Gold Watch Worn by 'J.J.A.', Titanic's Wealthiest Passenger, Sells for $1.5MM

A gold watch worn by John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest passenger on the ill-fated Titanic, recently set an auction record as the most expensive piece of Titanic memorabilia. An American private collector paid $1.5 million for the 14-karat gold Waltham pocket watch engraved with the initials "J.J.A." That was nearly 10 times the high estimate established by British auction house Aldridge & Son.

Astor and his new wife, Madeleine Talmadge Force, had been honeymooning in Europe and Egypt to allow the scuttlebutt surrounding their marriage to settle down in the states. The fact that Madeleine was just 18 years old and nearly 30 years his junior caused an uproar in the US, and gossip columnists were all over the story. The couple tied the knot in Newport, RI, in September of 1911, and stayed abroad until April 1912.

The couple was finally en route home when tragedy struck at 11:40 p.m. on April 14, 1912. The "unsinkable" Titanic clipped an iceberg in the waters 370 miles east of Newfoundland, Canada, and started to take on water.

Madeleine was safely loaded onto Lifeboat #4, but Astor was not allowed to join his wife. The officer in charge told him they could not accommodate any men until all the women and children were away.

At about 2:20 a.m., the 882.5-foot-long luxury ship — a modern engineering marvel of its day — disappeared beneath the ocean. Of the 2,200 people on board, 1,500 died, including Astor, who was one of the richest men in the world with a presumed net worth of $87 million ($2.8 billion in today's dollars). Madeleine survived.

Astor's body was recovered about a week after the disaster by the steamer CS MacKay-Bennett. He was identified by the initials sewn on the lapel of his jacket and by the initials inscribed on his 17-jewel pocket watch.

Also recovered from his body were gold and diamond cuff links, a three-stone diamond ring, $2,440 in cash, £225 in English notes, £5 in gold, a gold pencil and a pocketbook.

The real estate mogul's possessions were turned over to Astor’s son, Vincent, who had the gold watch completely restored. Vincent wore the watch regularly, but in 1935, presented it as a christening gift to the infant son of William Dobbyn IV, John Jacob Astor’s executive secretary and confidant. The watch would remain in the Dobbyn family until it was auctioned in the late 1990s.

Now, 112 years later, Astor is back in the news again. His watch earned top billing at Aldridge & Son's April 27 auction titled, “Titanic, White Star and Transport Memorabilia.”

Credits: Watch photos via Henry Aldridge & Son. Photo of John Jacob Astor IV and his wife, Madeleine, circa early 1910s. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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