What you see: An 18-karat gold French quarter-repeating pocket watch that once belonged to Edgar Allan Poe. Christie’s estimates it at $80,000 to $120,000.
The expert: Heather Weintraub, associate specialist in books, manuscripts, and archives at Christie’s New York.
Could you talk a bit about what a gold pocket watch represented in 1840s America? According to the lot notes, Poe probably bought this watch when he was earning $800 per year, and he likely spent between $120 to $150 if he bought it new. What did a watch like this say about its owner? In Philadelphia at this time, you would have seen a good selection of European watches. This would have been a nice watch, a nice middle-class watch. It wouldn’t have been expensive, but it also wasn’t cheap. It was a quarter-repeater, which means it chimed every 15 minutes. The most expensive watch at the time was a minute repeater. It would retail for $120 to $150, but he could have bought it secondhand for $100 or less. He also could have received it as a gift at some point. What makes it so interesting is we have nailed down what we can, but there’s a little bit of intrigue. We don’t have all the exact details. We researched it and pinned down what we could. One really nice detail is it has signs of wear, as if it was worn considerably. I love that. I think of Poe wearing the watch during the time he had it.
Poe had the watch engraved with his name. Was that a common practice at the time? Engraving was very common. Engraving shops would have been readily available. It was partly done to [deter] theft. Having it engraved would have cost less than a dollar.
Is this pocket watch valuable without the Poe provenance? We worked closely with the watch department to catalog this. On its own, it would be in the low thousands, we were told. The value for us is really in the wonderful provenance.
Do we know how long Poe owned it? Poe had a brief window of prosperity in the early 1840s. It seems a likely time for him to have acquired this. He filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Adding that to what we learned from an 1880 newspaper article [titled The Gold Watch of Edgar A. Poe], which says J.W. Albright acquired it between 1841 and 1842, that creates a pretty narrow window.
Poe published The Tell-Tale Heart in 1843, which likens the thumping of the tell-tale heart to “much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”. Is there any chance this pocket watch was available to him while he wrote the story? He first submitted The Tell-Tale Heart to the Boston Miscellany in 1842. It’s not impossible there might have been overlap.
Does it work? It does not work, but our watch expert says it can be repaired.
Does the watch expert advise repairing it? It depends on the person who buys it. It’s up to the buyer if they’d like to repair it.
What is the pocket watch like in person? Have you held it? I have held it. It has a nice weight to it. It’s wonderful to be able to hold something from the 1840s that Poe may have held. It’s one of the reasons to love this job.
How did you arrive at the estimate of $80,000 to $120,000? Coming up with an auction estimate is definitely more of an art than a science. One [result] we looked at was a 2016 sale of Albert Einstein’s pocket watch, which fetched £266,500 [roughly $337,000] at Christie’s London.
Why Einstein? Why is he a good analog in this context? Poe and he are both well-known people who are associated with time…? We considered a number of things. This was just one of them. In the most obvious sense, it was another pocket watch owned by a well-known individual.
How rarely do objects owned by Edgar Allan Poe come up at auction? Objects related to Poe are rare. The only other thing we’re aware of is an engagement ring that was also engraved, which came up in 2012. [It was part of a group of Poe material sold at Profiles in History in December of that year.] Also in the June 12 auction is a signed autograph letter from Poe. Ten autograph Poe letters have appeared over the last 20 years–they’re scarce.
What’s the world auction record for Poe? I suspect it’s a rare book… I believe it’s a first edition copy of his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems, which sold at Christie’s New York in December 2009 for $662,500.
Looking at the lot notes, I see several private sales in the pocket watch’s past, but no auctions. Is this the first time it’s been consigned? Correct, yes. It’s changed hands over the years, but this is the first time it’s been to auction.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s not every day you get to hold Edgar Allan Poe’s pocket watch in your hands. Working with items such as this–six months ago, I didn’t know it existed–it’s one of the joys of working at auction. It’s a wonderful piece. We’re so excited to have it in the sale.
How to bid: Edgar Allan Poe’s pocket watch is lot 209 in the Fine Printed Books & Manuscripts Including Americana auction taking place at Christie’s New York on June 12, 2019.
Image is courtesy of Christie’s.
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