A Gold Watch That Survived the Titanic Sells for a World-Record $1.5 million

The coveted timepiece went for 10 times its high estimate.

The watch owned by John Jacob Astor. Photo: Henry Aldridge & Son.

The gold watch worn by the Titanic’s richest passenger, John Jacob Astor, has set an auction record as the most expensive item of Titanic memorabilia.

A private collector in the U.S. paid $1.5 million for the 14-carat gold Waltham pocket watch engraved with the initials J.J.A. The item was part of the “Titanic, White Star and Transport Memorabilia” sale held by British auction house Aldridge & Son on April 27. The watch was one of around 250 items and easily surpassed its high estimate of $150,000.

Astor, a real estate developer and member of the New York dynastic family made rich by fur trading in the 18th and 19th centuries, died at the age of 47 when the ship sank in 1912. Astor had sparked scandal by marrying a woman nearly 30 years his junior and was returning to New York following a protracted honeymoon to Europe and Egypt designed to quell the gossip.

He was last seen smoking a cigarette with the author Jacques Futrelle after escorting his wife, Madeleine Talmadge Force, and friend Margaret Brown safely into lifeboat four. Both women survived.

Astor’s body was found on April 22 by CS MacKay-Bennett, a cable laying steamer that was repurposed as a recovery ship by the White Star Line, the Titanic’s operator. In addition to the pocket watch, his cuff links, diamond ring, golden pencil, and pocketbook, along with money in various currencies, were recovered.

The possessions were returned to Astor’s son, Vincent, who restored the pocket watch before gifting it to his father’s long-serving secretary William Dobbyn in 1935. The Dobbyn family kept the item until sending it to auction in the late 1990s.

Titanic case violin

Wallace Henry Hartley’s violin case sold at auction. Photo: Henry Aldridge & Son.

“[The items] reflect not only the importance of the artefacts themselves and their rarity but they also show the enduring appeal and fascination with the Titanic story,” said auctioneer Andrew Aldridge. “It’s effectively a large ship hits an iceberg with a tragic loss of life, but more importantly it’s 2,200 stories, every man, woman and child had a story to tell.”

The previous auction record for an item of Titanic memorabilia came in 2013 when the violin that bandleader Wallace Henry Hartley played to calm passengers as the ship sank fetched $1.4 million. Henry Aldridge & Son was the seller. At the most recent auction, the case for Hartley’s violin, with the monogrammed initials W.H.H., sold for $450,000.

Black and white photograph of an iceberg.

Photo taken on the C.S MacKay-Bennett (1912). Image courtesy of Henry Aldridge.

Also of note was a black-and-white photograph of an iceberg believed to be the Titanic’s downfall that was taken by John R. Snow Jr., an undertaker who traveled on the CS MacKay-Bennett. It sold for $22,000.

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