A Fabulous Find Indeed: A Hero’s Watch

Provenance makes a huge difference in value; for example, the watch pictured here is documented as belonging to Miles Standish and sold for over $42,000 in 2017. The watch in our story below is not quite as valuable monetarily, but has a story that makes it beyond valuable for generations to come.

As a dealer and appraiser I’ve been called upon at times to do charitable work, by donating my time for local appraisal events. For a couple of reasons, I’ve always volunteered for events supporting local libraries, because next to antiques, books are my second great love. A good book can transport you far from where you are, say from a dingy studio apartment in the bad end of the city, to sun drenched Monte Carlo. For a while, your jeans can be traded for a $5,000.00 tuxedo at the casino, while you plot with an international jewel thief, or even watch a bullfight with Hemingway.  The other reason I volunteer to help the library is gratitude for the help I received in the early days of my career from our local library. Back then most reference books were beyond what I could afford, or were simply no longer in print, but our librarian scoured the country through the inter-library loan system to get them for me, and I am forever grateful.

The story below is true, occurring at one of these library appraisal events–only the names have been changed.

I didn’t expect to find any lost Picassos, Salvador Dalis, or Faberge eggs today at our local appraisal fair, but I did hope for an interesting story or two. The fabulous finds you see on TV are the rare exception to the rule. I know that because I’ve worked at some of these events in the past and have seen it first hand. Out of the thousands that line up for their five minutes with an expert, 95% of them go home disappointed. Those half dozen items they show the experts drooling over are the pick of a very mongrel litter; most of the rest end up in dumpsters on the way home. 

The best I could hope to find today might be a circa 1890s 18k gold pocket watch or a sterling tea service; the only Picassos or Dalis we’d find would be limited edition prints, and the Dali would probably be a fake. Even so, in the appraisal business it’s all about due diligence, because you never know. Even if something looks like junk, I always check for precious metal content, maker’s marks and most importantly, the provenance. Provenance, or prior ownership if you will, can trump the other two value indicators by a huge margin. Even if something is junk or garbage, it can still be quite valuable, as long as it’s the junk and garbage of the rich and famous. Sounds crazy I know, but it’s true. Recently a piece of pop singer Justine Timberlake’s french toast with one bite out of it sold for $3,154.00. If you really want to get rich, forget about antiques, fine art or investments, just invite celebrities to a free lunch and auction off their leftovers. 
I had to get to my table, there were already about ten people lined up for me. If it was going to be like last year, I would need plenty of caffeine and calories. It was unlikely I’d have time to get out of my booth for the next five hours, so I made a run to the food table and grabbed a couple of sandwiches and a carafe of coffee. If I needed anything else from now till five, I would be too busy to go myself and would have to flag down one of the event workers for further sustenance.

I looked around and all the other dealers participating were busy. Allen, being a jeweler, had the longest line–seems every one has an unmarked treasure they are sure is gold or diamonds. Some of his overflow was being diverted to me because I had agreed to handle watches if he got bogged down. 

The first person in my line looked like the kind of collector I like, the ones without dollar signs in their eyes. She didn’t look like she needed any extra cash anyway, dressed in that subtle way that indicates success without shouting it. She was a serious looking woman, about 30; her eyes said she had questions and she was holding a battered old pocket watch with a cracked crystal. It looked like junk and monetarily it probably was, but you never jump to conclusions in my business without a closer look. I could see right away it was silver plated without even opening the case, brass was showing on the worn back, the result of a lifetime of use. As I looked it over she said,

“It belonged to my Great Uncle Harry, who lived till he was 103.  We used to visit him at the senior’s home on weekends and sometimes take him out for ice cream. All I can remember was he would refuse to go anywhere without his watch. He often had it in his hand, rubbing it, staring off into space when we came to visit. After he died, my mom was going to throw it out, along with a box of all his other stuff, but I asked if I could have it, I don’t know why, I always wondered why the watch was so important to him.”

I had dealt with a lot of seniors as a dealer and had a pretty good idea about Uncle Harry.  He would be about the right age and I had seen that kind of behavior before in my own grandfather and the men of his generation at the local Legion Hall.

This watch, which sold for over $250 in 2014, is similar to the one described in this story.

I replied to her, “I’m afraid to say money wise it’s not worth much. It’s what we call a “dollar watch” with an American case and probably a European movement; but, let’s have a look inside for maker’s marks. Sometimes these watches will have repair notes in them left by jewelers or inscriptions that might give a bit of history to where the watch has been.”

I popped the back open and there it was as I suspected, an inscription, “Harry Jensen Lt.,1st. Division Vimy, April 1917.” Great Uncle Harry was a veteran of World War One and had survived, but probably was a casualty none the less.

“Your watch does have quite a history, this inscription tells us your Great Uncle Harry wasn’t always an old man in a nursing home. Harry was once a brave young man, a war hero in his day with the 1st. Canadian Division. This inscription indicates he was in the thick of one of the bloodiest events of World War One, the Battle for Vimy Ridge in April, 1917.  Watches were important for officers, as attacks and bombardments were often planned well ahead; their timing being a matter of life and death. Your great uncle would have many times led men in an attack at a preset time, staring at it this watch as the minutes counted down. “

She was in the zone now, fully engaged with what I was telling her, even the people in line behind her had crowded around and were leaning in for a look. I stopped for effect to let it sink in for a moment and went on,

“A lot of men had their watches inscribed during the war, not just to mark the event, but as a means of identification if they were killed in action. Some actually had pre-written letters to wives, girlfriends and family they kept in their tunic pocket, hoping they’d be found and sent home. Your great uncle must have thought his luck was going to run out and had his inscribed after Vimy. It’s hard to imagine for us today what it must have been like for him, over 10,500 of his fellow Canadians were casualties of just that battle, 3500 died, many maimed for life. A lot of vets like Harry survived the entire war with no physical wounds, but suffered mentally from what we now know as PSTD for the rest of their lives.”

I handed her the open watch case, she held it and looked at the inscription, a far away look in her own eyes, as if trying to imagine the young soldier. Finally she said, 

“I’d always seen Uncle Harry as this odd old bachelor; I never imagined he had this kind of life. My family never talked much about him and he was getting senile before I was even born, so I didn’t talk to him much. Is there any way I can find out more about his time in the war? I have more of his things at home that look like medals and ribbons, can I make an appointment to show them to you?” 

I scribbled a name, number and email address on the back of one of my business cards and handed it to her saying, 

“Yes, no problem, I’d love to have a look and see what other mysteries your great uncle was hiding. For his war records you can call this number, I have a friend who works at the Canadian War Museum who can help you. It’s worth the drive to go and visit. There are even paintings of the Vimy Battle and many others on display.”

As she got up off her chair to go I realized I’d been so intent on the story, I had not even got around to giving her a value for it, she was already walking away when I asked, “Don’t you want to know the value?” She just shook her head and said,  “No, what kind of value can you put on that kind of history? I’ll call you next week.” 

She was right of course. Some things are beyond value, family gold of a sort.  The broken and forgotten man she knew is now a hero in her eyes. Somewhere in Valhalla an old warrior smiles.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website Antique-Appraise.com.

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