An old Rolex sits in the middle of the table before an appraiser. The veteran who’s brought it in spent more than a month’s salary — $120 — to buy the timepiece. The watch has been worn with time, but it’s special — it has served the man well for more than five decades. He doesn’t expect it’s worth much, but he’s in for a big surprise when the expert reveals its true value.
The veteran who brought the watch to Antiques Roadshow’s Tucson taping in 2015 had purchased it on the advice of his superior. You see, this man served in the U.S. Army, and his sergeant suggested he buy a Rolex before leaving his post in Zweibrücken, Germany, to return to America.
At the time, the man actually bought two watches: one for himself, and one for his father. He spent a total of $224 for the pair of timepieces, and he came to view his Rolex as something to wear only for special occasions. This decision would serve him well when it came time to appraise his wristwatch 55 years down the line.
The watch that the veteran bought for his father had some gold woven into the bracelet. And yet, it wasn’t as noteworthy as the one he bought for himself, which was entirely silver in color. He even held onto the Rolex’s original band, although he had to replace it during the timepiece’s half-century of service.
As the appraiser, Peter Planes, put it, “The other one wasn’t as special as this one.” He suggested that the all-silver wristwatch was the more valuable of the two. But he maintained his cool as he explained all of the reasons why the veteran’s personal timepiece was so precious.
When it came time for Planes to reveal the value, the army vet was visibly stunned by the news. He could only muster up the word “wow,” as the appraiser pointed out that a military professional couldn’t buy it with a month’s salary these days — and that was quite an understatement.
More than 100 years before this Antiques Roadshow episode, Hans Wilsdorf founded a wristwatch company in turn-of-the-20th-century London. Starting out in 1905, Wilsdorf had a seemingly simple mission: to create timepieces that did their job. At the time, many watches boasted elegant designs, but they didn’t tell time reliably — and the entrepreneur thought they could do both.
To make sure his watches ticked properly, Wilsdorf enlisted the help of a Swiss company called Bienne. Their mechanisms would help the timepieces move with precision as they charted the seconds, minutes and hours as they passed. By 1920, the company moved from London to Geneva and its name was registered locally as Montres Rolex S.A.
Rolex quickly became an innovative brand, just as Wilsdorf envisioned. By 1926 they began hermetically sealing their watchcases, creating a dustproof and waterproof timepiece. Five years later, Rolex created a self-winding mechanism — a feature you’ll still find at the heart of today’s automatic wristwatches.
The middle of the century brought even more innovation to the already ahead-of-the-curve Rolex. They became the must-have accessory for those in aviation, deep-sea diving, science and outdoor exploration. People became more and more impressed with Rolex’s watches — and its fans only encouraged more buyers.
One such customer was the vet who attended the Tuscon taping of Antiques Roadshow on May 30, 2015. As we know, the man bought his watch in 1960 while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. He explained on the PBS program, “I bought the watch just before I came back stateside.”
But the veteran hadn’t purchased his Rolex based on his own research. Instead, he said, his sergeant had suggested he buy one of the top-of-the-range timepieces before heading home. Before that recommendation, he said, “I had never heard [of] or seen one before. I just took his word that it was a great watch, and it is.”
The veteran stood across the table from Peter Planes, the Antiques Roadshow appraiser who specializes in watches. He became a collector himself at just 12 years old, when he exchanged a small loan from his parents for a timepiece at an antique show.
That experience marked the beginning of an illustrious career for Planes. He eventually began traveling around the world to attend conventions and auctions to extend his collection. According to PBS’s website, the pieces he has now are “a collector’s dream.”
But Planes didn’t stop at collecting — he has made a point to share his wristwatch expertise with those around him. In 1984 he published Vintage American and European Wristwatch Price Guide, the first of its kind. And he’s since written the Complete Price Guide to Watches.
And all that knowledge has made Planes a sought-after public speaker and educator for those in the industry. He consults with collectors, dealers and auction houses. And, of course, he appears on TV, having appeared on Good Morning America and helming appraisals on Antiques Roadshow.
With a keen eye for collectible watches, it makes sense that Planes was the expert who took a look at the veteran’s Rolex. Planes has had several other exciting finds on Antiques Roadshow when others have brought in their Rolexes for appraisal. For example, in a 2019 episode one woman showed Planes what she thought was a piece of opal jewelry that she had inherited from a great-aunt.
But Planes let the woman in on a secret. She could open up the opal at the wrist piece’s center — something she had never done, perhaps because the bracelet was too small for her wrist. Doing so revealed that this was actually a watch, as the jewel hid the timepiece face.
But that wasn’t the only surprise Planes had for the Antiques Roadshow visitor. He then told her that the watch “was made by Rolex.” She replied with a stunned, “Really?” Then, the appraiser listed the rest of the piece’s qualities, factors that would all add to its value.
Planes said, “It’s all 18-karat gold. The condition of it is really incredible. It shows very little wear at all. The bracelet of that watch has no damage to it.” And that, he said, would make the collectible item worth anywhere between $10,000 and $12,000.
Another memorable appraisal came in 2018, when Planes saw a 1967 Rolex GMT-Master while on the program. The guest had received the watch as a gift when he joined the military. But he made the mistake of wearing it on the job throughout his career, which took him on tours of Afghanistan and, in his later career, patrolling the streets on the police force. Planes pointed out that the watch was clearly worn.
Not only that, but the watch had a refinished face, which detracted from its value. Even so, Planes estimated that the timepiece was worth $7,500 to $8,500 at auction. And that was because, as he said on this 2018 episode, “GMT-Masters have become very collectible watches.”
A few years prior to that appraisal, though, Planes had already demonstrated this to be true. At the Tucson Antiques Roadshow event, the veteran who brought in his Rolex had a GMT-Master, too. But he bought his in 1960 and had managed to keep it in much better condition.
For one thing, the vet said he only wore his Rolex on special occasions, opting to wear his so-called “cheap watch” the rest of the time. Even more interestingly, though, was the fact that he had held onto everything that came with his watch — right down to the receipt from 1960.
Planes started off saying, “I was very excited when you brought this up to the table. […] It’s got some very special things about it. It is the first model GMT-Master that was ever… Rolex ever made.” He then pointed out the watch’s reference number, which was on the paperwork the vet had kept, as well as on the side of the original Rolex box.
It was a shock for Planes to see everything that the army veteran had brought with him. He said, “Is there a reason why you saved all this paperwork? We usually don’t see this.” The man had no explanation as to why he had held onto everything, but in doing so, the appraiser said he had a “totally complete” set.
Perhaps most impressive was the chronometer bulletin, which came with the original GMT-Master. Planes explained that the paper showed how this Rolex had been sent to a Geneva observatory to confirm its time-keeping abilities. The paper showed how “they actually timed the watch to tell what timekeeping it kept, plus or minus how many seconds it lost.”
On top of this, the veteran had held onto the watch’s original bracelet, which he had replaced. He also had the Rolex brochure for their first-ever GMT-Master watch. And he had the hangtags for the timepiece, alongside the chronometer bulletin and even the receipt, too.
Planes made a point to highlight the receipt because it revealed the Rolex’s price when it was originally purchased in 1960. It cost the vet $120, which sounds cheap now, but it was a hefty chunk of change for someone in the military at the time. He said his “salary in the army was just under $100 a month.”
So buying the Rolex for himself — and an additional, rather less expensive model for his father — required the veteran to fork over more than two month’s salary in total — $224. Of course, 55 years later he found out that his investment was well worth it, particularly the GMT-Master.
Planes could barely contain his excitement as he revealed the value of the veteran’s Rolex. “I’m very pleased to tell you that this watch today at auction is a very, very collectible watch,” he said. Then, he went on to emphasize that the piece was much, much more valuable than it was in 1960.
Planes said, “Just the watch on its own merit would be worth today between $35,000 and $45,000.” But the vet had saved the box, tag and all of the papers that came with his Rolex. So, the appraiser concluded, “easily today it’s $65,000 to $75,000 in the market.”
The vet could only mutter, “Wow!” He was visibly shocked by the news that the watch he bought for $120 had appreciated in value so much. Planes broke the stunned silence by pointing out the obvious. He said, “Probably more than a month’s pay in the military right now.”
The veteran had to agree with that. “Wow! I had no idea,” he said. “I’m speechless. If you would have told me $1,500, I would have been happy.” But Planes’ upper estimate was 50 times that much — and based on the visible emotion, it was clearly a completely unexpected and much appreciated result.
Surprisingly, though, this wasn’t even the priciest Rolex that Planes had ever seen on the show. Another veteran named David brought his 1971 Rolex Oyster Cosmograph to Antiques Roadshow and revealed that he, too, had spent a month’s salary — $345.97 — to buy the piece in 1974. But he couldn’t quite bring himself to enjoy his new watch.
David told Planes that he bought the watch to wear while scuba diving, but he came to realize that it “was too nice to take down in salty water.” So, he popped the Cosmograph into a safety deposit box, where it remained untouched and untarnished for decades.
Planes started by revealing the stunning value of a Rolex Cosmograph — $400,000, according to the watch expert. David stumbled backwards, physically taken aback by that huge number. But the appraiser had even more to tell him. As people chuckled at the vet’s reaction, Planes quipped, “Don’t fall. I’m not done yet.”
David had held onto the original paperwork that came with his Cosmograph, and the original foil sticker was still fixed to the back of it. And the piece remained in mint condition after years spent in a safety deposit box. So, Planes said, this particular Rolex could fetch anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000.
Planes described David’s Cosmograph as one of the “greatest watches” ever to appear on Antiques Roadshow. And the vet seemed to agree — producers had to bleep out his response when he learned that his watch could be worth half a million dollars or more. An executive producer of the show told CNN it was “a fantastic guest reaction.”
The veteran with the Rolex GMT-Master may have had a quieter reaction to his valuable watch, but it was an emotional moment nonetheless. His Rolex had seen him through 55 years of life, and it had one last gift to give: a whopping payday, should he ever choose to swap his treasured timepiece for anything up to $75,000.