A rare Rolex watch that was owned and worn by Spanish maritime pioneer Vital Alsar during his Amazon and Atlantic exploration in 1977 will be sold in Shropshire this spring.
A design classic, the stainless steel Rolex GMT Master wristwatch, which has a ‘Pepsi’ red and blue bezel, is expected to fetch up to £18,000 due to its rarity and history, when it goes up for auction at Halls Fine Art in Shrewsbury on March 6.
The timepiece has a fascinating backstory, having been one of a number of wristwatches gifted by Rolex to Alsar for his well published oceanic expeditions in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Born in Santander, Spain in 1933, Vital Alsar Ramirez studied economics and began his career working in Europe and Canada.
He was fascinated by early oceanic exploration and was inspired by Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 crossing of the Pacific between South America and Polynesia on a primitive raft called the Kon-Tiki. This voyage was intended to demonstrate that ancient civilisations were capable of making long sea voyages successfully.
Alsar was consequently inspired to make a series of Pacific crossings in various craft during the 1960s and ‘70s. His first, in 1966, set off from Ecuador using a raft constructed from balsa wood but was shipwrecked after only 90 days.
His next attempt, in 1970, on a similar raft, called ‘La Balsa’, successfully saw Alsar reach Mooloolaba in Australia after 163 days at sea, having travelled over 8,500 nautical miles.
He led a further successful mission in 1973, this time on three rafts and then, in 1977, built three small brigs in Guayaquil which he and his crew sailed down the Amazon river before crossing the Atlantic to reach Santander, a distance of 11,000 nautical miles.
His expeditions attracted not only media attention but interest from Rolex, who became an unofficial supporter. Alsar had worn a Rolex GMT Master on his journey aboard ‘La Balsa’ and the company were delighted to send him replacement watches whenever he needed them.
He even featured prominently in a Rolex advertising campaign, such was the interest his maritime journeys had generated.
Alexander Clement, Halls Fine Art’s watches specialist, takes up the story. “The example that we have consigned was that worn by Vital in 1977 during his Amazon and Atlantic voyage aboard the three hand-built galleons.
“The watch was later gifted to his brother who handed it down to his daughter, Vital’s niece and now the time has come to part with it.
“Vital favoured the GMT Master watch because it was designed to allow up to three time zones to be read simultaneously and was an indispensable navigational tool for him.
“The model is highly collectable, like most Rolexes, and it is the vintage examples from the 1960s and ‘70s that can command the highest prices at auction. This example, with such fascinating provenance, is sure to attract a great deal of attention when it goes under the hammer in March.
“Vital’s niece contacted Rolex and they have confirmed that the wristwatch was one of those issued to him. Rolex also sent the family an advert that they published at the time which featured Vital on one of his rafts.”
Alexander expects international interest from watch collectors and Alsar aficionados who would like to own a piece of history.
“It is an incredibly rare and exciting discovery and we hope that it will encourage owners of other rare and valuable watches to consign them to Halls Fine Art’s March auction,” he added
“Occasionally we have the opportunity to look at and even handle objects associated with celebrated expeditions, most often in the collections of museums. Sometimes, though, we are lucky enough to find them appearing at auction and I am delighted to say that’s the case with this wristwatch owned and worn by Vital Alsar.”
Header image caption:
A view of one of Vital Alsar’s three galleons from his Atlantic crossing in 1977