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John Jacob Astor’s Timepiece Sets Titanic Record

May 15, 2024
Engraved gold pocket watch belonged to John Jacob Astor

John Jacob Astor’s pocket watch

John Jacob Astor’s pocket watch, which he was wearing when his body was found, is now the most expensive Titanic memorabilia purchased at auction.

John Jacob Astor, an American self-made millionaire, was a multifaceted individual who excelled as a businessman, inventor, and writer. He hailed from the prominent Astor family, and his service also marked his life as a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish-American War; a significant chapter in his life that often goes unnoticed. Astor tragically perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic, marking him as the wealthiest casualty of that disaster.

His extensive business endeavors, primarily focused on real estate, left an indelible mark on New York City. Notable projects included constructing the Astoria section of the Waldorf–Astoria and the St. Regis Hotel.

Astor and his first wife, Ava Lowle Willing, divorced in 1909. In September 1911, a scandal ensued when Astor married Madeleine Talmadge Force, a woman 29 years his junior. Following their wedding they indulged in a prolonged honeymoon, initially exploring various local destinations, and subsequently, in January 1912, embarking from New York on the RMS Olympic for an extensive tour of Egypt. It was during this journey that Madeleine conceived, prompting her desire to return to the United States for the birth. On April 10, 1912, Astor and Madeleine commenced their voyage aboard the Titanic’s inaugural journey.

Amidst the chaos of the Titanic’s tragic demise on April 14, Astor displayed remarkable composure, assisting his wife in securing a place aboard a lifeboat. However, despite his heroic efforts, Astor met his tragic fate when the ship sank into the icy depths on April 15, a moment that forever etched his name in the annals of the Titanic disaster.

Recovery efforts commenced following the disaster, leading to the retrieval of Astor’s remains and other victims on April 22, 1912, by the cable ship Mackay-Bennett. Among his recovered possessions was a prized 14-carat gold Waltham pocket watch, symbolizing his wealth and status.

This cherished timepiece eventually passed to Astor’s son, Vincent, who later entrusted it to William Dobbyn IV, Astor’s trusted executive secretary, in 1935. The Dobbyn family safeguarded the watch for decades until deciding to auction it in the late 1990s.

In April, the historic pocket watch, initially expected to fetch £100,000 ($135,000)—£150,000 ($190,000), far exceeded projections; selling to Patrick Gruhn, a German fintech entrepreneur and former executive at cryptocurrency exchange FTX, for an astonishing £1.17 ($1.5 million). This made the timepiece the most expensive Titanic memorabilia purchased at auction.