Paul Boutros is one of us.
But that might not be immediately apparent for a man who is Head of Watches for the Phillips auction house in the Americas, granting him first access to the most desirable watches in the world – vintage or otherwise. One of those watches is laid out in front of him on a leather tray, high above Park Avenue in a quiet and unassuming white-walled office. It is arguably the single most important wristwatch discovery of the year.
And he’s about to sell it.
There is a list that was published on HODINKEE a few short years ago chronicling twelve of the world’s greatest missing watches. At the time of its publishing in 2014, the list included noteworthy examples like Paul Newman's personally owned “Paul Newman” Rolex Daytona, John Lennon's Patek Philippe 2499, the ‘original’ Omega Moonwatch worn by Buzz Aldrin, along with President Lyndon B. Johnson's Rolex Day-Date. Since then, two of the watches on the prophetic list have been found: first, the Paul Newman, which was famously auctioned off in 2017 by Aurel Bacs of Phillips for a record-setting seventeen-point-eight million dollars.
The other watch on the list was discovered only recently by Boutros. It is, of course the Rolex GMT Master ref. 1675 owned by Marlon Brando, and immortalized by his wearing of it as the character Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterpiece Apocalypse Now. And this fall, Phillips will be offering the watch in a uniquely curated auction called “Game Changers,” alongside a number of other watches with exceptional provenance, importance, or condition. A portion of the proceeds from the Brando Rolex in particular, will be donated to charities for disabled and underprivileged children – just as Marlon would have wanted it.
Like many interesting artifacts, the story of how the Brando watch ended up on Paul’s desk began with the opening of a relatively innocuous email: “I believe the item would be of great interest to Phillips,” it wrote.
The email was written by Petra Brando Fischer – the wife of the current owner of the watch, and Marlon Brando’s adopted daughter, who had realized the watch’s potential to help celebrate her father’s legacy after the gavel fell on the groundbreaking Paul Newman sale. She had been gifted the extremely personal possession (which had been engraved by, and relieved of its bezel by Brando himself prior to filming of Apocalypse Now) in 1995 as a token of her hard work following her graduation from Brown University. Brando was proud of her hard work, and wanted her to have an equally hard-working reminder: a Rolex watch.
Paul wasn’t always an expert on all things watches. Like many seasoned collectors, he caught the bug as a child from hunting rare coins and baseball cards. But it wasn’t until a winter stroll down 5th Avenue led to an unplanned visit to watch retailer Wempe where a memorable first encounter with a beautiful IWC pocket watch set him on the course.
His attention quickly turned from coins and baseball cards, to watch collecting with his father. Of course Paul would do the exploring and hunting, and his father would do the buying. And the rest is history – history that is now laying in front of us, awaiting the author of its next chapter.
We recently had a chance to sit down with Paul to talk about what it’s like to be a part of the history encapsulated in totems like Brando’s Rolex, as well as discuss the various essentials he carries with him as he travels the world collecting stories and authenticating rarities for future auctions. And yes, we couldn’t resist asking about the Paul Newman’s secretive new owner. Hopefully his answer doesn’t disappoint.
- M -
Muyshondt: What would you say is the most important component of your role as Head of Watches at Phillips?
Paul Boutros: I would have to say experience in the watch world, of course. Whether it’s my own experience, or a teammate’s experience – because no one can possibly be a scholar on everything, we [at Phillips] look for people who have specific experience with whatever model is being sold. So if it’s a Speedmaster, or a Submariner, or a complicated Rolex, we make sure to have someone uniquely suited to lend their insight and expertise when we encounter a model we’re unfamiliar with.
MS: What about your physical tool kit? What’s in your briefcase if you’re on a plane right after getting an email like Petra’s?
PB: Well, there are a few tools I always have on me, starting with a springbar tool that allows me to remove bracelets and straps to confirm serial numbers or reference numbers hidden on the sides of the cases. I’ll also carry a good set of jeweler’s screwdrivers, a rubber caseback opening tool to verify movements, a pair of 6x and 10x loupes, and a good UV light.
This is vital for examining luminous material on vintage watch dials, which, based on experience, should react to UV light in a certain way. How it reacts could be an indicator of a re-lumed dial, or a manufacturing date that could be later than expected, which could suggest a dial and case that do not match.
MS: What would you say is the best or most rewarding part of working at Phillips?
PB: The types of incredible stories like the Marlon Brando watch. Especially when they come to you completely out of the blue, and you find out just how deep the narrative runs, then being able to learn about and share that specific point in history with other passionate watch collectors.
Have you ever been able to source an emotionally significant watch for a client?
PB: I’m always on the lookout for specific client needs – I love to make people happy by finding watches that are important to them. I recently had the honor of being able to source a particularly meaningful Rolex Daytona reference for a client’s 40th birthday, as he’d sorely missed out on one in an auction in a previous year. These are the kinds of people who keep me coming back, day in and day out.
MS: So now that the ‘Newman’ and ‘Brando’ watches have been found, what else is out there waiting to be discovered?
PB: Well, it was also documented in the HODINKEE story, but another very big fish would be John Lennon’s Patek 2499.
MS: Last question – and this one’s for all the marbles: anything you can share about the identity of the buyer of the Newman?
PB: The only thing I can say, is that the watch is now owned by a very private person, and that it’s a very good home.
“There are truly great
watches at all
- Paul Boutros, Phillips Head of Watches
Perhaps the only thing more surprising than the astounding condition of the Brando Rolex, was the watch on Paul’s own wrist. Again, for a man who could have first right of refusal to any number of the watches that haunt the dreams of collectors worldwide, his choice was a mid-sixties barn find Favre Leuba SeaSky Chronograph, powered by the Valjoux 72. A relatively humble selection for a man who has undoubtedly seen his fair share of vintage Nautilus or Daytona references, but perhaps more importantly, a reminder that the right watch should always speak to the character of its owner, who values not just the physical quality or extrinsic desirability of the vessel, but the quality of the story attached to it.
It’s already clear that Paul is one of us, and the Favre Leuba needs no defense, but Paul adds one anyway: “…and let’s not forget that there are truly great watches at all price points.”
Spoken like a true professional.
You can rest assured that along with many others in the watch community, we’ll be closely following Paul’s work with the Brando Rolex leading up to its auction on December 10th. If you’d like to join the fray, we’d urge you to check in with Phillips, or follow Paul on Instagram.