Time’s Up: Stolen Presidential Pocket Watch Returns Home

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An historic silver pocket watch that traveled the world with Theodore Roosevelt during his presidency, including his charge up San Juan Hill and travels to Africa and down the Amazon River, has returned to his family home at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Oyster Bay.

The face of Roosevelt’s pocket watch (NPS)

The pocket watch was stolen by an unknown person while on loan from Sagamore Hill to the Wilcox House in Buffalo in 1987. It passed through several hands before becoming a consignment piece, reappearing at an auction house in Florida. The owner of the auction house subsequently contacted the National Park Service (NPS) about the authenticity of the watch. The NPS Investigative Services Branch, the lead investigative agency, contacted the FBI Art Crime team for assistance.

NPS Director Chuck Sams announced the recovery of the president’s watch and return to NPS care on June 27. Roosevelt family members joined during the special press conference.

“It is an honor to have a role in preserving American history for current and future generations to learn from,” Sams said. “Recovering and returning this remarkable piece of presidential history, a cherished personal item of President Theodore Roosevelt, to its rightful home here at Sagamore Hill reflects the dedication and hard work of NPS and partners in the spirit of preservation.”

The inner workings of Roosevelt’s pocket watch (NPS)

NPS and FBI confirmed that this was the same watch stolen from Buffalo almost 40 years earlier. It was recovered by special agents from the National Park Service Investigative Services Branch, with assistance from the FBI.

“Today, we are honored to return this extraordinary piece of Americana to its rightful owner,” Assistant Director Michael Nordwall of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division said. “Despite the passage of time, in this case, almost four decades, the FBI is committed to working with our partners to recover and preserve important pieces of our cultural heritage that help bring history to life.”

History of the Watch

In May of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt was in Washington, DC and impatient to leave for San Antonio to join the Spanish-American War. While he waited for his wife Edith to help him pass the time, he received a gift from his sister Corinne and brother-in-law Douglas Robinson: a silver pocket watch.

On May 5, 1898, President Roosevelt wrote to his sister, thanking her:

“Darling Corinne, You could not have given me a more useful present than the watch; it was exactly what I wished…Thank old Douglas for the watch–and for his many, many kindnesses.”

One week later, Lt. Colonel Theodore Roosevelt finally left for San Antonio to lead the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry. The future president would take this watch with him on some of his most famous adventures, including charging up San Juan Hill in Cuba, hunting wild game in Africa, and exploring the Amazon in South America.

In his 1914 book, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, the former president writes about a particularly difficult bayou crossing:

“One result of the swim, by the way, was that my watch, a veteran of Cuba and Africa, came to an indignant halt.”

The valued watch would travel with him, be damaged, repaired, and kept as a keepsake. It is likely to have accompanied Theodore Roosevelt for significant portions of his presidency, including his two inaugurations.

Inside the front cover, with the inscription “Theodore Roosevelt / From J.R. & C.R.R.” (NPS)

Inscribed “THEODORE ROOSEVELT FROM D.R. AND C.R.R.” the Waltham-manufactured pocket watch was kept after Roosevelt’s death, likely as a memento of the 26th president. It was eventually given to the National Park Service to be in the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site museum collection.

“The stories this watch could tell over the last 126 years include colorful and profound moments in American history,” said Superintendent Jonathan Parker of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. “Historic objects are powerful because they are literal participants in historical events, and in the case of this storied watch, it is also a beloved family heirloom of a renowned American president. Almost 40 years have passed since the public had last seen President Roosevelt’s watch and we’re excited to place this watch back into the light on public display.”

Theodore Roosevelt’s silver watch resting on his office desk. (NPS)

The watch is currently featured in an exclusive exhibit at the Old Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill and is available for free public viewing. The pocket watch, part of the thousands of items originally gifted to the National Park Service by the Roosevelt family through the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1963, will remain in the permanent museum collection of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site is located at 20 Sagamore Hill Rd., Oyster Bay. The Old Orchard Museum is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visit www.nps.gov/sahi for more information.

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