NEW YORK • Who would give the time of day to a 1968 Rolex Daytona once owned by actor Paul Newman?
Maybe not the cellphone-toting masses who think of mechanical watches as anachronistic devices once used by their grandparents.
But to the swelling legions of watch geeks worldwide, who think of vintage timepieces as fine art, a Paul Newman Daytona is the one watch that seemingly every selfrespecting collector needs to own.
It is coveted all the more because for decades, no one outside the Newman family seemed to know where it was.
Well, the secret is out. On Oct 26, the lost masterpiece will go on sale as the centrepiece of a watch auction in New York.
Mr Andrew Shear, a prominent New York vintage watch dealer, said: "I could see it selling for US$10 million (S$13.6 million)."
No one would be more baffled by the commotion than Newman himself. The actor, who died in 2008, may have been a marquee-topping Oscar winner and global sex symbol, but in his daily life, he was the antithesis of Hollywood, said his daughter Nell.
For decades, he lived a quiet life with his family in Connecticut, often driving a Volkswagen Beetle and wearing a three-piece patchwork denim ensemble when circumstances forced him to dress up.
Back then, his watch was similarly low-key. Although a modern Rolex Cosmograph Daytona costs US$12,400, the models of the 1960s and 1970s cost about US$250 and were little more than timekeepers for motoring enthusiasts, featuring a stopwatch for timing laps and a tachymeter for calculating speed.
Newman's 1968 model was a gift from Joanne Woodward, his wife of 50 years, when he became consumed with auto racing. The back was engraved "Drive Carefully Me".
Even so, the 6239 model that Newman would make famous (he owned at least one other version later) was distinctive and relatively rare.
There may be only a few thousand in the world today, dealers said.
Regardless, the actor apparently thought so little of it that he handed it to Mr James Cox, Ms Newman's boyfriend at the time, in 1984.
Mr Cox's first inkling that his watch was valuable came at a trade show in 1993, when a Japanese man approached him and excitedly blurted out, "Paul Newman watch".
The legend continued to grow with the rise of the Internet, when vintage shots of Newman, with his rugged good looks, no-nonsense air and cool watch, became a staple of style blogs and Pinterest boards.
Not that anyone besides Mr Cox knew where the watch was.
Three years ago, watch site Hodinkee listed it as one of the 12 Greatest Missing Watches, alongside Spanish painter Pablo Picasso's JaegerLeCoultre Triple Calendar, ex-Beatle John Lennon's Patek Philippe 2499 and Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro's Rolex GMT-Master.
Mr Cox, who runs a company that makes sunglasses for pilots, was only dimly aware of the hubbub.
"At some point about eight or nine years ago, I realised that my watch had its own Wikipedia page and that there was this 'where did it go' question and all this stuff," he said.
But "I've always erred on the side of trying to keep the family as private as possible, and that was just the classy thing to do".
Finally, however, after discussions with watch experts, he spilled the secret in June, when he came forward with his decision to auction off the watch and give "a big portion" of the proceeds to the Nell Newman Foundation, which focuses on environmental issues.
It is time now for watch collectors to act.