Could This Be the World's Most Expensive Rolex?
Originally published by Louis Westphalen on Hodinkee.
Imagine two of the greatest Rolex dealers and experts in the United States (if not the world), Andrew Shear (seen here) and Eric Ku (seen here), being asked by a room full of collectors "If you could only own one Rolex, what would it be?" and them both answering the same thing. This actually happened, and I was there for it. Their joint response was not some gilt exclamation mark underline Submariner, or some super-duper rare Oyster Paul Newman, but rather, a small 36mm yellow gold watch that in fact has the same case as as your average Datejust. But that's where the similarities end between the apple of both these experts' eyes and a typical Rolex.
The so-called "Bao Dai" reference 6062 is something of a legend. It's a yellow gold triple calendar moonphase, the rare reference 6062. But it has a black dial. And a few diamond indices. But it's the name by which it's known to collectors that gives away the amazing provenance that makes this watch unique: it was once owned by Bao Dai, the final emperor of Vietnam, and it's a legend amongst Rolex enthusiasts.
In fact, it might very well be the most legendary Rolex, period. As we told you last month, Phillips and Aurel Bacs have received it on consignment for the Geneva Watch Auction next month. When the "Bao Dai" Rolex 6062 was first announced, much of the attention was focused on its estimate, a very sobering "in excess of $1.5 million." There is indeed a chance that this special reference 6062 will again become the most expensive Rolex ever sold at auction (it went for a then record-setting $235,000 in 2002). To do so, it would need to break the $2.5 million result achieved by a split-seconds chronograph reference 4113, one year ago.
Record-setting discussion aside, the watch deserves a good look for what it is: an exceptional vintage Rolex with an extraordinary story, and this is exactly what we had a chance to do when we saw the watch in New York last week. But first, a little history.
Who Is Bao Dai And How Did This Watch Come To Be?
As mentioned, Bao Dai was the final emperor of Vietnam – the last member of the great Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling family of the nation, which had reigned for 13 generations. From 1926 through 1945, Bao Dai (which means, "keeper of greatness" – he was born Nguyen Phuc Vinh Thuy) was the Emperor of Annam, then a part of French Indochina, which covered about two-thirds of what is Vietnam today. Though officially emperor beginning in 1926 at age 12, he did not take the throne until 1932.
Bao Dai spent most of his childhood in France for his education, and returned home to rule at the age of 18. By 20, he would marry and have both five children and five wives (three of whom he married while still married to his first wife). During World War II, when Japan invaded French Indochina, Bao Dai and his administration were persuaded by the occupying forces to declare independence from France.
After the Japanese surrendered, Ho Chi Minh (the leader of the nationalist Viet Minh coalition) convinced Bao Dai to abdicate the throne, citing his connections to Japan. However, Dai was granted a role as "supreme advisor" to Ho's Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The role did not last long, as the late 1940s were marked by great conflict in the region. Dai spent most of these years living in Hong Kong and Europe. In 1949 he was convinced to retake power by the French but this time not as emperor but rather "head of state."
In the spring of 1954, Bao Dai would attend the Geneva Convention to settle remaining issues from the conflicts of the Korean War and discuss further actions to be taken in Indochina. While little was done in regards to Korea, the Geneva Accord established two separate Vietnamese states: the northern zone governed by Viet Minh and the southern governed by the State of Vietnam, then led by Bao Dai. However, a referendum to establish a republic and remove him passed in 1955, and he would spend the remainder of his life abroad (mostly in France).
But before the Geneva Accord was established, Bao Dai did a little shopping. Seriously. While in Geneva for the negotiations that would eventually split his country in two, he stepped out of the Hotel des Bergues (now the Four Seasons, home of several important watch auctions) across the street to Chronometrie Philippe Beguin, a Rolex dealer. His request to the staff was simple.
He was offered a handful of exceptional watches, none of which pleased him. Eventually, the retailer called Rolex, which was (and is) located just outside of town, and they were able to source a reference 6062 in yellow gold with black dial and diamond indexes – the very watch you see here.
Bao Dai died in 1997, at the age of 83. The New York Times wrote, "He finally left Vietnam in the mid-1950s, when he was deposed in a rigged referendum that abolished the monarchy. 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." The Rolex he purchased in Geneva, in the spring of 1954, would be consigned for auction by his surviving relatives in 2002.
Why Is This Watch So Special, From A Watch Guy's Perspective?
The first and most important rule of collecting vintage watches is of course that condition is king. The best scenario is that a watch is in original condition in every respect, and that it has aged gracefully. This is exactly why a clean but redone dial would be much less desirable than a dial with uniform aging. This principle applies across the entire price range of collectible watches, and for many collectors top notch condition is trumped only by outstanding rarity or provenance. Fortunately, the "Bao Dai" offers all three at once, which is the reason for its breathtaking valuation.
When you first hold the “Bao Dai,” you cannot fail to be impressed by its dial, and not solely because it's the only known example of a black 6062 dial with diamond indexes placed at even hours. There are simply no noticeable imperfections, and the black glossy finish is still intact. However, it does not mean that the watch is mint, unworn, or new old stock. On the contrary, the case shows that it was worn regularly, something attested to by the Bao Dai's own entourage, so you can easily imagine this watch being spotted at Cannes on the French Riviera (a favorite spot of the Emperor) throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
What the flawless dial truly highlights is the impressive job done by Rolex in designing the reference 6062 in the early 1950s. There is indeed a good reason the dial was so well preserved: the waterproof case, with screw-down crown and caseback, makes any damage to the dial unlikely (but not impossible, especially if the watch was not serviced for a while). The celebrated Oyster case makes the reference 6062 much more Rolex in character than the reference 8171, the only other vintage Rolex to display a moonphase and a triple calendar. In that regard, the reference 6062 might be the ultimate iteration of the Rolex founder's vision: this watch is waterproof, it relies on a chronometer-certified automatic movement, and it offers amazing legibility, even with the added complications.
On the wrist, the wearability of the “Bao Dai” impresses, as any 6062 always does. There is something intrinsically perfect about the 36mm Oyster case, and this is exactly what you get with any 6062 (or any vintage Datejust, for that matter). It feels neither too dandyish, nor too big, and the yellow gold Jubilee bracelet also adds tremendously to the overall impact of the watch. Much like the record-breaking steel Patek Philippe 1518, it is not hard to imagine the “Bao Dai” as an excellent everyday wear wristwatch (albeit one on the very, very expensive side). The fact that it retains a vintage plexiglass crystal matters a lot, since its pronounced curvature really defines the profile of the 6062.
My first reaction to the diamond markers eventually proved wrong: I thought, before actually seeing and handling the watch, that I'd shrug, "cool, but not for me." Yet, in the metal, they brought some wonderful sparkle to the watch (and after all this was a watch sold to an emperor). This particular 6062 also offers what I think is perfect placement for the chronometer certification, which on most 6062s is crammed between the date apertures and the pivots for the hour and minute hands. In some rarer configurations such as the present one (also some of the 6062s with stelline dials, for instance) the "Officially Certified Chronometer" lives in the seconds sub-dial, just below the moonphase aperture, where it brings just the right balance to the dial. In this model, the placement of a diamond on the dial at 12:00 is generally recognized as the reason for moving the chronometer certification lettering to a different position.
I'm very smitten with this watch, just on the basis of its condition, look, and feel. The fact that it formerly belonged to the last Emperor of Vietnam, however, definitely explains why this watch moves into the small circle of the most collectible watches ever made. It should also be noted this watch has remained in arguably the finest private collection in the world since its sale in 2002, which means whoever purchases this watch in May will be just its third owner in some six decades.
Among the bigger collectors, there is already chatter that this watch has the potential to regain its position as the most expensive Rolex in the world. Considering that there is only one "Bao Dai" and just three 6062s with black dials and diamond markers while there are 12 ref. 4113s, a new record is a real possibility. But rarity isn't the only factor at play here, and remember, this watch is yellow gold, not the more currently en vogue rose or steel. Also, the watch is on the small side for modern tastes, but to counter that, it may just be the ultimate expression of what Rolex was in the 1950s, and what the "Bao Dai" means to the collecting world (for more on that, read this wonderful story by Le Monde Edmond here).
Does the "Bao Dai" deserve to be the most expensive Rolex in history? The only people that are in a position to answer that question are those willing to bid.
Now we just need to wait until the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction Five, to see how well the incredible lot 93 will do. Potential record aside, there is one thing for sure: I will dearly remember the few minutes that this unique 6062 spent on my wrist, when I felt like an Emperor partying in his glamorous villa in Cannes some 50 years ago – a young French Jay Gatsby if you will.
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