Long-Lost Marlon Brando Rolex to Tour 5 Cities, Hit Auction Block

Mary Ellen Mark; Courtesy of Phillips
Marlon Brando on the set of 1979's 'Apocalypse Now' wearing his famed Rolex

The watch, which will be in Los Angeles from Nov. 29-30, is expected to have "a starting bid in the six figures," says Paul Boutros of the auction house Phillips.

When cinephiles settle in to see the final cut of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 classic Apocalypse Now: Final Cut, set for release next month on the film’s 40th anniversary, they will have the chance to catch a glimpse of one of the most storied watches in movie history at a level of depth and detail never seen before (thanks to the enhanced state-of-the-art imagery).

The Rolex GMT-Master — which Oscar-winning actor Marlon Brando customized himself and wore as Colonel Walter E. Kurtz and was long thought to be lost forever — will soon make its way around the world, viewed by collectors and watch enthusiasts, before it goes under the hammer in New York in December as part of the "Game Changers" auction by Phillips.

Although the watch doesn’t get much airtime in Coppola’s war epic, the mythology around Brando’s Rolex GMT-Master propelled it into becoming one of the most coveted watches of all time. Phillips will tour the watch in five cities — London in October, then Geneva and tentatively Taipeii in November, followed by stops in Hong Kong and Los Angeles from Nov. 29-30 — before it heads to New York City, where it will be auctioned off on Dec. 10.

News of its upcoming auction has excited watch buffs around the world. New York-based horological consultant Robert Velasquez believes it is one of the most iconic watches in the cinematic universe; "Second only to Paul Newman’s Daytona," he says. The Paul Newman, named after the legendary actor for his close association with the brand, fetched a cool $17.75 million in 2017. "You have watch collaborations throughout movie history (from James Bond’s Omega Seamaster to the Hamilton Venture in Men in Black), but there are only a small handful that are really iconic. This is one of them."

The watch website Hodinkee named it one of the 12 great missing watches in 2014, along with John Lennon’s Patek Phillippe and Buzz Aldrin’s original moonwatch, an Omega Seamaster that was lost or stolen on the way to the Smithsonian. The location of Brando’s Rolex remained a mystery for four decades until news broke this week that Phillips auction house had obtained it from the husband of Brando’s adopted daughter, Petra Brando Fischer. Paul Boutros, Phillips head of watches, Americas, confirms Fischer had been given it as a gift by Brando in 1995 after her graduation from Brown University. Brando Fischer reached out to Boutros, after noticing all the interest in the Paul Newman watch.

Much of the mythology around the watch comes from the production itself. The Palme d’Or-winning film (which was also nominated for eight Academy Awards) in which Brando plays a renegade Green Beret had a notoriously difficult production. Brando was said to have been told to remove his Rolex, but refused, saying, "If they’re looking at my watch, then I’m not doing my job as an actor." He did, however, remove the watch’s bezel.

Brando, who was a lifelong Rolex wristwatch wearer, is believed to have received his first one, an Oyster Royalite Observatory model, from his parents at the age of 19. The silver GMT-Master, a reference 1675 manufactured in 1972, is considered to the most important one he owned. It has a black face and matching strap and a hand-engraved "M. Brando" on the case back, which Boutros says the actor carved into the watch himself.

Boutros believes the 40th anniversary of one of Brando’s most memorable movies ups the interest in the watch. "It’s truly a coincidence that the watch will be sold in the 40th anniversary year of Apocalypse Now. With that said, renewed interest in the film may indeed generate increased attention for this watch," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "Having been viewed by billions of people around the world through his films, and having won two Academy Awards for best actor, there is certainly significant interest in anything Brando-related from collectors of all types of items."

While Boutros says an estimate for the watch has not yet been confirmed and will be decided upon as the auction draws closer, the interest is certainly there. "We feel we may very well be surprised by the backgrounds of interested bidders as we approach the sale — certainly our watch clients, but we can also expect interest from institutions, fans of Marlon Brando, celebrities and celebrity memorabilia collectors," he says. "With Influential watch-enthusiast publications having covered its existence and discussed its whereabouts over the past several years, the interest and mystery surrounding it has steadily grown."

Boutros says the auction house can’t speculate on how the watch will perform at auction, although he has said it is expected to be offered a starting bid in the six figures. "[We] are confident that the watch will receive an enthusiastic response from bidders across the globe," he says.

However, most of the watch-enthusiast sites don’t believe it will top the Paul Newman sale, because that was considered a game-changer for how watches are worn. However much Brando’s Rolex raises, a portion of that will go to a new charitable foundation established by Brando Fischer and her husband to provide financial support to children who are living through serious hardship due to abuse, neglect, poverty or physical or mental illness or disability. "Causes," Boutros says, "which would have been significant to Marlon Brando."