Estate Sale Grail: Doc's Chapter Ring 1016
It hits you smack in the face - that patina. Tiny but mighty radium particles that aged perfectly to a golden nugget color. And on Andrew's Explorer it's all there, even on the signature "3-6-9" numerals, which haven't suffered the fate of having wobbly lume. The crispness and vividness of the hour markers is even more apparent against the backdrop: a minute-track bordered, jet-black mirror dial that looks like it just passed quality control in Geneva. Except this Explorer Ref. 1016 is almost 55 years old and was recently uncovered at an estate sale in Connecticut...
That's what's truly amazing about this watch. Not the minor miracle of the dial surviving in this splendid condition, but that a good friend of mine hunted (and eventually captured) it from afar. If you know me, you know I'm a sucker for a good watch story (and that I've got a soft spot for all things Explorer). And this adventure, which I was fortunate to tag along on (via text message updates) is an example of everything I love about both watches and collecting.
Back in October, Andrew was puttering around on the Internet, searching through some estate sale listings for a needle in a haystack. We all know what the needle was - and some of us know the haystack: rooms with wall-to-wall laminate furniture piled high with tacky curios and knick-knacks (a sight that'd skeeve out anybody with even the mildest case of OCD). With zero expectations, Andrew keyed in a few choice watch terms to see if anything worthwhile popped up...
Low and behold a sale with a Rolex watch filtered to the top of the results list. He clicked through and squinted at the screen. An instant later he recognized that iconic model (and promptly choked on his Lagavulin). Before him, crying out for someone to rescue it, was a treasure among the trash. You couldn't make out the condition from the shadowy, zoomed out photo, but any Rolex collector worth his salt could pick up on that chapter ring and eponymous "Explorer" dial. This had all the trappings of being an honest example (i.e., a fresh to market, likely one-owner watch). Adding to the mystique, it was draped by a green, velvety box and a scratchless rivet bracelet. But in his eyes, what this watch really had going for it was that it wasn't for sale on eBay or an aggregator auction site. It was part of a middle-of-nowhere estate sale taking place that weekend (but was it unbeknownst to anyone except Andrew?).
Full disclosure, Andrew and I are good friends. We live in the same city and meet up often to talk watches. When we're not buying rounds (oohing and aahing at our friend Rob's latest incomings), we're constantly texting about watch stuff. Andrew wasn't about to shout to the rooftops about this find but it was too good a discovery not to share with someone. (We also have a dibs system: if you find a watch and tell the others, you have first crack at trying to land it.)
So he sent me a text message with the link to the estate sale. I'll admit, I was seriously jealous. Why couldn't this happen to me? But, like I said, Andrew is a dear friend. Plus, he's the one that had the seize the moment moment the prior evening. He deserved the chance to bring this Explorer back to basecamp. So I got over my watch envy and began to root for him, letting him know that I'd help in any way I could.
While it's exciting to find a watch in this manner, actually getting it isn't as easy as whipping out your credit card or wiring some dough. Pulling off a barn find-like acquisition is often a very delicate dance. You're often dealing with some interesting personalities - to say the least. From personal experience, this usually makes for an epic undertaking (not quite Everest-esque, but with a grail watch at stake, it's no less harrowing for a watch nerd).
It's hard not to get ahead of yourself when you stumble on a watch like this. But as I alluded to before there's usually a lot of work to be done before you can rip open the FedEx box like a 6 year-old on Christmas morning. For Andrew, things got underway with a phone call to the gentleman in charge of the sale. He asked some questions about the watch's history and inquired about the price. The initial conversation was short and he was promised better photos. After waiting in vain for pictures, Andrew called again (and again) and eventually got more information…
...the lawyer from the estate authorized a sale - but the transaction had to be done in person. If you're not familiar, the way estate sales usually work is you show up at the crack of dawn, get a number and get in line. In numerical order, a few people are let into the home at a time. Items are ticketed with a price. It's pretty much first come, first shop.
This was a potential snag in Andrew's plan. He lived roughly 1,000 miles away and had to work the morning of the sale - there was no way he could be present. (He was hoping to buy it over the phone after inspecting pictures - and then have it shipped). But this didn't deter Andrew - the watch was too good to give up on. He hatched a new plan, which first included hiring a professional line waiter to do his bidding. (Yes, this is a real thing. It beats camping out overnight for the latest iPhone or Yeezy release.) He ended up scratching that plan after he coaxed a friend of a friend to attend the estate sale on his behalf.
But soon after a gentleman's agreement was seemingly shook on regarding the price (and that amount had been wired to the friend doing the deed) the seller, the son of the watch's original owner, got the sense that his dad's watch was something special. To Andrew's dismay, but as you might expect, several other collectors had sniffed out this watch and reached out about it. The son decided this wasn't an object meant to be sold alongside his parent's linens, old books and silverware. It deserved a bidding war...
Luckily the watch wasn't pulled for the auction stage. Rather it would be the prize in a battle royal between Andrew, a collector in California and a guy in Japan. They were all instructed to submit their one "highest and best price." The top price would win the watch. Although this turn of events wasn't ideal, Andrew was at least in contention. And, if he won the watch, the attorney agreed to FedEx it overnight once the funds transferred successfully. So actually taking possession of the watch would be less of a logistical nightmare after all. Now all Andrew had to do was deliver the knock out blow (or rather pick the magic number).
Of course, before making his best offer, Andrew really needed to see pictures. He still hadn't received them, but not for lack of trying. What Andrew was able to get was a verbal description. He remembers the guy who was running the sale saying, "'It says 1016 on the side. There's no bubbling or peeling or cracking or issues with the face of the watch. The glow paint or whatever you call it looks perfect. I don't even think the bracelet has ever been installed on the watch...'" This boded well, but still, a picture is worth a thousand words (or in this case could make his offer swing one way or the other by thousands of dollars).
Between that one pixilated photo and a laymen's evaluation of the watch, it was adding up to be legit. Andrew was preparing himself to make a very fair offer even if no pictures came through.
Thankfully, Andrew wouldn't have to make an offer (basically) sight unseen. His phone vibrated alerting him that he had a text message - pictures (finally!). What he saw were several surprisingly good sun-drenched photos revealing every square millimeter of the watch - its perfect gilt gloss dial and all. Even though the watch appeared to be a drawer find that hadn't seen the light of day in decades, Andrew didn't make his final move until he consulted with Rob and me (and smartly, some actual vintage Rolex experts from his Instagram rolodex).
Feeling well informed about the condition and market value, Andrew made his offer (strategizing about it Final Jeopardy-style to outbid his foes by an odd dollar amount). The waiting game commenced... would he get an answer by phone call or text? What would be the fate of this Explorer?
Within minutes, Andrew texted Rob and I, "alright I outbid one guy. Still waiting for the other to respond." Then, almost immediately clearing that first hurdle, he shot back, "it's mine."
After receiving the watch, we all saw that its character in person outshone even what we recognized in the photos. To top it off, that bracelet turned out to be an unworn 6636 expansion oyster rivet (!) and the
original box revealed that the watch was bought at Philippe Beguin, the Rolex retailer in Geneva that sold the Bao Dai Rolex.
I also highly encourage you to visit his new website: www.gmtmaster1675.com - his perpetually updated breakdown of the myriad versions of the longest production GMT-Master reference.