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David was among nearly 3,000 others who showed up for an “Antiques Roadshow” tour stop in West Fargo with items to be appraised in hopes of striking it rich.

The Rolex watch David had with him was as new as the day he bought it more than 40 years ago. Never once did he put it on his wrist.

The military veteran soon left the Bonanzaville history museum complex under security escort and with a truly staggering estimate of what the Swiss-made watch could bring at auction: Up to $700,000.

Now that rare Rolex, a model made famous a half-century ago by Hollywood legend Paul Newman, is making an internet star out of the man whose identity remains a closely guarded secret.

David’s appearance on “Antiques Roadshow” aired Monday, revealing to the world the potential six-figure value of the Rolex Cosmograph he bought for $345.97 in 1974 while serving in the Air Force clearing roadside bombs in Thailand.

Hearing that number sent David — shoulder-length gray hair and long, bushy beard and all — collapsing to the ground as the TV cameras rolled to document the highest-value appraisal made during the public television series’ 24th season.

“You OK?” said appraiser Peter Planes, who walked around the high-top table where the watch was displayed and checked on his floored guest.

“Unbelievable,” said a smiling and back-on-his-feet David, who also let out a censored expletive for the first time during Planes’ breakdown of the watch’s special attributes.

In the days since the episode was posted on YouTube, it has been viewed more than 5.1 million times and has elicited more than 2,500 comments.

“He took care of the watch his whole life. Now the watch is gonna take care of him,” one commenter remarked.

Planes explained during the segment that Newman wore a nearly identical model of watch in the 1969 race-car movie “Winning,” and the actor’s version has since been dubbed the “Daytona.”

The Rolex watch owned by David. An "Antiques Roadshow" appraiser said it could fetch up to $700,000 at auction.
The Rolex watch owned by David. An "Antiques Roadshow" appraiser said it could fetch up to $700,000 at auction.

Provided by WGBH

But David’s timepiece, made in 1971, has something Newman’s didn’t. Inscribed on the face is the word “OYSTER,” signifying that Rolex produced this especially water-resistant watch “for an extremely short period of time.”

Word of the TV show’s fabulous find during the June 1, 2019, tour stop quickly circulated among collectors, said one New Yorker who dabbles in such luxury items.

“I made an offer at the time,” high-end vintage watch dealer Andrew Shear said Thursday, acknowledging that his pitch to David was in the ballpark of the TV appraisal. “He wasn’t ready to sell.”

Shear said this model of Rolex has been a collectible since the 1990s, and David’s is “the holy grail of the Daytonas” that probably number no more than 500 around the world and could have brought upward of $1 million a couple of years ago, when the market peaked.

David said during the episode that “I knew that the Rolex watch was good for scuba diving” and a favorite among commercial airline pilots, so he spent what for him at the time was about a month’s military salary on the timepiece and stashed it a safe-deposit box.

“I never used it,” he said. “I looked at it and I said, ‘You know, this is really too nice to take down in the salty water.’ ... I only took it out like two or three times to look at it, and that was about the extent of it before I brought it here.”

Planes added that David pumped up the watch’s value by never wearing it, and by keeping all of its paperwork — the unfilled warranty registration, the original brochure and receipts — and the inner and outer boxes it came in when he bought it.

“A watch like yours,” Planes told David, “may be one of the very few in the world that was never worn. [It’s] one of the rarest Paul Newman models and in this condition, I don’t think there’s a better one in the world.”

“Antiques Roadshow” Executive Producer Marsha Bemko on Thursday recalled David arriving that Saturday in June with his watch and presenting it to Planes, one of the show’s many experts on hand that day.

Planes needed little time to realize what he was seeing and told David, “ ‘Do you mind waiting for a producer?’ ” said Bemko, who was at the Bonanzaville gathering and explained that David learned nothing more about the watch’s worth until the shooting of the segment. “Peter is jumping out of his skin. This is amazing, this watch.”

Bemko said that once David was told of his good fortune and was ready to leave, “I alerted security. This man is going to need an escort to his car.”

And that’s the last time the show has had contact with him, she said, leaving her nothing more than a strong suspicion about the watch’s fate.

“In 99% of the cases, no matter what we tell them, they do not sell,” Bemko said, explaining that many people are dissuaded by an auction house’s hefty commission or are unwilling to part with something with sentimental value.

“It’s a small world at that level” of luxury item, she said. “None of our experts have heard a whisper. If it had sold, we would have heard.”

As for David’s full identity, “We’re not going to tell you,” Bemko said out of concern for his safety and privacy. “He’s staying private. We know he wants to stay private. There have been lots of interview requests. He won’t do any.”

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482