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Auctions Pocket Watches Recovered From Steamship 'Pulaski' Auctioning At Skinner

Auctions Pocket Watches Recovered From Steamship ‘Pulaski’ Auctioning At Skinner

On the night of June 14, 1838, the steamship Pulaski was sailing north from Charleston, South Carolina, to Baltimore, Maryland, when its starboard heater detonated, executing several passengers instantly and destroying the central portion of the ship, which sunk soon after and guaranteed approximately 128 lives. Just 59 survived. 

At the time, the Pulaski disaster was perhaps the greatest sea faring catastrophe in American history, and its casualties incorporated a previous United States Congressman from New York, William B. Rochester. A contemporary newspaper account tells of the nerve racking minutes following the explosion. Lifeboats were brought down to the water, two of which immediately took on water, with one sinking after a “fruitless attempt to bail her.” Memories blurred with time, and the disaster area, its victims, and all that was lost stayed covered up off the Carolina coast.

Lot 1049 is a 18-karat gold S.I. Tobias pocket watch with its hands stopped any 11:05, the approximate time that the Pulaski’s kettle exploded.

That was until 2017, when Swordfish Partners recorded an admiralty guarantee on an “obscure deserted and sunken steamship off the coast of North Carolina” accepted to be the Pulaski. Blue Water Ventures was locked in to oversee and conduct excavation and recovery operations, and in mid 2018, a team of Blue Water divers arose with conclusive confirmation that the sunken ship resting on the sea floor 40 miles off the Carolina coast was in fact the Pulaski. Since then, various items have been recovered, including four pocket watches recently consigned to the Massachusetts-based auction house, Skinner .

Among these is a 18-karat gold open-face pocket watch from the shop of the Liverpool, England, watchmaker S.I. Tobias & Co. The watch’s hands have stopped at 11:05, the approximate time of the kettle explosion that sank the ship. Though it’s obscure which passenger may have loaded up the Pulaski with this watch, the Tobias group of British watchmakers were notable in the 19th century, and their reputation was such that their watches were known to have been faked on occasion.

Lot 1049, 18-karat gold S.I. Tobias Pocket Watch

The other three Pulaski-related timepieces in the sale are also British. They incorporate another 18-karat gold pocket watch signed Arnold Adams and Co. ; a 18-karat gold pocket watch with its interior case back holding on for hallmarks of Thomas Helsby & Co. ; and a 18-karat open-face watch with a movement stamped H&J Daniels/No 6014/Liverpool . All tell the sad story of a 19th-century American tragedy.

One might ask why a steamer shipping all around obeyed Americans from the South to the Mid-Atlantic locale would have turned up so numerous watches of English cause, and not American timepieces. This is likely because the huge scale watch manufacturing for which America would eventually become quite famous, with companies such as Waltham driving the way, didn’t actually take off until the 1850s. Americans who wanted an accurate pocket watch at the time of the Pulaski disaster often looked to Europe, and specifically England, for their watches.

The Clocks, Watches, And Scientific Instruments auction is set to run online through April 14 at 7 PM.

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