Paul Newman's famous Rolex Daytona could be yours for $12million

Maybe you missed out on Jimi Hendrix's "Woodstock" Stratocaster, which sold for a reported $1.63 million in 1993. Perhaps you were too slow to raise the paddle for the prototype Apple 1 computer, thought to be Steve Jobs' and Steve Wozniak's first, that fetched $102k last year.

Luckily, you still have a crack at Paul Newman's Rolex Daytona. This opportunity may not seem significant to the cellphone-toting masses who think of mechanical wristwatches as anachronistic devices once used by their grandparents to tell time. But to the swelling legions of watch geeks worldwide who think of vintage timepieces as fine art, a Paul Newman Daytona is the one watch that seemingly every self-respecting collector needs to own.

A masterpiece of a watch

And Paul Newman's "Paul Newman"? It is basically the Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous timepiece in the world, coveted all the more because for decades no one outside the Newman family seemed to know where it was.

Well, the secret is out. On October 26, Newman's lost masterpiece will go on sale as the centrepiece of a watch auction at Phillips in New York, following a treasures-of-King Tut-style world tour to whip up interest – as if interest actually needed whipping up.

Judging by the frothy response so far, you would think the lost ark of the covenant had just been listed on eBay.

"Paul Newman's 'Newman' could easily be seen as the most important watch there is," said Andrew Shear, a prominent New York vintage watch dealer. "I could see it selling for $10 million (A$12.5m)."

A regift of a gift from his wife

Newman's 1968 model was a gift from Joanne Woodward, his wife of 50 years, when the actor became consumed with auto racing. The back was engraved, "Drive Carefully Me."

Even so, the 6239 model that Newman would make famous (he owned at least one other version later) was distinctive and relatively rare, featuring an exotic dial containing a number of stylish design tweaks including, most notably, the art deco-style numerals on the subdials that any true watch connoisseur could spot from 10 paces. There may be only a few thousand in the world today, dealers said.

Regardless, Newman apparently thought so little of this horological treasure that he gave his away on a whim. In a story that is quickly becoming a watch nerd's version of Genesis, Newman casually handed over the watch to James Cox, the college boyfriend of Newman's daughter Nell, one muggy summer afternoon in 1984.

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"As far as he was concerned, it was a tool," Nell Newman said. "He definitely didn't have a strong attachment to things."

"It tells pretty good time"

In an interview, Cox said he was helping repair a treehouse on the Newman property when the blue-eyed actor approached and asked the time. "I said, you know, 'a hair past a freckle,' or some comment meaning 'I don't have a watch,'" Cox, now 52, said. "To which he replied: 'Well, here, here's this watch. If you remember to wind it, it tells pretty good time.'"

And it did, for the next decade or so, as Cox wore it daily, whether gardening or doing light construction jobs, thinking it was really valuable only to him, for sentimental reasons.

His first inkling that his watch was valuable to others came at a trade show in 1993, when a Japanese man who spoke very little English approached Cox and excitedly blurted out, "Paul Newman watch!"

"I looked at him like, 'Oh, my God, how does this guy know that this is Paul Newman's watch?'" Cox recalled.

Daytona in the Pinterest Age

Unbeknown to Cox, the aura of the Paul Newman Daytona had been building since the early 1980s, when Newman, according to watch lore, started flashing it in glamour shots for European fashion magazines.

The legend continued to grow with the rise of the internet, when vintage shots of Newman, with his rugged good looks, no-nonsense air and, yes, really cool watch, became a staple of style blogs and Pinterest boards, where the actor was hailed an all-American king of cool to rival Steve McQueen.

Not that anyone besides Cox knew where the watch actually was. As recently as three years ago, the watch site Hodinkee listed it as one of the 12 "Greatest Missing Watches," alongside Pablo Picasso's Jaeger-LeCoultre Triple Calendar, John Lennon's Patek Philippe 2499 and Fidel Castro's Rolex GMT-Master.

A mystery solved

Cox, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, and runs a company that makes sunglasses for pilots, was only dimly aware of the hubbub. "At some point about eight or nine years ago, I realised that my watch had its own Wikipedia page and that there was this whole long 'where did it go' question and all this stuff," he said.

"I kept thinking, 'I know the answers to these questions,'" Cox said. But, he said, "I've always erred on the side of trying to keep the family as private as possible, and that was just the classy thing to do, keep quiet about it."

All for a good cause

Finally, however, after discussions with watch experts, Cox spilled the secret this past June, when he came forward with his decision to auction off the watch and give "a big portion" of the proceeds, he said, to the Nell Newman Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues.

"I told James, 'Just keep it, man, what are you doing?'" Nell Newman said, joking about the potential windfall from the sale.

"If Paul was alive," Cox said, "and I went to him and said, 'Hey, Paul, that watch you gave me, it turns out that it's super-valuable, super-iconic,' I think the first thing he would say would be: 'Well, kid, what are you going to do with it? You know, you're not going to keep it, are you? You're going to do something important.'"

The New York Times