Antiques Roadshow is a nice show that fills most of its one-hour runtime with someone’s hopeful grandma bringing things she fished out of her attic in for appraisal. But every once in a while, viewers are treated to the spectacle of someone essentially hitting the lottery in front of a national TV audience. One such man: the Air Force veteran who bought a Rolex Cosmograph Oyster—remember that word—for $345.97 in 1974, and learned on a recent episode that it had become unimaginably valuable in the years since.
The man, who goes unnamed, explains he purchased the watch through the army base exchange, even receiving a 10 percent discount through the shop, with the intention of scuba diving with it. And while $350 doesn’t sound like much today, especially to anyone who knows a thing about timepieces, it was around a full month’s army salary back then. And when the Daytona with the now beloved black-and-white “Panda” dial arrived, the veteran found it far too nice to take into saltwater. Instead, he took the watch, along with the boxes it arrived in and all its original documentation, and squirreled it away in a safe-deposit box.
The clip is a series of escalating thrills. The Antiques Roadshow appraiser on hand has a flair for the dramatic and for narrative—he slowly builds to the big climax through a series of tadpole-size numbers. The first has barely anything to do with the watch itself—a blank sheet of original paperwork that the host says could be paired with any watch is alone worth $2,000.
When the appraiser finally starts with the watch, he declares its baseline value is $150,000 to $200,000 at auction today. That number continues to multiply. “Yours is more special,” the appraiser says. Because the watch’s dial is marked with “Oyster”—denoting the waterproof capabilities made for serious scuba—it elevates the value of the watch to around $400,000. The veteran, his shag of white hair neatly tied with a camouflage bandanna, tips over with shock at this point. The Rolex Daytona in this style is already a rare watch; even fewer Oyster models were made, though. But because the veteran kept all the original papers and the sticker is still stuck to the caseback of the unworn watch, the piece’s value nearly doubles again. The appraiser’s final value for the $345.97 watch is $500,000 to $700,000. The appraiser guesses that a watch of this model in better condition doesn’t exist in the world.
That the watch’s value has multiplied up to 2,028 times over sums up a lot of the trends that dictate the watch market today. The model has incredible cachet: The Daytona was preferred by the actor Paul Newman, and pieces in this style—with an inner dial color that doesn’t run all the way to the edge of the face, and Art Deco–style numbers on the sub-dials—are even known as “Paul Newman Daytonas.” Because the watch was thought of as too garish when it was first released, fewer were made. That only makes them rarer today: When Paul Newman’s own “Paul Newman” came to auction in the winter of 2018, the piece sold for $17.8 million, which set a since-broken record for the price of a wristwatch.
The Roadshow watch also puts a spotlight on some of the watch market’s sillier fetishes. The nubby sticker on the back of the veteran’s watch, for instance, is mentioned throughout the clip as the type of thing that can pile on to a watch’s already obscene value. The Phillips auctioneer Aurel Bacs once told me, while appraising a watch, “That sticker is worth a couple of thousand dollars. It shows how little mileage is on [the watch].”
As the watch market has progressively fattened up over the past couple years, headlines like this have appeared more often. More and more people are digging through bins or old drawers in search of their own hidden treasures. Even Marlon Brando’s old Rolex GMT, which sold for $1.9 million at auction in December, was rescued from a drawer. In 2015, a man bought a watch for $5.99 at Goodwill and then turned around and sold it for $35,000. Of course, that example doesn’t really compare to the return on investment of this veteran’s watch on Antiques Roadshow. But maybe we should have seen that coming: This episode takes place in a museum in West Fargo, North Dakota, called Bonanzaville.
Originally Appeared on GQ