I spent much of last week and the weekend taking deep breaths. The reason for this was the latest Phillips Geneva Watch Auction where the extremely famous “Bao Dai” Rolex 6062 was going to be auctioned off. Among “Rolex Collectors”, this is the best of the best. Some very prominent Rolex collectors have even been quoted as saying if there was just one Rolex they could own, this would be the one. So, the obvious question is what’s the big deal about *this* Rolex?
The reference as mentioned is a 6062. It's the last moon phase Rolex ever made until this year when they introduced a new moon phase movement as part of their Cellini collection. But, this particular 6062 is one-of-a-kind. It's the only one in 18k yellow gold that has a black dial and diamond indices. Thus, making it as rare is it gets, which is one of the 3 main rules of collecting vintage watches (apparently). There are no records of a second watch just like this one. There are other 6062’s, some in stainless steel, other gold ones too, but only one with a black dial *and* diamond indices.
The watch itself looks like it's in pretty good condition too, which is the most important rule of collecting vintage watches (apparently), but suspiciously so. I say "suspiciously" because if you look at the case it has obviously been polished especially when you compare the lugs to the rest of the watch. This should be of no surprise as it is no secret that Bao Dai wore this watch often, but despite the wear on the case, the dial is absolutely perfect. And the dial is a glossy dial. In the 50’s when this watch was made, Rolex made a lot of glossy dials, but not even the glossy dials found in vintage Submariners, the model that would have had Rolex’s best water resistant cases were able to preserve their glossy dials as this one has been. So how does the dial stay so “new” when the rest of case doesn’t?
Some have suggested the dial has been refinished, but to be fair, there is absolutely no evidence of that being true, they're just using "common sense". And since the hands of the watch seem to show expected aging, the confirmation bias of the typical Rolex collector, which lacks any kind of critical thinking capabilities, and is therefore horologically ignorant, has decided to assume it’s never been tinkered with.
The final rule to watch collecting (apparently), is provenance, and as it turns out, this watch belonged to Bao Dai, the last Emperor of Vietnam!
Except I'm not sure why I should care?
Who Was Bao Dai?
Bao Dai was born Prince Nguyen Phuc Vĩnh Thuy, the last member of the great Nguyen Dynasty. At the age of 9, he was sent to France to be educated at the Lycée Condorcet and, later, the Paris Institute of Political Studies. In 1926 he was made the emperor of French Indochina after his father’s death and took the name Bao Dai (“Protector of Grandeur” or "Keeper of Greatness"). He did not immediately ascend to the throne, however, instead he returned to France to continue his studies until 1932.
As far as relationships go, Bao Dai had many. He had 5 wives and 5 children in total. Three of those wives he married while still married to his first wife. He also had some concubines, one of which was a fairly known dancer from Hanoi.
During his rule, specifically in 1940 when the Japanese invaded French Indochina, Bao Dai was coerced to declare independence from France and become a member of Japan’s “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity sphere”. This is also when French Indochina became known as the Empire of Vietnam. Japan had their pretender in the wings, Prince Cuong De (he’s got another whopper of a life story!), in case Bao Dai “needed” to be eliminated. But with Japan’s surrender to the allies in 1945, this did not happen. This is when another guy, Ho Chi Minh, leader of the Viet Minh, aimed to take power over a free Vietnam. Ho was somehow able to convince/coerce/force Bao Dai to abdicate in August 1945, which in essence handed the power of Vietnam to the Viet Minh. This was a big deal because when Bao Dai abdicated, he legitimized Ho in the eyes of the Vietnamese people because that gesture bestowed on to Ho the “mandate of heaven”, which had traditionally resided within the emperor.
Viet Minh held power for about a year until the French took them out in November 1946. Until 1949 Bao Dai spent most of his time in Hong Kong and China until the French made him return to serve as “head of state” (but not Emperor). Soon after that, Bao Dai returned again to France, not showing much interest in his countries affairs *unless* his own personal interests were involved.
That same year came a significant communist victory in China, which led to a revival of fortunes for the Viet Minh. And when other communist nations recognized Ho’s government, the United States extended diplomatic recognition to Bao Dai’s government. This was 1950, and when the Korean war broke out in June, the U.S. offered military aid and active support to the French war effort in Indochina, now seen as anti-communist rather than colonialist. However, the war between the French colonial forces and the Viet Minh persisted. This ended in 1954 after a major victory for the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. This ultimately led to the Geneva Accords in 1954, which was a peace deal between the French and Viet Minh, and partitioned the country into northern and southern zones.
It was during the negotiations of the Geneva Accords that Bao Dai bought his Rolex.
As the story goes, Bao Dai entered the Chronometrie Philippe Beguin Rolex dealer, where he saw the various watches they had, but he liked none of them. What Bao Dai wanted was the “rarest and most precious Rolex ever made” (such a humble guy!). To that end, the retailer called Rolex direct and asked to hook them up. Rolex did, and the one-of-a-kind 6062 with a black glossy dial and friggin’ diamonds was born. Shortly afterward he moved to Paris, and as was written in the New York Times at the time of his death in 1997, “he played almost no role in his homeland thereafter, choosing instead a hedonistic life in Paris and along the Riviera that centered around golf, bridge tournaments, and women.”
Now, let me say right here that I am not trying to belittle or diminish the life of Bao Dai. Every life matters, and his, unlike mine for example, where the only thrown I’ve ever sat on is the one in my bathroom (haha!), was interesting, to say the least, but he was no hero! He abandoned his country when it needed him most, was essentially everybody's bitch, and after that he literally spent the rest of his life half way around the world overindulging in anything and everything he could.
Put another way, Bao Dai was no George Washington or Winston Churchill to name just two.
In fact, that he had the time during one of the most important events in his country’s history to go shopping says a lot about the watch he ultimately bought. Remember, Rolex made this just for him, because who else would want such a garish watch? This watch does not represent “vintage style for the modern man”, it represents the kind watch I’d expect Mr. Chow to want and wear.
And yes, that is a subjective opinion, meaning a watch is worth as much as anyone is willing to pay for it, and if I’m not, doesn’t mean everyone else has to agree. But, the opposite is also true. Remember it wasn’t that long ago that no serious watch collector would be caught dead wearing a vintage Rolex. This trend exploded within the last couple decades. In fact, the last time this watch sold was in 2002, not that long ago and it sold for $235,000, which is a lot of money, but it’s not $5 million. This means the Bao Dai appreciated 2100%!
What About The Technical Merits?
You may have noticed that in the 3 rules to collecting vintage watches none refer to the movement. This is the biggest problem I have with how value is assessed (these days) when collecting vintage watches. A watch is a machine, an instrument of time and its technical merits should be the first and most important rule to collecting. But then we’d never get to $5 million because we’d all be assessing the watch objectively not subjectively, and it is only within subjective analysis can a watch blog or auction house say it’s worth $5 million due to rarity.
In other words, marketing 101.
What Else Could I Buy For $5 Million?
I’m also disappointed at the collectors themselves, specifically Rolex collectors. If all it takes to dish out $5 million for an (arguably) ugly watch is rarity and shady provenance, then I’d say their standards are quite low. To put this in further perspective, during the same auction, the following watches sold for a *combined* total of $4.7 million, and that’s not to say these watches were necessarily worth their price tags, just that there were better ways to spend $5 million at the same auction and have enough left over to buy a brand new Ferrari:
- Lot 34: Rolex Oyster Cosmograph, “Paul Newman Panda” 6263; sold for CHF 929,000
- Lot 30: Patek Philippe 130; sold for CHF 725,000
- Lot 56: Rolex Antimagnetique reference 4113; sold for CHF 2,405,000
- Lot 16: Rolex Oyster Cosmograph Daytona 6263; sold for CHF 137,000
- Lot 11: Tiffany & Co. Antimagnetic; sold for CHF 32,500
- Lot 64: Universal 22’560; sold for CHF 197,000
- Lot 75: Patek Philippe “Anse a Ragno”; sold for CHF 677,000
- Lot 47: Tudor Oysterdate “Monte Carlo” 7031/0; sold for CHF 33,750
- Lot 31: “Paul Newman Oyster Sotto” with a homogeneous “Chocolate” brown dial; sold for CHF 1,985,000
Like I said, those watches are also overpriced, but I would take any of those over the Bao Dai (especially that 6263 that sold for *only* CHF 137,000).
But wait, there's more!
More Money Than Brains
During the same weekend at Sotheby’s, another watch failed to meet it’s reserve, again, and was therefore pulled. But it was no pedestrian-by-comparison 6062, it is the legendary Patek Philippe Cal.89 in yellow gold (just like the Bao Dai).
To be fair, it had a very high asking price of $11 million, and an equally high, albeit lower estimate of $6.5-$10 million, but this watch is a masterpiece! It’s one of the few examples of a watch that could *almost* argue that a watch could, in fact, be art and not just a machine. The Cal.89 held the title as the most complicated watch in the world for 25 years. It has 33 complications and is still the most complicated Patek Philippe ever made. Only 4 of these were actually made one in each of the precious metals: yellow gold, pink gold, white gold, and platinum, making each one a one-of-a-kind watch.
It meets the same rules of vintage watch collecting minus the shady provenance plus the technical merits, but it didn’t sell. As has been reported, the stark reality for this watch is that its value is dropping, and dropping fast. If it’s owner wants to sell it, which he apparently really really wants to, he will have to accept a much lower price.
But the Bao Dai, with only 2 complications, which is nothing more than your standard DateJust of the day with moon phase and diamonds, blew right past it setting a Rolex record in the process.
If that makes sense to you, then you are part of the problem. The problem is the same one it’s always been since the advent of the world wide web, which is when watch blogs/writers, along with auction houses acquired great influence. They use that influence to dictate the conversation. We, consumers, are the head, but they are the neck. They point us in the direction they want, manipulating public opinion using subjective, not objective criteria to drive values way up. In return, they cash-in big time. If anyone says different, they’re probably selling something, like an ugly one-of-a-kind Rolex that belonged to Mr. Chow… uhh… I mean Bao Dai.