Roy Exum: Paul Newman’s Rolex

Thursday, November 2, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

In August of 1983, James Cox had just unpacked at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, and stepped out in the August sun to take a closer look at his new college. He was walking across the parking lot when this spikey-haired chick roared up in a little Nissan, stopped it with the handbrake to throw up some gravels, and got out carrying a six pack of beer.

As Cox watched, she gave him a ‘what-are-looking-at-freshman’ stare and James introduced himself. She told him she was Nell Potts and, as fate would have it, they lived on the same dorm floor. Young James recalled he was smitten from the get-go. Soon one-plus-one equaled two and on one of their first dates as a couple, they were at dinner with friends when Nell pulled a bottle of Newman’s Own salad dressing from her purse. “That guy is the coolest guy in the world,” James said, pointing to Paul Newman’s likeness on the bottle.

James then told the others at the table how, some five years before, he and his father had gone to see the cars race at the fabled Lime Stone track in Connecticut. Armed with his new camera, James was taking pictures near the pits when he spied the famous movie actor who also raced cars. As he inched forward, Paul looked directly at James, winked, and held up the security rope, allowing the 13-year-old the thrill of his life to slither underneath and to take some pictures.

Nell and the others laughed at the story … at little too loudly, if you please … and Nell told her boyfriend what everybody else already knew. “I’m Paul Newman’s daughter…”

Eager to be her own person, Nell Potts was her “stage name” in life and soon she was taking James to her parent’s house in Westport, Conn. All the time. One day Paul and James were repairing a treehouse and the actor asked the kid what time it was. “I’m not sure, I don’t have a watch.”

So Newman looked at James as though he were daft, unstrapped the watch on his wrist and handed it over. “Here … take this one … if you wind it, it keeps pretty good time …”

‘It’ was a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, a stainless steel watch designed for race-car drivers that can keep lap speeds and make all sorts of measures for those who drive cars 200 mph. When Joanne Woodward bought the watch for her husband at Tiffany’s in the mid-1960s, she paid roughly $300 for it. If you were to call Bobby Mason at Rone-Regency today, he would tell you a new one now sells for around $12,800.

But in the world of watch collectors, “The Newman Rolex” is the most coveted treasure of them all. This past weekend the watch that Paul Newman handed Paul Cox in the treehouse was auctioned in New York City. The winning bid, coming from an anonymous bidder, was $17,752,500. No other wrist watch in the world has ever earned more.

Believe it or not, what verified the authenticity were the three words that Joanne Woodward had engraved on the back of the watch: “Drive carefully. Me.” There are thousands of pictures that show Newman wearing the watch in the 70’s and 80’s and Cox thought nothing of wearing it as an every-day watch.

A similar Rolex auctioned in 1990 brought $10,000. In May of 2016 another look-alike brought $2 million. Cox had no idea what he was wearing. “I was at a trade show and an oriental man pointed to the watch and said, ‘Paul Newman Rolex.’ I wondering, how does this guy know I am wearing Paul Newman’s watch?”

So he did some checking, found out he had a watch that the most avid collectors had searched everywhere for 30 years. Lordy, James had THE Newman Rolex. Swiss auctioneer Aurel Bac, probably one of the world’s experts, told the Wall Street Journal, “Everybody knows that by the mid-80s Newman quit wearing the watch and have wondered for years what had happened to it”

At a private dinner last summer, Cox showed the watch to Swiss experts. There was no doubt as excitement soared. Cox, who serves as treasurer of Newman’s Own and remains close friends with Nell, said a portion of the proceeds will go to the Newman foundations. “Pop would give you the shirt off is back … he would never hoard or collect anything. He gave the watch to James because Mother had just bought him a new one,” said Nell.

“We think this is a great use for the watch because it follows in Pop’s generosity.”

Can you imagine? The Newman Rolex just brought $17.8 million after a college kid once helped repair the treehouse. And, get this, if you wind it the watch keeps pretty good time.

Paul Newman Wearing his Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch
Paul Newman Wearing his Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watch

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