Theodore Roosevelt’s Long-Lost Pocket Watch Surfaces at a Florida Auction House

Thieves stole the timepiece, a gift from the president’s sister, from an unlocked display case in 1987

Watch with engraving
The watch is engraved with the words, "THEODORE ROOSEVELT FROM D.R. & C.R.R." Jason Wickersty / National Park Service

When a client brought in a late-1800s pocket watch, Edwin Bailey, owner of Blackwell Auctions in Florida, thought it might be worth about $100. But then he saw the inscription inside: “THEODORE ROOSEVELT FROM D.R. & C.R.R.”

“For the next few weeks, I was consumed with researching the watch,” recalls Bailey in a blog post on the auction house’s website. “I wrote to numerous organizations and museums related to Theodore Roosevelt, trying to find out anything I could about the possible authenticity of the watch.”

After extensive research, he became convinced that it belonged to the 26th president. The watch went up on the auction house’s website with a starting bid of $50,000.

Not long after, federal agents showed up at Blackwell Auctions. They told Bailey that the watch was authentic—and it had been missing for more than 30 years.

Roosevelt took the watch with him on trips all over the world. Jason Wickersty / National Park Service

In the summer of 1987, thieves stole the artifact from an unlocked glass display case at the Wilcox Mansion in Buffalo, New York, according to the New York Times’ Christopher Maag. The watch had been on loan at the mansion, the site where Roosevelt was sworn into office in 1901, but it belonged to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, the president’s former home on Long Island.

At the time of the robbery, detectives thought the watch was worth “less than $1,000.” Now, almost four decades later, auction house officials say it might have fetched up to half a million dollars, as the Buffalo News’ Lou Michel reported last year.

The watch itself is not an overly complex construction. In fact, it was a “fairly pedestrian Waltham 17 jewel watch with an inexpensive coin silver case,” as special agent Robert Giczy, a member of the FBI’s art crimes team, says in a statement.

But the watch’s historical significance is far greater than its material value. It was a gift from Roosevelt’s sister, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, and her husband, Douglas Robinson, whose initials are engraved on the inside cover. In an 1898 letter, Theodore Roosevelt thanked his sister profusely. “You could not give me a more useful present than the watch,” he wrote. “It was exactly what I wished.”

Roosevelt brought the watch along when he fought in the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, which would earn him a posthumous Medal of Honor. In the years that followed, it accompanied him on trips all over the world.

“He used [the watch] to go to war. He used it to travel to Africa and to travel to South America, and it seemed to be with him for most of his life,” Clare Connelly, chief of cultural resources at Sagamore Hill, tells CBS New York’s Carolyn Gusoff.

How the watch ended up in Florida is unclear, though the consignor was never a suspect, according to Bailey’s blog post. Last week, the artifact returned to one of the museums at Sagamore Hill—where it will hopefully remain for many years to come.

For members of the Roosevelt family, the recovery is a triumph.

“The watch is home, and what a trip it has had,” great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt tells CBS New York. “To me, it feels like a little piece of T.R. has come back home.”

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