By Alexander Bitar
Celebrity-owned watches have proved to be incredibly valuable after setting plenty of auction records in recent years. The Holy Grail of celebrity watches has for many years been John Lennon’s Patek Philippe, which has been lost since 1980 – until it was recently discovered.
In 2017, Phillips in New York set a record for the most expensive wristwatch ever sold. The watch was the iconic Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239 from 1968, also known as a “Paul Newman”. In excellent condition, these models typically sell for less than a million dollars. This example, however, sold for a whopping $17.7 million! The reason was due to the provenance, meaning the history of the watch’s ownership. Notably, the watch was previously owned and heavily worn by the actor Paul Newman, making it Paul Newman’s “Paul Newman”. To put it in short – the reason why the Rolex Daytona Ref. 6239 is known as a “Paul Newman” is because he frequently wore that watch model. In this case, the $17.7 million selling price is simply explained because it was Newman’s personal watch.
Other remarkable watches with impeccable provenance that have hit the auction block include Elvis Presley’s 1960 Omega Ref. H6582/D96043 with a Tiffany & Co. dial, which sold for $1.8 million in 2018, and Marlon Brando’s 1972 Rolex Ref. 1675 that sold for $1.95 million in 2019.
For years, watch enthusiasts have been dreaming of certain provenanced watches to hit the market. Ronald Reagan’s Rolex Datejust, Muhammad Ali’s Cartier Tank, Fidel Castro’s Rolex Submariner, and Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster are just some of the examples. The latter has been lost since the Moon landing in 1969 after the Apollo XI mission, but if the watch were ever to appear on the market, it wouldn’t be for sale since the U.S. government still owns it.
There’s, however, one watch in particular that stands above all… John Lennon’s Patek Philippe Ref. 2499.
First and foremost – few, if any, have a more extraordinary legacy than the former Beatles member John Lennon. He’s heavily collected, and any items connected to Lennon always bring big dollars at auction.
Secondly – Patek Philippe is arguably the world’s finest and most collected watch brand. Nine of the ten most expensive watches ever sold at auction are made by Patek Philippe.
Thirdly – If you ask watch experts and connoisseurs, many would place the Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 as the greatest watch ever made by all brands included.
To combine all these three factors: a John Lennon-owned Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 is genuinely mind-blowing. It’s the perfect watch, made by the finest watchmaker owned by the most iconic singer-songwriter of all time.
The story goes that Yoko Ono, John Lennon’s widow, gifted Lennon the watch in 1980 for his 40th birthday after buying it at the Tiffany & Co. store in New York. Two months later, Lennon was shot dead outside The Dakota building. The watch was stolen by John and Yoko’s personal driver, who later sold it in Turkey. Many years later, more precisely in 2010, the watch was consigned to a German auction house named Auctionata (now defunct), who sold it privately to one of their clients. The buyer, an Italian watch collector, later went to Christie’s to try and sell the watch. But ever since there’s been a legal battle between the person who bought it in 2014 and – yes, you guessed it! – Yoko Ono.
The Italian collector bought the watch for €600,000 (c. $638,000), a fairly reasonable price for such a watch in 2014. It was, of course, not sold as John Lennon’s watch, but rather just a Patek Philippe Ref. 2499. But there may have been some reasons to believe that it was in fact Lennon’s watch.
Earlier this year, in June, a Geneva court ruled that the rightful owner of the watch is Yoko Ono. The decision has been appealed with the main argument that Ono never reported the watch stolen. According to New York law, a stolen property shall be reported stolen within three years.
Time will tell how this all ends. The primary source of information that can be trusted as of now is the Geneva court documents. Interestingly, the court documents don’t mention John Lennon by his name, but they do clarify that he was a man who was assassinated two months after turning 40 years old. As for Yoko Ono, she’s referred to as “Madame C”, but the documents mention that she’s Japanese. In other words, there is no doubt whatsoever that it’s John Lennon’s Patek Philippe Ref. 2499 that’s in question.
Other interesting details are that the court documents state that the watch is signed “Tiffany & Co.” on the dial, and that the back is engraved with one word connected to a song they “wrote together after a period of separation.” This, of course, adds even more story and value to the watch.
It’s indeed challenging to place a value on this historically significant timepiece. There’s definitely potential to break the $17.7 million amount that the Paul Newman watch fetched in 2017. My guess is that the watch would sell for above $20 million if it ever came to auction.
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The article is written by Alexander Bitar, an internationally acclaimed dealer of high-end collectibles, owner of Alexander Bitar History. Based in Stockholm and Beverly Hills, some of Alexander Bitar’s specialties are entertainment and historical memorabilia, vintage luxury watches, autographs, and important manuscripts.