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An Air Force vet paid $350 for this watch—it's a Rolex now worth up to $700,000

"Antiques Roadshow" appraiser Peter Planes with a U.S. Air Force veteran and a 1971 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster
Photo by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2020

More than four decades ago, a U.S. service member spent nearly a month's salary on a watch he wanted to use for scuba diving. Instead, the watch sat in a safety deposit box — unworn — for years.

Now, that watch could be worth up to $700,000, according to Monday's episode of "Antiques Roadshow."

The unnamed veteran of the U.S. Air Force said he was stationed in Thailand from 1973 to 1975, where he often flew on Air America and Continental Airlines and saw pilots wearing Rolex watches. However, he wanted a Rolex so he could wear a watch while scuba diving.

"I knew that the Rolex watch was good for scuba diving," the man told "Antiques Roadshow" appraiser Peter Planes of Luxe Auctioneers.

The 1971 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster on "Antiques Roadshow."
Photo by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2020

He ordered the 1971 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster in November 1974 through the exchange store on the military base where he was stationed. He even saved the receipt, which shows he paid $345.97 for the Rolex after receiving a 10% discount.

While that price pales in comparison to the watch's current value at auction (and even a new Rolex Cosmograph Daytona starts at $17,400), the man says it "was a lot of money for myself" at that time. His monthly military salary in those days ranged from about $300 to $400, he said on the show.

After receiving the watch, though, he says he decided it was "too nice" to use diving.

"I never used it. I looked at it and I said, 'You know, this is really too nice to take down in the salty water,'" he told Planes. "I just kept it."

Even after getting out of the Air Force a few years later, the man says he decided to keep the Rolex in storage rather than wear it regularly. He put the watch, along with its original case (even the outer cardboard box), as well as accompanying documents like the sales receipt, his warranty paper and the original brochure, in a safety deposit box.

The 1971 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Oyster, with accompanying documentation, appearing on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow."
Photo by Meredith Nierman for WGBH, (c) WGBH 2020

"I only took it out like two or three times to look at it, and that was about the extent of it before I brought it here," he says.

Flash forward more than 45 years, and the man brought the nearly pristine watch to a taping of "Antiques Roadshow" that took place in Fargo, North Dakota last July.

Planes told the man that Rolex Daytona watches have become especially valuable over the years, partly due to an association with the late actor Paul Newman. The actor wore a Rolex Daytona in the 1969 racing movie "Winning" and that variety of watch is now nicknamed the "Paul Newman" Daytona.

(In 2017, the Rolex Daytona that Newman actually wore and owned for years sold at auction for $17.8 million, a record for wristwatches that stood until a Patek Phillippe sold for $31 million in 2019.)

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Planes told the Air Force veteran that his watch is not the exact type that Newman wore in the film, and that those watches typically sell at auction for up to $200,000.

However, the veteran's watch is actually worth more, Planes said, because it is an "extremely rare" variety that features screw-down buttons that make it more water resistant than other varieties.

"You've gotta be kidding me," the veteran said.

When Planes said watches like this one often sell at auction for $400,000, the veteran jokingly falls to the ground in surprise. But the appraiser informed him that his watch could actually fetch anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000 based on the fact that it was basically never worn and it still has the original paperwork.

"You saved everything, which is really wonderful," Planes told the man about the treasure trove of documentation for the watch that he's held onto since the 1970s. Even the warranty paper, which is still blank, could sell to ardent collectors for up to $2,000 alone, Planes said.

The man's watch "may be one of the very few in the whole world that was never worn," Planes said.

"It's one of the rarest Paul Newman models, and in this condition I don't think there's a better one in the world, says Planes, who also thanks the man "for bringing me one of the greatest watches" to ever appear on "Antiques Roadshow."

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