Collectors warm up to obscure presentation watches
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Watch collector Davide Dukcevich loves that his vintage Rolex is a mix of “high culture” and “low”. The Air-King 5500 model in question has the red-and-blue logo of Domino’s Pizza on the dial. “It’s whimsical, it’s pop-arty, and it’s fun,” says Dukcevich, an investor in cellular agriculture from Providence, Rhode Island. “The whole back-story to it is really appealing to me, as well.”
Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan tells in his 1986 autobiography Pizza Tiger how he first started giving watches to franchisees who met their sales targets in 1977 — beginning with the Bulova from his own wrist. Over the next few years, the US businessman gave “several Seikos”, and then “hundreds” of Rolexes. Dukcevich’s 1986 Rolex, which has the original owner’s initials engraved on the case back, came with a note from Monaghan that said the watch was “a symbol of prestige” earned for reaching $20,000 weekly sales.
These watches — specially customised by Rolex — proved so difficult to sell on the secondary market that some dealers took drastic action to disguise their origins. Now, however, they are proving popular, driving up prices and prompting interest in other watches presented by employers in recognition of service.
Jonathon Burford, a watches specialist for Sotheby’s, says the Domino’s Rolex used to be “unloved”. “They were selling at a significant discount to the extent that, over the years, dealers would very often polish out the engraving on the case back or try to take off the dial and put on a standard dial because the presence of a Domino’s Pizza logo would be a distraction from the financial value of the watch,” he explains.
However, thanks to increased focus among collectors on rarity, he says the watches have sold for a “significant premium” in the past couple of years and can attract four or five times that of an equivalent unbranded Air-King at auction if they have the correct dial, engraving and papers.
Sam Hines, the Hong Kong-based managing director of online auction house Loupe This, says the model is “becoming quite fashionable”. “Typically, in Asia, you will have one collector who will buy one and then he is spending time with other collectors and they want to get one to be part of the club.”
Domino’s Rolexes were selling for under $2,000 five years ago, recalls US dealer Eric Wind, owner of Wind Vintage. Prices started to rise in 2020, he says, but “everyone took notice” when one sold at Christie’s for $20,000 — four times the low estimate — in October that year.
Such is the turnround in popularity that buyers need to be careful. “I’ve seen people, because they have the [previously undesirable] dial that they threw in the drawer, try to put it in another watch and often it’s incorrect for the serial number,” says Wind.
He says the Domino’s Rolex has kicked off a “tonne more interest” in presentation watches generally, particularly those with a corporate logo on the dial, as Rolex no longer offers that personalisation service. Domino’s still gives a Rolex Air-King to store managers who exceed sales targets but the logo is on the steel bracelet rather than the dial. Earlier this year, Wind sold an Air-King given by Calvert Distillers Company of Maryland in 1977 and a Rolex Date made for the 1985 Honda Bowl, which he thinks was awarded to the winner of a motocross event.
Other watchmakers also produced special pieces for companies. A late 1960s gold Patek Philippe Calatrava that was gifted by financier Bernie Cornfeld of Investors Overseas Services to an employee who achieved $1mn worth of sales was sold in February by Loupe This for $6,600. Similarly, Sotheby’s sold a Heuer, c1970, featuring the logo of US spark plug brand Champion for $HK23,940 ($3,050) last year.
Yet Rolex remains best known for the practice, having commissioned watches for brands including Coca-Cola and oil company Pool Intairdril.
Rolex’s sibling company Tudor has since taken up the baton of making special series that are not commercially available. In May, Sotheby’s sold a Tudor Black Bay, one of 75 made in 2018 for the Royalty and Specialist Protection branch of London’s Metropolitan Police, for SFr63,000 ($63,880) — seven times the high estimate.
Wind says the customised Black Bay models that singer Ed Sheeran gave to the crew on his Divide tour sell for around $50,000 on the secondary market. “The modern Tudors with logos on the dial have gone really crazy in terms of value as well, so I think that has helped inspire interest,” he says. He thinks the fact prices have “skyrocketed” for Rolexes with the signature of a retailer such as Tiffany & Co on the dial has also raised awareness of this form of personalisation.
Soon after acquiring his Domino’s Rolex, Dukcevich bought an Air-King given by US supermarket chain Winn-Dixie as a 10-year Safe Driver award in 2001. “I have been on the hunt for other stuff, but they’re hard to come by,” he says.