The ultimate Rolex barn find in the desert: “I’ve been watch-hunting for 30 years, but never found anything like this…” The ultimate Rolex barn find in the desert: “I’ve been watch-hunting for 30 years, but never found anything like this…”

The ultimate Rolex barn find in the desert: “I’ve been watch-hunting for 30 years, but never found anything like this…”

Luke Benedictus

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Karambelas is the man behind @barnfindwatches, an Instagram account that documents his watch-collecting adventures as he attempts to uncover old watches gathering dust in flea markets and thrift stores across America. Here, John shares the story of his ultimate barn find, which he randomly stumbled upon while driving through the Mojave Desert. 

I’d been in Las Vegas and was driving back home to LA across the Mojave Desert. I drive an electric vehicle so I had to stop halfway to charge it for 30 minutes. When I stop, I like to get out and stretch my legs and have a cup of coffee. That’s when I’d saw this yellow sign saying “THRIFT STORE” with an arrow. So I thought, “I’m going to follow that arrow.”

Rolex barn find

The sign took me about two miles off from the freeway, until there was a fork in the road and another sign. Finally I found the thrift store. It was in this random town of maybe 700 people right in the middle of the desert. Inside it was nicely air-conditioned, which was great because it was 110° outside, and I started talking with the owner, who was an older gentleman who’d owned the store for 30 years and was very friendly. He was holding court at the counter with two locals. One was this very chatty woman – within 10 minutes she’d told me about all the elected positions she held in the town and how she was the cultural liaison, director of the local art gallery and so on. But the other person was this quiet guy in his mid 70s who had long white hair and that desert dweller look about him.

I asked the owner if he had any watches and he reached into a filing cabinet and came out with a handful of what I can only describe as the bane of every watch hunter’s existence: quartz ladies’ watches. “You can have ‘em if you like,” the owner said.

Then the old stoic guy spoke up . “Do you buy Rolex?” he asked.

“Absolutely ,” I said.

Rolex barn find

He started telling me about this watch that he’d bought when he’d been in Vietnam. He’d brought it back and kept wearing it even when he worked in construction. But then the band broke, so he’d put it away for the last 30 years. “Thought I might bring it to this shop ,” he said. “Maybe I’ll get $100.”

“Sir, just so you know, your watch could be worth thousands of dollars,” I said. “Can you go and get it?”

Slowly the man started waking up to the opportunity . So he got on his pedal bike to cycle home while I waited in the store. I was ready to be disappointed or for the watch to turn out to be fake. But I kept waiting. Thirty minutes later the store’s phone rang and the owner picked it up . “Uh-huh. Uh-huh Oh… He can’t find the watch,” the owner said. “Leave your card. If he finds it, we’ll call you.”

Deflated, I explained that I still had a three-hour drive ahead of me, so if he found the watch in the next hour, he should ring me and I’d turn back. Then I drove home. I felt like that was the end of it and that nothing would ever happen.

Rolex barn find

Ten days later, I got a call. “I found the watch,” the old guy said.

“Can you text me a picture of it?” I said.

“I don’t have a cellphone,” he answered.

OK, then what’s on the face of the watch,” I said.

I started asking questions. What’s below the six? What colour are the numbers? Are the hands the same tonality as the numbers? The man mentioned there was a little crack in the dial and that it rattled a little.

“Can you read me the number between the lugs? ”

“It says 1019 …” the man paused. “Hmm, it’s hard to read the next number.”

“Could that be a six? ”

“Yes, it’s a six.”

“I’m going to come and take a look,” I said.

Two days later I drove the 200 miles over to his house. On the way, I started gettin g a little bit worried. I realised I was just driving to this random stranger’s house in the middle of the desert. Where they bury people. And he knew that I was carrying money, too. When I got there, the man came out and unlocked the gate so I could drive in. But then he locked and chained the gate up again behind me, which I thought was a weird thing to do.

It was an old house and the man lived modestly . There were sheets over all the windows. He brought out the watch and I took a look. It was a Rolex Explorer Mk1 1967 . And it was real.

I started showing him other comparable prices on the market. Because although he was originally going to sell it for $100, I wanted him to leave happy and know that he’d been treated fairly. When I made him an offer, he was over the moon. “I’m so glad he found you,” his sister said. “He could really use that money.”

He didn’t have the box or papers or the band. He didn’t even have any pictures of him wearing it. He’d just kept it in a tin for the last 30 years, he’d even kept the original crystal.

Rolex barn find

I’ve been watch-hunting for 30 years. I don’t watch TV. I go to hundreds of flea-markets each year looking for watches and I meet people and hand out my card. But I’ve never found anything like this. And it all happened just because this man happened to overhear that conversation in that random thrift shop. It was the ultimate barnfind.

After I bought it, I put the watch on Instagram and told the story. Soon after, someone called me offering to buy the Explorer. “It’s not for sale,” I said. “I’ll never sell that watch.”

This story first appeared in NOW magazine available here