Back in the day, millions of Americans had their pocket watches engraved with their initials. Almost invariably, the connection between the watch’s owner and their timepiece disappeared into the mists of time. Less so for gold retirement watches (from the days before the “portfolio career“). And then there are engraved pocket watches rich with our shared history, like this 1926 Waltham Presidential Presentation Pocket Watch . . .
The President in question was Calvin Coolidge, the first and only President to hail from Vermont (sorry Bernie). As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge opposed Boston police seeking to unionize under the AFL.
Coolidge toughed out several nights of looting, deploying the Massachusetts State Guard to maintain order. Ironically (Coolidge was a man of very few words), his decisions earned him a national reputation for being a man of action.
So it’s fitting that Coolidge awarded a gold Waltham watch c. 1907 to the Captain of the British steamer Defender. The Orders & Medals Society of America (omsa.org) tells the tale . . .
The U.S. Coast Guard Schooner Lincoln was a confiscated rum-runner converted by the Coast Guard into a supply ship in service along the Atlantic coast of North America. Under the command of Boatswain A. Erlington and with seven crew members, the Lincoln left Cape May, New Jersey, on 18 December 1926 bound for Baltimore.
The Lincoln was off the North Carolina coast south of Cape Hatteras when a fire broke out. With the fire fueled by high winds, the schooner soon burned to the waterline and sank. The crew, some of whom were injured, abandoned the vessel and were scattered, holding desperately on to pieces of floating debris.
The British steamer Defender, commanded by Master E. Maycock and in route to Galveston, Texas, arrived at the scene of the wreck in a rising gale. With great difficulty, a life boat was launched and then headed for the burning vessel. However, no survivors were aboard; and the lifeboat crew, by then exhausted, returned to the Defender.
A second life boat was then sent out to search the surrounding waters and picked up two survivors. One more crew member was rescued the next day by the Clyde liner Seminole, but the five remaining crew members of the Lincoln were subsequently listed as lost at sea.
The twelve members of the Defender’s crew who manned the lifeboats that day received a Presidential Gold Lifesaving Medal (two of which are now in The Royal Museums Greenwich). Second Officer W.A. Short received a pair of binoculars. British Master E. Maycock received the gold Waltham pocket watch you see here.
Quick digression . . . There’s a bit of confusion about the origin of the award. According to the listing for a similar pocket watch at Bonham’s auction house (and other sources) . . .
A watch was given from the President of the United States on behalf of the American people to a foreigner who selflessly saved a U.S. citizen at sea. Known as the ‘Official Award to Non-Citizens of the United States of America for Saving Lives at Sea’, the watch presentation program was approved by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
I can find no record of any award by that name. But in 2013, Sotheby’s auctioned the watch above (for $19k). The catalogue says it was presented in 1863 to Capt. John Williams of the British ship Exodus for rescuing the crew of the John Rhynas. Abraham Lincoln was president from 1861 to 1865. So there is that.
My research unearthed the fact that the 43rd Congress of 1874 established the U.S. Presidential Lifesaving Medal for “persons who shall hereafter endanger their own lives in saving, or endeavouring to save lives from perils of the sea, within the United States, or upon any American vessel.”
While the text doesn’t specify the recipients’ nationality, all the other Presidential Presentation watches awarded under the program I found online were given to foreign sea captains rescuing American sailors.
What price valor? New Orleans antique dealer M.S. Rau lists the Maycock watch for $28,850 on 1stdibs.com.
Back in 1992, Geneva’s Antiquorum auction house sold the selfsame piece for CHF 25,300 ($51,200.77 in today’s money). Pocket watch market values dipped heavily in the 90’s; they’ve slowly recovered since. So why hasn’t the Maycock watch retained or increased its value?
According to omsa.org, the President awarded some 294 gold watches and two chronometers from 1880 to 1939, given to “senior officers of foreign vessels who assisted American ships in distress.” So it’s safe to say that Presidential Presentation Pocket Watches aren’t unknown in the pocket watch world.
In 2015, Bonham’s sold an 1857 Presidential Pocket Watch presented to Cap’t W. S. Boyns (presumably by President James Buchanan) for “his humane and gallant conduct In rescuing from shipwreck the Master And Crew of the Schooner Standard Of New York, 1857.” It sold for $15,500.
eBay currently lists the “near mint” 18k Solid Gold U.S. Grant Presidential Hunter Cased Pocket Watch c.1873 (with a Swiss movement) awarded to Captain John Cook of the Annie Brown for rescuing the crew of the Raven’s Wing. The seller’s asking $19,995.
I can’t find a list of the 294 Presidential Gold Lifesaving Award pocket watches. Surely the more dramatic and well-known the sea rescue commemorated, the greater the watch’s potential value. As always, in the final analysis, any watch is worth exactly what someone will pay for it, as governed by the law of supply and demand.
At the moment, the supply seems high and the demand seems low – especially when compared to the money chasing non-engraved Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin gold pocket watches from the era as the Defender pocket watch. Perhaps a society that uses the phrase “toxic masculinity” doesn’t value acts of physical bravery as highly it once did. Or, hopefully, will again.