OPINION: The “McQueen” Submariner: What we really know, what we don’t, and what actually matters

By now, you’ve seen the news everywhere. Phillips auctions touting their upcoming sale with headlines like “Phillips to Sell Steve McQueen’s Rolex Submariner”, and lines that read as “a historically important and previously unknown Rolex Submariner owned and worn by Steve McQueen.” (copied directly from the Phillips Auctions website at time of writing). As soon as this hit the news, I had to read and re-read what was being presented, as I – and numerous collectors and industry professionals – couldn’t help but question some of the details of what some would interpret as an intricately woven tale of a long-lost watch brought back from the dead. While there are a handful of hard facts about this watch that’s coming up for sale, there are quite a few missing puzzle pieces that stand between the watch and its educated buying public.

Image: phillips.com

Before we get into the nitty-gritty about this watch, there is some air that needs to be cleared. Through my investigation I spoke with numerous collectors, auction specialists, as well as a few people who have actually seen the watch in person prior to its restoration. The most interesting bit, and not surprising given how big and rightfully well-respected Phillips Auctions is, no sources involved were willing to go on-record. That said, the range of feedback regarding the story was for the most part resoundingly consistent. At the end of the day, this is still an interesting vintage Rolex Submariner ref. 5513 with a connection to McQueen, and no matter what we uncover, there will still be ample demand for this watch due to its historical significance. The relationship between McQueen and stuntman Loren Janes, spanning decades and a total of 19 films, is an amazing part of American film history, and as we saw with the sale of Paul Newman’s watch, what we will see this coming October will not be a case of the sale of another vintage watch, but rather the sale of a memory tied to one of the coolest film legends of all time.

Image: phillips.com

That said, and as much as I was encouraged by one of my unnamed connections to drop the topic entirely, there are just too many details in the listing of this watch that lead to unanswered questions for me to simply walk away. I’ve been a fan of the vintage watch auction circuit since I fell into this industry and have an immense amount of respect for it; however, there are times where there are questions that need to be asked, and details that deserve to be uncovered.

The ownership

Letter from Rolex USA attesting to the provenance of the watch. Image: phillips.com

First things first, the line “owned and worn by Steve McQueen” is a solid source of debate. So the story goes, at least per the signed letter from Loren Janes, who was the owner of the watch until very recently (more on that later) – somewhere in the mid to late ’70s, McQueen popped the 1964 reference 5513 Sub off his wrist and gifted it to Janes, with the watch caseback bearing the inscription: “LOREN, THE BEST DAMN STUNTMAN IN THE WORLD. STEVE”. Plausibly, how the scenario would have taken place, this would confirm the line “owned and worn by” in one fell swoop. That said, the context of how long it was either of those things is entirely questionable. One expert familiar with the watch stated he found it unlikely Steve McQueen ever wore it personally, other than to possibly present it as a gift, and said he has not seen any photographic evidence of McQueen wearing a watch around that era when it was gifted. It also would seem to be a bit of poor taste to give a used watch like that to someone rather than a brand new watch, so the memory of Janes having McQueen take the watch off his wrist and present it to him could be nothing more than McQueen not wanting to wrap the watch as a present, and simply having nowhere to put the watch except his wrist before giving it to him.

Letter signed by Loren Janes. Image: phillips.com

The aforementioned letter signed by (not written by) Janes is also a noteworthy talking point in all this. To be fair, there are numerous people that can attest to him telling the story of how he got the watch from Steve, so confirming the acquisition is a non issue, but the sticking point with the letter is that it was dated February 22, 2017. Janes passed away later that year, and it is widely known and reported that the man had been suffering from Alzheimer’s since around 2012 (according to a GoFundMe page set up for Loren and his wife). The specific wording “presented his watch to me” that is used in the letter is of particular interest. Some of you may remember the Wall Street Journal story by Marc Myers in 2011 titled “Chasing the Ghosts of Bullitt”, where Myers interviews Janes. In the closing lines of the story, Janes mentions passing on acquiring one of the cars used to film Bullitt, and states, “Besides, I already had this” – and the 1964 Rolex Sub is referenced. Now, and this is entirely speculation, but you would think that if Janes was talking about his relationship with McQueen in this interview, that the “he gave me his personal watch” story would have come up and be worthy of noting in the Wall Street Journal? Either way, the fact that the watch did come from McQueen, and does bear this very cool and historically significant inscription is a huge part of the value of this watch even if it wasn’t the same watch McQueen was wearing back in the ’60s.

The fire

Where the puzzle pieces get even more interesting in this story is the matter of the fire to which the watch was nearly lost forever. The heavily reported Sands Fire swept through Los Angeles County between July 22 and early August 2016; in total scorching more than 40,000 acres of land and 18 homes, including the home of Loren Janes and his wife Jan Sanborn off Little Tujunga Canyon Road. The watch was though lost for good, until it turned up in the rubble. Now, according to the listing, we know that it went back to Rolex for an extensive restoration, but at time of publishing, the replaced parts list and the photos from the restoration have not been released.

Although at this point we do not know the condition of the watch when it came out of the fire, there’s some hard science that we can certainly take into consideration. For starters, a forest fire will blaze at anywhere between 800 and 1200 degrees Celsius (1472 and 2192 Fahrenheit). A house fire on its own is closer to 1100 Fahrenheit, though with the heat of a forest fire behind it, those temperatures are believed to be higher. Most metals can survive a simple house fire, theoretically. When it comes to the watch, the stainless steel of the case would survive mostly unscathed; however, everything else is fairly questionable. The acrylic crystal was definitely toast, and most likely so was the aluminum bezel insert, as aluminum melts at 660.3 degrees Celsius. In the era, the caliber 1520 movement from Rolex primarily used brass for its movement mainplates, bridges, geartrain, and other bits. The melting point of brass is between 900 and 940 Celsius, putting the entire caliber’s survival into question, depending on how hot things got in that house when the fire took it to the ground. We obviously know that the dial, hands, and insert have been replaced, but until we see imagery of the restoration and that parts list, the movement’s originality is certainly questionable.

A watch, purportedly recovered from the ashes of Loren Janes home. Image: rolexmagazine.com

Editor’s note: Shortly before publication, Jake’s Rolex World published images of a heavily damaged Submariner, purporting to be the watch recovered from Loren Janes home, and showing the caseback inscription. Now, it’s important to note that it isn’t clear where these images have been sourced from, and Phillips has not verified them.

A watch, purportedly recovered from the ashes of Loren Janes home. Image: rolexmagazine.com

The reason this bit is one of the most valuable talking points is simple. Having worked extensively in the automotive space, both reviewing new cars and evaluating the collector car scene, originality is a HUGE factor in determining value. Where an all-original 1969 Chevrolet Camaro SS with original numbers, matching engine and gearbox will pull a fairly significant hammer price at auction, a Camaro SS of the same year with replacement body panels and a modern Chevy small-block motor thrown in it simply won’t come close. The same can, of course, be said for watches, as we’ve seen with examples that have been redialled and heavily polished over the years. If this were just another Rolex ref. 5513 out there, it would certainly take a hit for these criteria, but again, the caseback with its inscription, and the story that goes with it are really what’s going to sell the watch at the end of the day, so we are looking at an entirely different equation when it comes to perceived value.

To put this topic to bed, a request to release the pre-restoration images has been sent to Phillips, but as of yet we have not seen a reply. Nor has Phillips publicly commented on the images posted by Jake’s Rolex World. It is stated in the listing that the photos will be provided to the new owner of the watch, but not whether they will be available for public viewing prior to auction. Frankly, if anything, clarity around these photos will do nothing but add to the epic journey this watch has seen throughout the years, thus adding potential perceived value at the end of the day. We’ll have to wait and see what the team at Phillips decides; however, in the interim I know I’ll be anxiously waiting to see how the auction in New York plays out on October 25.

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