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Gold pocket watch found on body of Titanic's richest passenger sells for record $1.46 million

Photo of Titanic iceberg up for auction
Newly uncovered photo of Titanic iceberg up for auction 00:42

A pocket watch that belonged to the wealthiest passenger aboard the Titanic was auctioned in England Saturday for $1.46 million (£1.17 million), breaking the record for an object linked to the 1912 disaster, an auction house said this weekend. An American buyer won the bidding war for John Jacob Astor IV's 14-carat gold Waltham pocket watch, shattering the auctioneer's pre-sale estimate of £150,000, according to Henry Aldridge & Son

The watch, engraved with the initials JJA, was found along with Astor's body when his remains were recovered several days after the Titanic sank. He was also found with a diamond ring, gold and diamond cufflinks, 225 pounds in English notes, and $2,440.

"Astor is well known as the richest passenger aboard the R.M.S. Titanic and was thought to be among the richest people in the world at that time, with a net worth of roughly $87 million (equivalent to several billion dollars today,)" the auction house wrote.

John Jacob Astor IV's pocket watch
John Jacob Astor IV's pocket watch is up for auction. It was found along with his body after the Titanic sank. Henry Aldridge & Son

Astor was on the Titanic with wife, Madeleine. The business tycoon, who was in his 40s, had married the 18-year-old on Sept. 11, 1911, according to the auction house. The newlyweds took an extended honeymoon in Europe and Egypt while they waited for gossip about their marriage to die down. They were headed back to the U.S. when the Titanic hit an iceberg on April 14, 1912.

According to the auction house, Astor asked if he could join his wife on a lifeboat, mentioning her "delicate condition." After being told he needed to wait until all the women and children were away, Astor reportedly lit a cigarette and tossed his gloves to his wife. He went off to smoke with author Jacques Futrelle, who also died when the Titanic sank. They were among the more than 1,500 who perished. 

Astor's body — and his watch — were recovered by the steamer CS McKay-Bennett on April 22. His wife survived.

"The watch itself was completely restored after being returned to Colonel Astor's family and worn by his son making it a unique part of the Titanic story and one of the most important pieces of horological history relating to the most famous ship in the world," the auction house said.

The sale of the pocket watch comes as other items from the infamous shipwreck have also hit the auction block, most recently a photo taken on April 16, 1912, that apparently shows the iceberg that doomed the ship.

In November, a rare menu from the Titanic's first-class restaurant sold at auction along with a pocket watch from another man who died in the 1912 disaster. The menu sold for about about $101,600. The pocket watch, recovered from Russian immigrant Sinai Kantor, sold for about $118,700. 

Before his death, Astor was a business magnate, real estate developer, investor, writer, and a lieutenant colonel in the Spanish–American War, according to the auction house. He founded the St. Regis hotel in New York City, which still stands today. Astor is also credited with inventing an early form of air conditioning by blowing cold air over the hotel's wall vents

He was the great grandson of John Jacob Astor, a fur trader who died in 1848 as one of the wealthiest men in the U.S., according to the Library of Congress. In their 2023 book "Astor: The Rise and Fall of an American Fortune," Anderson Cooper and co-author historian Katherine Howe described how the family made its fortune. 

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