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James Garner’s Heuer Carrera Watch, Stamped With His Name on the Dial, Is Going Up for Auction


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In 1966, Grand Prix, John Frankenheimer’s film about Formula 1 racing, was one of the top 10 highest-grossing movies of the year and went on to win three Academy Awards. The New York Times noted the film’s “smashing and thundering compilation of racing footage shot superbly at the scenes of the big meets around the circuit,” while the Los Angeles Times named it “the new, definitive, great film about auto racing.” Among the film’s stars was James Garner, who trained with Shelby Cobra driver Bob Bondurant for the role and did some of his own stunts in the film, playing driver Pete Aron. The racing movie was one of the earliest examples of what would become a notable genre for Hollywood — Le Mans starring Steve McQueen would come out five years later — and the experience helped launch Garner’s own love of the sport.

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GRAND PRIX, James Garner, 1966

Courtesy Everett Collection

Sometime around the release of Grand Prix, Garner — who’d previously gotten his big break starring on five seasons of Maverick and would later lead The Rockford Files — acquired a two-register Heuer Carrera wristwatch with a 45-minute counter at 3 o’clock. First released in 1963 as a tribute to the Carrera Pan Americana road rally (and originally priced at $89.50), the Heuer chrono would go on to become a “legendary chronograph,” as watch website Hodinkee puts it, adding that “1960s Carreras are arguably some of the sleekest and most beautiful chronographs ever made.” (Heuer became TAG Heuer in the 1980s and currently boasts Ryan Gosling as a brand ambassador.)

Garner wore the watch for years afterward as an everyday timepiece, including on the golf course (one of his favorite haunts), as well as on The Rockford Files. Many stills from the show clearly show him sporting the watch.

Now that timepiece is coming to gavel on June 11-12 at Phillips auction house in New York, offered up for sale by the late actor’s daughter Gigi Garner, with a portion of proceeds going to benefit the James Garner Animal Rescue Fund.

“After my dad passed [in 2014 at age 86], I started trying to come up with ideas of how I could continue his legacy,” Gigi tells The Hollywood Reporter exclusively. “My father and I had a great mutual love for animals, and I have been an animal rescuer for over 30 years. So I came up with an idea to start a 501c3 called the James Garner Animal Rescue Fund, and part of the proceeds from the sale will go to this charity.” She notes, with a chuckle, that the acronym of the nonprofit is pronounced J-G-ARF.

The actor’s circa 1966 watch (Ref No. 3647N) — with an estimate of $20,000-$40,000 — is in stainless steel with a 35mm case, black dial, hand-wound Valjoux movement and a leather strap. It also comes with a signed letter from Gigi Garner.

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The dial of James Garner’s Heuer Carrera.

Courtesy of Phillips

But what makes the piece especially noteworthy is the fact that the actor’s name is stamped on the dial. “So it’s James Garner’s James Garner,” says Gigi. (The question of what exactly was written on the front of Garner’s Carrera had long been the subject of speculation among Heuer fans. “Finally, somebody approached me on Twiter and said, ‘There’s all these forums and they are trying to figure out what is on the face of the watch. Nobody could see it clearly,’ says Gigi. A post solving the mystery appeared on the Heuer-focused website Calibre 11 in 2017.)

Garner — who became not only an avid racecar driver but also, in the late 1960s, the owner of the American International Racers, which raced cars at Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona — loved his Carrera according to his daughter because “it was a racing watch, and we would go to the races every weekend he was available. He loved wearing that watch to play golf too, and he loved to wear it onscreen as well as at home.” According to Gigi, her father attended at least 40 Indy 500s and drove the pace car there three times, usually wearing his beloved Heuer Carrera.

While it’s not known who gave the Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actor his Carrera, according to information provided by Phillips, “In the mid-1960s, several Carreras were modified upon request by retailers and sponsors affiliated with Heuer to have special emblems and names printed on the dial. Often, these were related to auto racing. As an Indianapolis 500 pace car driver, auto racing enthusiast, and producer and star of the movie Grand Prix, it makes perfect sense that James Garner would be one of those entitled to receive a special Carrera. The printing of his name on the bottom portion of the dial is completely consistent with other examples seen.”

Paul Boutros, head of watches for Phillips, Americas, detailed to THR why he finds the watch of unique interest. First and foremost, the timepiece “was never restored in any way — totally original and well preserved.” Additionally, “It is one of very few vintage [Heuer] examples to have a special emblem or name printed on the dial, making it extraordinary even without the celebrity provenance,” and “the Heuer watch is a historically important testament to [Garner’s] connection to motorsport.”

The Carrera is one of a collection of five watches once owned and worn by Garner that are included in Phillips’ June sale, titled The New York Watch Auction SIX (which also includes a George Daniels Anniversary Watch and an F.P. Journe Chronomètre Souverain).

The other four Garner watches are vintage Cartiers, including an oval-shaped, manually wound Cartier Bagnoire with an original Paris dial in 18k yellow gold (estimate $8,000-$16,000).

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James Garner’s circa 1980s Cartier Bagnoire dress watch.

Courtesy of Phillips

The Bagnoire was likely a gift from Garner’s wife, Lois, to whom he was married for 57 years. “That was his favorite dress watch, and he would wear that to film premieres or awards shows and fancy dinners. He loved wearing that watch to formal affairs,” says Gigi. The circa 1980s watch can clearly be seen on his wrist at the premiere of the 2000 film Space Cowboys, in which Garner starred with Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones.

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A personal photo, circa 1990s, of James Garner wearing his Cartier Bagnoire watch, provided to Phillips by Gigi Garner.

Courtesy of Gigi Garner and Phillips

“He was very cognizant of time, and so he always wore a watch because he never wanted to be late,” continues Gigi, adding that the actor kept all his watches in a drawer in his closet.

According to Phillips’ Boutros, celebrity-owned watches can be highly sought-after by collectors. “Today’s collectors are particularly drawn to vintage watches, which transport them to a nostalgic era of their lives,” says Boutros. “These collectors grew up admiring certain famous people and were influenced or inspired by major historical events, movies, television shows or popular songs. Collectors also want items that money can’t easily buy, and enjoy sharing unique stories behind their timepieces to their closest friends and family.”

Interestingly, Garner’s Heuer watch found its way to Phillips because of another chronograph once owned by another famous actor and racecar driver who happened to be a close friend of Garner’s. Back in 2017, when Phillips was exhibiting Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona in Los Angeles — a watch that would go on to sell for an astounding $17.8 million at auction — Gigi attended the opening of the L.A. showcase.

“My dad was such good friends with Paul Newman,” recalls Gigi. “I went with a friend of mine who’s a photographer, and he brought me along and at the time I brought my dad’s watch.” Her friend knew Boutros, who was present that night, and encouraged her to show it to him. “And so I went off in a corner and it was like, ‘Want to buy a watch?’ I showed Paul my dad’s watch and he was like, ‘Oh my God. Wow.’ That was the first time he saw it.”

“I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with it,” Gigi continues, who was touched that Boutros let her hold the Paul Newman Daytona that night. “He knew that my dad was so close to Paul. It was sweet. They were very close friends mostly because of racing, and they did a movie together called Twilight with Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and Reese Witherspoon. My dad played a bad guy, which he never played.”

Gigi — a painter (who shows with Beverly Hills gallery ACCA) — spoke further with THR about her dad, discussing, with an abundance of pride and love, everything from his personal style to how his Rockford Files character got his name.

What was his own style like?

My dad was not into like designer labels and things like that. He was a conservative, classic dresser. My dad was just a class act. He golfed a lot, so he wore a lot of cashmere sweaters and golf shirts. The sport coat was something that got famous from The Rockford Files, but he actually wore sport coats in real life.

I’ve heard anecdotally that there’s this new wave of viewers who are watching The Rockford Files since it started streaming on Peacock in 2020.

There’s a cult of people, young people, who are just discovering it, and fortunately, I feel like it still holds up.

It’s also one of the best shows for seeing Los Angeles and some of the city’s historic mansions because they filmed so many places.

They did a lot of really interesting locations. [His character James Rockford] had a mobile home that was parked down at the beach. They didn’t say what beach, but it was actually Paradise Cove. They filmed everywhere. They used this castle in Malibu up by Pepperdine. They filmed all over the Valley.

Did your dad have a lot of affection for playing Jim Rockford on the show?

I heard that they were originally going to name the character Tom Rockford and then my dad asked one favor and that was to switch the name to Jim Rockford. You see, my dad’s full name is James Scott Garner and Rockford’s name is James Scott Rockford. And you’ve got to remember that the person who invented The Rockford Files is Roy Huggins, who was also the creator of Maverick. And also Roy Huggins’ wife, actress Adele Mara — her brother was my dad’s best friend and his stand-in for his whole career, Luis Delgado. Jim Rockford had a lot to do with who my dad really was in a lot of ways, and that had a lot do with his own dressing. They let him wear his own clothes on the show.

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A personal photo, circa 1980s, of Gigi Garner and her father James Garner (wearing his Heuer Carrera chronograph).

Courtesy of Gigi Garner and Phillips

Why did you feel it important to donate a portion of proceeds from the sale to help animals?

Before you called, I was making donations to Ukrainian animal people. That’s what I do. That’s my purpose. That’s what I do all day. I’m a painter and I love art. I give the majority of money that I make from my painting to my charity. I also recently auctioned off my dad’s Cadillac, that was his last car, at the Barrett-Jackson auction in January. And I was able to raise $100,000 for the James Garner Animal Rescue Fund. People don’t realize how important it is to spay and neuter. I want to really focus on spay and neuter. It’s critical.

Did your dad support animal welfare charities?

My dad did stuff for every charity when he was alive. He was such a humanitarian and anytime anybody asked him for anything for charity, he did it.

What do you remember most about him?

You know, my dad was the most witty, funny person I ever knew. He was just naturally funny, and although he was a complex human being and there are many sides to him, the thing I remember most is that he was just so genuinely funny and off the cuff. He never missed the opportunity to make a pun or a joke and when someone asked him how he wanted to be remembered, he said, “With a smile.” That kind of sums up how he was.

Is it true that he modeled his career after Henry Fonda?

He did in some ways. When my dad first started acting, he got a job as just an extra, basically. He had two lines every night in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial [on Broadway] starring Henry Fonda. Every single night, he would sit there. He only had two lines, and he would watch Henry Fonda, and that’s how my dad learned to act. And then they were friends their whole lives.

How do you feel about parting with the watches?

It’s a little bittersweet because they are personal things that he wore every day, and it’s a little difficult, but I think it’s worth it. And we’re announcing the sale on April 7. That’s my dad’s birthday, which was just randomly picked, but it’s my dad’s birthday. I’m so glad.

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