A Pocket Watch Just Became the Most Expensive Piece of Titanic Memorabilia

John Jacob Astor's 14-carat gold timepiece is now the most valuable relic from the shipwreck.

A gold circular pocket watch initialized with 'JJA'
The watch was recovered shortly after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Courtesy Henry Aldridge & Son

Among the 2,240 passengers on the ill-fated maiden voyage of the Titanic in 1912, John Jacob Astor IV was by far the wealthiest. The American financier was a member of the prominent Astor family and had a net worth of around $87 million at the time, equivalent to several billion dollars today. A relic of Astor’s life, which was cut short when the ship hit an iceberg and sank into the Atlantic Ocean, now holds the world record for the most valuable piece of Titanic memorabilia.

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His 14-carat gold pocket watch sold for £1.175 million ($1.5 million) to a U.S. collector at an April 27 auction held by auction house Henry Aldridge & Son. Adorned with the initials “JJA,” the watch belongs to a rare yet sought-after subsection of memorabilia. “Every man, woman and child had a story to tell and then the memorabilia tells those stories today,” Andrew Aldridge, managing director of the Wiltshire, South West England-based auction house, told the PA Media newswire service. “112 years later, we are still talking about the ship and the passengers and the crew.”

Astor, 47, was the great-grandson of the prosperous fur trader John Jacob Astor and boarded the Titanic from France alongside his pregnant wife Madeleine. As the ship began to sink during the early hours of April 15, he helped Madeleine into a lifeboat but was prevented from joining her, according to Henry Aldridge & Son. He was last seen smoking a cigarette with fellow passenger and writer Jacques Futrelle.

Black and white photograph of man with mustache wearing suit
John Jacob Astor was the richest passenger on the Titanic. Bettmann Archive

Astor’s body was recovered from the shipwreck days after the disaster, alongside personal possessions that included the watch, a diamond ring, gold cufflinks, a pocketbook, English notes and $2,440 in American currency. The pocket watch was restored and subsequently used by his son Vincent, who later gifted the valuable item to the son of William Dobbyn, Astor’s executive secretary.

A robust market for Titanic memorabilia

The sale of the watch, which had an original estimate of £100,000 ($126,000) to £150,000 ($188,000), surpassed the previous Titanic auction record also established by Henry Aldridge & Son. The auctioneer realized £1.1 million ($1.4 million) in 2013 for a violin played by bandleader Wallace Hartley as he attempted to calm Titanic passengers amid the chaos. The violin’s case was offered in the same auction as Astor’s pocket watch and fetched £360,000 ($452,000).

Despite occurring more than a century ago, the maritime disaster still fascinates memorabilia collectors. Henry Aldridge & Son, which holds Titanic-themed auctions biannually, last year sold a passenger’s pocket watch for $118,000 along with a dinner menu from the ship’s restaurant that boasted options of lamb, roast chicken and green peas and brought in more than $100,000. The auction house has also sold an architectural plan of the Titanic that realized $240,000 in 2023 and a single cracker that survived the wreckage and sold for $23,000 in 2015.

It isn’t just real-life items from the infamous ship that have inspired bidding flurries. The wooden prop door that saved the life of Kate Winslet’s Rose in the 1997 film Titanic realized a staggering $719,000 when sold by Heritage Auctions earlier this year.

A Pocket Watch Just Became the Most Expensive Piece of Titanic Memorabilia