Journal

Waltham gold pocket watch auctioned for a record-breaking $1.485 Million

Apr 29, 2024

Waltham gold pocket watch auctioned for a record-breaking $1.485 Million

The pocket watch of the richest man on the Titanic – recovered when his body was fished out of the Atlantic seven days after the tragedy – was sold a record-breaking $1.5 million on Saturday 27th of March 2024. 

The timepiece belonged to John Jacob Astor IV, a US business magnate who was among more than 1,500 people who died when the ship struck an iceberg in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

His 14-carat gold Waltham watch was sold at Henry Aldridge & Son auction house in Wiltshire for a record-breaking $ 1.485 million, six times the guide price, matching the record paid for a Titanic artifact – the violin played by bandmaster Wallace Hartley.

Mr Astor, a hotelier who was worth £55 million – about £7 billion today – went down with the ship after helping his pregnant wife Madeleine into a lifeboat. He was last seen smoking a cigarette on the starboard wing of the bridge while chatting to a fellow first-class passenger.

Astor's body was recovered from the north Atlantic seven days later dressed in a blue suit and brown flannel shirt. He was later identified by the initials ‘JJA’ engraved on the watch and sewn on to his jacket.

John Jacob Astor IV was born into one of America's most prominent and richest families and was the wealthiest passenger to die on board the Titanic.

A noted investor, hotelier and inventor, Astor served as a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American war of 1898.

He was one of the 1,541 people who died the night of 15 April 1912 after making sure that his eight-month pregnant wife had made it on board a life-boat and escaped.

Astor was reportedly last seen smoking a cigar on the deck of the doomed luxury liner and later recovered from the freezing Atlantic Ocean on April 22.

He was wearing a blue serge suit, brown boots with red rubber soles and a brown flannel shirt when he perished.

Astor was fished out of the sea still with his gold watch, gold and diamond cuff-links, £225 in Pounds Sterling, $2,440 in American Dollars and £5 in gold.

He was worth $150 million in 1912.

The Astor family began with John Jacob Astor, an immigrant from Germany. He exploited the beaver fur trade to become America's first multi-millionaire in the late 1700s. 

He used his fortune to purchase 70 acres of prime Manhattan real estate including the areas surrounding Times Square and along the Hudson River. 

By the time he died aged 84 in 1848, he was worth $30million which is equivalent to over $1billion today.

John Jacob Astor IV made his money on slums built on the family's land with buildings that had little ventilation.

His family helped build the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Park Avenue in New York. 

He left $69million of his $85million estate, equivalent to approximately $2.6billion in 2022, to his eldest son William Vincent Astor.

But William was not happy with how his family had generated the wealth and decided to give much of it away by putting it in a foundation named after himself. 

 John Jacob Astor IV was famously depicted in the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic and was played by actor Eric Braeden. 

It is not known what condition the watch was in at the time but it would have stopped working at 2.20am - the moment the Titanic and Astor disappeared into the Atlantic.

Vincent Astor had the watch restored and repaired and wore it until 1935 when he gifted it to his godson, William Dobbyn. Dobbyn's father, also called William, had been Astor's executive secretary and was also close to Vincent. 

The Dobbyn family sold it to a collector in the 1990s. 

Since then it has been displayed at various museums including the National Geographic Exhibition in Washington DC and Titanic Museum 'The World's Largest Titanic Attraction' in Missouri, US.

It was accompanied by a signed affidavit from William Dobbyn Snr's daughter-in-law confirming it has been a gift to her husband from Vincent. 

It adds that Vincent informed him the watch was carried by his father when he perished in the sinking of the Titanic.

The impeccably-dressed businessman was last seen smoking a cigarette on the starboard wing of the bridge wing chatting to a fellow first class passenger before he died.

Along with the watch there is a pair of gold cufflinks owned by Astor and his plan of the Titanic's first class accommodation.

To get away from the scandal and gossip the newlyweds they took an extended honeymoon to Europe and Africa.

After the Titanic struck an iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, Astor did not think he or his family were in any immediate danger.

He was warned about the seriousness of the situation personally by Edward Smith, the captain of Titanic, and saw Madeleine into lifeboat four.

Astor asked if he could join her because she was in 'a delicate condition' but he was told no men were allowed to board until all women and children had been loaded.

As well as Astor, fellow millionaire passengers Isador Strauss and Benjamin Guggenheim were unable to get a place on the lifeboats despite their wealth and died.

Madeleine Astor was five months pregnant at the time. She gave birth to a son on August 14, 1912, and called him John Jacob Astor V in memory of her husband and the boy's father.

About the watch

John Astor's Waltham encased a size 12s (mid-sized pocket watch), high end 19 jewel Riverside grade, model 1894, movement serial number 11015590.
The watch displays a very distinctive circular machining work on the inside of the front cover. This is indicative of a case made by one of the companies under the Keystone Watch Case Company umbrella. Keystone owned many case companies like Keystone, Philadelphia, Bates & Bacon, Brooklyn and a few others. There is a very high probability that the 14k solid gold case was made by Keystone or Philadelphia.
Astor owned this Waltham for 5 years until his death on April 15, 1912. He purchased the watch in 1907.

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Source: the daily mail article by Peter Henn and Richard Percival

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