The Collector’s Minute: Grandpa’s Gold Watch

This plain-looking watch was made by Patek Philippe & Co. for the American retailer Shreve Crump & Low at the turn of the 19th century. It is worth much more than the gold “scrap value.”

One item an appraiser runs into most often is that icon “Grandpa’s gold watch,” and depending how well-heeled Grandpa was, the more his watch is worth today.

Values for American pocket watches vary a great deal, depending on the vintage, the quality of the movement and—most importantly, these days—the metal content of the watch case. As most know the value for both gold and silver has gone through the roof (in 2005, an ounce of gold sold for about $450; today it’s more than $1,200 an ounce), meaning that any item that contains gold or silver that may not have appreciated in value as an antique or collectible item in recent years may still have appreciated simply due to its gold or silver content. For example, a broken late-century mass-produced 18-karat gold pocket watch by a maker such as Waltham that would have sold at auction in 2005 for $450, a comparable Waltham could sell today for $1,200, simply due to the tripling of the value of gold.

Where it gets confusing for the owners of these “gold watches” is the old rule that states: “All that glitters is not gold.” There are ways to determine if Grandpa’s watch is really gold or not. As a rule, all gold-cased pocket watches are marked to indicate the metal content. Markings such as “Gold Filled” indicate the case is thin layer of gold over a plain metal case. Genuine gold cases would have stamped markings such as “10K,” “14K” or “18K” to indicate 10-karat, 14-karat or 18-karat gold. If there are no such marks on your watch, it is likely gold-plated. But to be certain, you could always have the case tested by a jeweler.

While it is tempting to determine value for gold watches with broken movements by their gold “scrap value” content alone, it could be an expensive mistake. There are many late 19th-century watches whose value far exceeds that of the gold in their cases. The plain-looking watch pictured above was made by Patek Philippe & Co. for the American retailer Shreve Crump & Low at the turn of the 19th century. It sold earlier this year at auction for $13,000.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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