Two years ago, the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted production and supply chains on a global scale. While it resulted in shortages of various goods, particularly essential items, it is hardly the reason why a luxury good like a Rolex watch is hard to find—or so expensive if you ever find one.
Rolex is a Swiss luxury watch brand that seems to have established a business by perpetuating an image of scarcity and that there is such high demand that they cannot keep up to satisfy that. There seems to be not enough Rolex watches to go around, and no wonder they fetch some of the highest prices in the secondhand market.
But, precisely what watches are we talking about? Of course, the phenomenon applies to the brand’s most coveted models, with the Rolex Submariner being the most obvious example. Continue reading as we list some of the most expensive Rolex watches ever auctioned.
5 Most Expensive Rolex Watches: Price and Specs
1. Paul Newman Daytona Ref. 6239 – $11 million
Any list of the most expensive Rolex watches, or any watch for this matter, must include the single most expensive Rolex ever sold—the Paul Newman Daytona reference 6239, which was sold for $17.8 million during an auction in October 2017. It easily beat the previous record held by a 1943 Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph that fetched an $11 million price tag in 2016.
While relatively well preserved, there is nothing extraordinary with this Rolex Daytona except for its story and ownership. It was gifted to Newman by his wife while he was playing in the 1969 film Winning. Today, any Daytona with an exotic dial—the one that came either in black with white sub-registers or in white with black sub-registers—is called a Paul Newman variant.
2. 1956 Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner – $1 million
Often when a watch hits the million-dollar mark at auction, it is because it’s ultra-rare, owned by an A-lister, or kept in a pristine condition that it can pass off as brand new. But, that is hardly the case with this beat-up, vintage Rolex Submariner.
With severe scratches and a missing bracelet and bezel, the 1956 reference still raked in more than a million at a 2018 sale. The watch is rare, and as said above, a watch’s value can also be based on its rarity and the story behind it.
This model has a dial that you would only usually see on the Rolex Explorer. It runs on an automatic caliber 1030 movement and looks classic with a black dial and the original NATO strap. Its depth rating is unusually written—just above the word Submariner at 6 o’clock says 220/660 without indicating whether that means 220 meters or 660 feet. It is said that a travel enthusiast owned the watch who initially purchased it in the 1950s for 100 Canadian dollars.
3. 1971 Rolex Daytona Ref. 626 Unicorn – $5.9 million
Rarity also justifies the price of this 1970 Rolex Daytona. It is the only vintage 18K white gold Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ever made—a one-of-its-kind in the sea of stainless steel Rolex Daytona watches produced at the time.
It commanded a price of $5.9 million in an auction in 2018—a surprising outcome for a watch that few people had ever heard of until famous Rolex watch collector John Goldberger acquired it in 2013. He was also the one who auctioned it, donating the proceeds to a charity for children.
4. Rolex Bao Dai – $5.1 million
There are no pretty other watches that enthusiasts could recognize faster than the Rolex Bao Dai. It belonged to the 13th and last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam, Bao Dai (Keeper of Greatness), who first bought it in 1954. It was the most expensive Rolex model at the time, and it had a gold case and a black dial—the rarest configurations available.
But, what makes the Bao Dai even more desirable is that it’s only one of the three ever produced and the only one to have diamond markers on the even hours. It was first sold for $235,000 in 2002, a record at the time. It resurfaced fifteen years later, this time at an auction in Geneva in 2017, where it was sold for over $5.1 million.
5. 1942 Antimagnetique Ref. 4113 – $2.5 million
May 14, 2016, in Geneva, was not any ordinary day. It was when another Rolex watch set a new record after it was sold for nearly $2.5 million in an auction. But, it wasn’t an ordinary watch either—it was a Rolex Antimagnetique Ref. 4113, a 44mm stainless steel manually-wound split-seconds chronograph.
Only 12 examples of Ref. 4113 are known to exist. They were never released for public sale; instead, they were gifted to a select group of racing teams, thus reinforcing the brand’s decades-long involvement in motorsports.
With long waitlists, empty retail displays, and ballooning prices, it’s hard to buy a new Rolex these days—but it’s never impossible. The watches listed above are rare, historical models you’ll only ever find on sale through auctions, fetching up to millions of dollars in price.
Nevertheless, when you know how and where to look, you’ll find contemporary Rolex models you can buy today. Check out third-party retailers like WatchShopping.com and discover a wide range of Rolex watches you can buy today.