising dealer recognized that watches with these cool dials were selling well, so he installed a bunch of them to help move the watches. And it was only later that the values started going up. I don’t think that the intention was originally to deceive people or to rip people off. Because at the time the financial gains were not significant. It was just done because the dials were interesting looking.
But to you, the red-dial Daytonas are without a doubt fake? Read about red-dial Paul Newman Daytonas here.
In addition to all the circumstantial and scientific evidence that you can pull up that these watches are not original, I think that auction catalogues do not lie. They are in essence a history of our business. And when you go back, you will very clearly see that up until a certain point, these dials were never photographed or catalogued — until let’s say the mid- to late-’90s. There was never an example of one of these in a catalogue until then. Ever. But there are still people that argue with me over this. And I’ve come to the conclusion there are people who just believe what they want to believe and there’s nothing you can do to change their mind.
Why are the values of the yellow-gold Paul Newman Daytonas increasing so much recently?
Gold Daytonas in general are a lot rarer than the steel watches. Although interesting in the pump-pusher gold Daytonas, I would say that Paul Newman dials are actually much more commonly found than the non-Paul Newman dials. I don’t know why, it could be as simple as that it’s just a more beautiful dial. One more thing to know about gold Paul Newman Daytonas is that, once again, except for a few prototype examples, genuine gold Paul Newman Daytonas with screw-down pushers don’t exist. They are all those flat dials I mentioned. There is one or two legit ones, one of which was the “Lemon dial” watch that sold at Antiquorum for a million bucks or so (CHF841,300). But it was also kind of strange and I assume it was some kind of a test-dial watch as well.
Stories of watches like this going to auction at prestigious houses remind me of the 2008 Acker’s wine auction, where Rudy Kurniawan was selling a 1929 vintage Ponsot Clos de la Roche, even though Ponsot didn’t start making the wine until 1934, and a bunch of Clos Saint-Denis from ’45-’71, even though Ponsot didn’t start making it until 1980.
Even though Laurent Ponsot told Acker’s these facts, they were still going to go ahead with the auction until Ponsot intervened. Kurniawan’s response to this was, ‘It’s Burgundy and sometimes shit happens.’ Do you feel auction houses sometimes take the perspective, ‘It’s Rolex, sometimes shit happens?’
If you read about that or about Hardy Rodenstock who faked all the Bordeaux supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and who fooled all these quote unquote experts, it really shines the light on the fact that none of us were there when the things in question were created. So expert opinion is just opinion. Sure, it’s an educated and informed opinion. But I’ve seen people in our business go out on a limb and say things like, ‘Well, in my 50 years of dealing watches, I can say this or that, because I am an expert.’ I really cringe when I hear statements like that, because none of us were there when the watches were being created, so none of us are experts. The best thing we can do is put forth an educated opinion.
I have a lot of respect for Christie’s, but how do you view the “Black Ghost ROC” Paul Newman Daytona they sold in 2014? It was a supposed Paul Newman dial that was painted over and reprinted at the Singer dial factory. Does this seem plausible to you? (To read more about this watch click here)
The funny thing about that watch is Christie’s didn’t do a good job disseminating the information that they had. Rolex examined that dial and then gave a certification that they would service it, which is to say that the dial was original. I was in the auction room when this watch was being sold. And when really weird, exotic dials like this show up, I don’t automatically think they are fake. It’s like that dial could have sat in a watchmaker’s drawer for 40 years and he thought it was completely worthless. He was probably playing around with stuff; nobody thought that stuff would be worth anything back then. But the attention to detail and minutiae are so great right now that things like this are worth a lot of money today.
So, for you, the watch is real?
I don’t think real as in production real. I know plenty of watchmakers and I know that they just keep stuff. And when I go to Geneva, the watchmakers will have a little show at some little old hotel, always around auction weekend, and people always bring all kinds of crazy things there.
I get it. In La Chaux-de-Fonds, I met a guy wearing an IWC Big Pilot with a carbon-fiber dial and he told me there were just two of these dials made and they are both in watches being worn today.
Sure, there’s always weird stuff out there. But to me, a watch is a lot more interesting if it was made to be purchased. It could be in serial production or even something special order, like a cloisonné-enamel Patek with your dog’s face on the dial. But something that was really produced rather than cobbled together. Something like the Paul Newman you mentioned. I find it not really plausible that there was just one like it made for production and then it resurfaced. To me, it’s much more like a test or a prototype thing.
So what’s the deal regarding the black three-color RCO Paul Newman screw-pusher Daytonas selling for a million bucks nowadays? The way it’s been explained to me is that Rolex had switched over to the pump-pusher Daytona. The screw-pusher watches generally came with the white and black Panda Newman dial. Now, if you wanted a black dial you had to specially order one and then they would take a ref. 6262/6264 dial, print Oyster underneath the “Cosmograph” in the non-matching sans serif font and slap that in a ref. 6263 case. Is this right?
I think that generally outlines what happened. But when we get into the idea that these were “special order”, I don’t think anybody can substantiate that. I will say that there are Rolex catalogues with black RCO-dial screw-pusher Paul Newman Daytonas in them. In the early days of collecting, the Italians and the Japanese knew that the ref. 6240 (the first Daytona with screw-down pushers) was a transitional model. That’s why you see some RCO black dials in ref. 6240 watches. But I don’t think they were ever born in those cases.
All of the RCO dials are in ref. 6263s that fall into one of two batches of Daytonas. One was like a 2.08 million serial number and the other was a 2.09 million serial number. This is early for this model but not as early as the ref. 6240s. But they were a pretty specific batch in terms of their serial-number ranges. My opinion is when they made the decision to move to all screw-down-pusher Daytonas, they simply used all the dials they had left.
The black RCO dials were probably originally intended for the 6264 reference. The way you can tell is that the “T Swiss T” on the bottom of the RCO dials is very flat. Whereas the “T Swiss T” that you find in the other pump-pusher dials (refs. 6239, 6241) has this pyramid shape.
That flat marking is totally consistent with the dials you see in refs. 6262 and 6264 Paul Newman Daytonas, which had the old pump-pusher case with the newer cal. Valjoux 727 movement. So in my opinion, all of these watches have black dials that were intended for ref. 6262 or ref. 6264. They took these dials and printed “Oyster” underneath and put them into the ref. 6263 watches to create the screw-pusher black RCO Paul Newman.
So, wait up here. The only thing distinguishing the dial on a 150,000-dollar ref. 6264 and a one-million-dollar RCO ref. 6263 is the word “Oyster”? (See how theoretically easy it is to forge a RCO ref. 6263 here)
Obviously, it’s a forger’s delight. Because it’s relatively easy for someone to do something really shady and print the word “Oyster” on one of these dials. Thankfully — and that’s not to say there aren’t really great fakes out there — first, you need to make sure the watch is in the right serial-number range and second, if the word was added by a forger, there would be little fingerprints, if you know what I mean. So hopefully you can use these things to determine originality.
Also, the world of RCO collecting is, I would say not secretive, but “opaque” is the word I like to use. There’s not that many for sale. And you can count on two hands the number of really good examples there are in the world. It’s like in the car world, until the summer of 2015, a Ferrari 250 GTO had not been up for sale (to the public) for 20 years. Because it’s something that always trades from one warm hand to another. It’s a small community and everyone knows each other.
I appreciate and feel a longing towards tropical dials, but honestly some supposedly tropical dials in auction catalogues just look like they were shat out of the ass of a civet cat to me. How do you feel?
This has been a debate going around in collector’s circles. Because the word “tropical” is used to describe the naturally occurring brownish patina on watch dials, but there is no real definition. So what does that mean? It means beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I tend to think of a tropical dial as something aged beautifully with even patina — and that to me is really beautiful. Then you have watches like a Submariner that was beat up its entire life, the dial is pockmarked and has changed color, not naturally, but because the surface is blistering. That’s garbage to me.
And every auction I see iterations of aged dials bestowed with new creative nomenclature…
These are just terms made up by dealers to sucker novices. Thankfully, I feel the collecting world is pretty intelligent and they catch on pretty quickly. Even now, you’ll see something in an auction catalogue described as tropical and it’s not, it’s just ugly. For example, the Double Red Sea-Dweller that I sold you. That has a nice, even brown hue to it. It’s not pitted or spotted. That’s something that nine out of 10 people would look at and say, ‘That’s really nice.” Human beings are engineered to appreciate beauty and when it comes down to it, any aged dial should be genuinely beautiful to most people, as opposed to something that is all spotty and looks crappy, and that only the seller seems to like.
“Even now, you’ll see something in an auction catalogue described as tropical and it’s not, it’s just ugly.”
So are we in a vintage Rolex bubble?
I’m a watch dealer, I make money when I buy and sell watches. But I’m not a financial speculator in that I don’t really hoard things with the idea to sell them at an advantageous time. Like any of these newly formed hard-asset classes, as long as people genuinely driving the growth of the vintage-watch market are genuinely passionate about watches, the watch market will not collapse. Sure, there will be corrections — some severe, some not so severe — but it won’t collapse.
I’m reminded of the people that lost their shirts speculating on the bubble-back market in the ’80s.
My perspective is this. A bubble back is a beautiful object when sitting on a table but I have buddies that are big enthusiasts of your other magazine, The Rake, and with their appreciation for sartorial culture, they are always like, ‘Eric. Dude. Find me a bubble back.’ So I do and they try it on their wrist and then they say, ‘I don’t think the bubble back is for me.’ Why? Because they look dated.
Basically, for me, it comes down to this. The watches that are popular today are core expressions of a brand’s identity and are designs that continue to be super relevant today. They are timeless designs. Vintage Daytonas and Submariners are timeless in their appeal. Those designs are 50 and 60 years old. And they are still super successful. Look at the crazy success of the new ceramic-bezel Daytona. Patek ref. 2499s are amazing looking and the perpetual-calendar chronograph still expresses the core identity of Patek to this day. Same thing with military Panerais. So it’s a lot about design, how excellent it is and how timeless it is. The most successful vintage watches have the same enduring design as, say, a Porsche 911. Also the bubble-back market was fueled by a small group of collectors. Today the vintage market is also being driven by what’s in fashion. Vintage watches have definitely spread to a bigger fashion/lifestyle market. The “ballers”, as you call them.
Well, this brings up an interesting point. Because when you see Adam Levine or Ellen DeGeneres wearing a Paul Newman Daytona, you understand that this type of watches has moved beyond the vintage community and hit the lifestyle and fashion audience. This audience is far larger and far more capable of sustaining the price momentum, no? Read more about this theory of mine here.
Absolutely. It’s like the vintage Porsche market. One of the reasons prices have been driven up and are maintaining their values is that it’s not just vintage-car guys that are into them anymore. Everybody is into them.
Vintage is booming. So, why is it that the majority of brands are struggling to sell their new watches today? See my story on the Best of Baselworld.
The truth is, in the last couple years, I think all the manufactures got really fat and lazy. Because the China machine was just booming and you could make any crappy thing and just sell it. But as markets decline as they have now, brands are realizing people are a lot more discriminating about what they wear on their wrist. It feels like every brand wants to come out with a home run every year and it just doesn’t happen. One thing I see are brands rehashing vintage models year after year and I think this shows a lack of ideas.
“The truth is, in the last couple years, I think all the manufactures got really fat and lazy. Because the China machine was just booming and you could make any crappy thing and just sell it.”
Dude, that’s a little bleak. Are there any new watches you like?
Well, I bought the Laurent Ferrier from 2015’s Only Watch auction; I’m a big Laurent Ferrier fan. I think they are beautiful, modern interpretations of what a classic Calatrava should be. I own several of them. I think Cartier has made a lot of things in the recent past that are very underappreciated. My two all-time favorite Cartiers are the Crash and the large-size Cintrees (Cintree Curvex). They made some great watches under the Collection Privée label in the late-’90s. I just picked up a great platinum Cintree with a black dial that was a bespoke order.
I heard you were one of the bidders for the incredibly successful unique Tudor Black Bay at Only Watch 2015. Why was that watch so hotly contested? Read about this watch here.
Well, first, because Only Watch is a win-win scenario. It’s a win for the collector because he’s buying something unique and, at the same time, it’s a win for the charity because the funds go to it. Everybody feels good. Why did a 3,000-dollar Tudor end up going for way over 300,000 dollars? Because this is really the first time in the history of Rolex where they’ve done something and said, ‘This is one of a kind.’ I’ve always thought that Rolex was particular about these things because they’ve never participated in Only Watch. So it was awesome when they had Tudor in there — it was like tip-toeing into the fold.
Why is it that all the record-setting prices are happening in auctions nowadays?
All of the auction houses — except for Antiquorum — are multi-disciplinary auction houses, and watches probably comprise a very small amount of their business relative to art. Their client books are huge and convincing: for a guy that is spending 50-100 million dollars on art to throw down a few million on what is being sold to him by the people he trusts as THE best vintage watch is a very smart move.
“Why did a 3,000-dollar Tudor end up going for way over 300,000 dollars? Because this is really the first time in the history of Rolex where they’ve done something and said, ‘This is one of a kind.’”
What’s the most important thing to consider when looking at a vintage Rolex?
In the vintage Rolex world, it’s all about originality. A medium-condition Big Crown Submariner is worth about 100,000 dollars. But that same watch with a refinished dial is worth 20,000 dollars. For right now, the big no-no in vintage watches is touching the dial. The dial is considered the soul of the watch. Everything else can be swapped out for period correct, but the dial has to be totally unrepaired.
And the case should be unpolished?
I’m going to take a contrarian view to that. One of the words that really bothers me is “unpolished”. To the extent that if you log into Vintage Rolex Forum, on the masthead of the sales corner, I state “we do not use the word ‘unpolished’”. Because nine out of 10 times, when someone lists a watch for sale that’s unpolished, it’s bullshit. If a watch was serviced at Rolex, it was polished, so I think that term is really overused. There are a lot of really expert watchmakers now that polish watches and can make them really perfect. That’s without adding metal but just by skillful surface polish. In fact, I’ve started a restoration-and-repair business that is just launching and that’s one of the things we do. So regarding skilled polishing, that’s a personal preference thing. Some people don’t mind watches with scratches, but if you want to have a watch polished but totally keep the integrity of the case, we can do it.
What vintage watches other than Rolexes excite you right now?
The watch right now that is really relatable to vintage Rolex collectors is the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms. The production volume of these is fairly low and so it hasn’t become a mainstream thing yet, but the Fifty Fathoms market is really red hot right now. I think the Fifty Fathoms market and the vintage Tudor market are attributable to the vintage Submariner guy not wanting to spend 100,000 dollars on a nice gilt-dial ref. 5512 right now. There’s always been a lot of fans for military dive watches. The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms and the Tornek-Rayvilles, with their incredible military history, are really relatable to a lot of people. These have been picking up steam a lot. That’s where I would look.
A special word of thanks to our friend, Eric Ku for his words and the use of his exquisite images for the article.