From left Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt on their honeymoon in 1905. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Archives. Audemars Frères. A historically important 18k gold hunter case

‘A piece of American history’: FDR’s pocket watch

We believe Eleanor Roosevelt gave this watch — offered in New York on 6 December — to her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, on their wedding day more than 100 years ago. No wonder Christie’s watch specialist Rebecca Ross considers it ‘a treasure’ 

On 17 March, 1905 — St Patrick’s Day — Theodore Roosevelt, the newly inaugurated President of the United States, walked his niece, Eleanor Roosevelt, down the aisle. The press reported that the 20-year-old bride looked ‘magnificent’ and ‘regal’ while the groom, the ambitious trainee lawyer Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945), was described as being ‘athletic’.

When the President was asked about the Roosevelt-Roosevelt union, the Rough Rider quipped, ‘It’s a good thing to keep the name in the family’. A marriage between two very distant cousins that began in the public eye — a large crowd of people turned up on East 76th Street in Manhattan to cheer the newlyweds — remained a constant source of scrutiny for the next 40 years.

Franklin Roosevelt would go on to become the longest-serving President of the United States, holding office in an unprecedented four terms between 1933 and 1945. Much of his married life was spent surrounded by aides, assistants and advisers, and yet posthumously written biographies have revealed that he and his wife managed to keep much of their private life, which included numerous affairs on both sides, a closely guarded secret.

The inside of the case reveals a photograph of a young Eleanor Roosevelt

The inside of the case reveals a photograph of a young Eleanor Roosevelt

Christie’s specialist Rebecca Ross describes the pocket watch as ‘a treasure’, and believes Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) gave it to Franklin on their wedding day. ‘It offers an intimate insight into a very private marriage,’ she states. ‘It’s also in remarkable condition considering he probably wore it daily.’

The Audemars Frères hunter case pocket watch is engraved with Roosevelt’s monogram. ‘The chime of the quarter repeater sounds beautifully,’ adds the specialist, ‘which is testament to the craftsmanship of its makers.’

Ross is also delighted by the pattern on the case. ‘The dial was engine-turned — a decorating technique known as guilloché — and that is why it has this lovely shell-like pattern on the back,’ she explains. ‘Audemars Frères was only in operation from 1885 until the early 1900s, so there are not many examples of this kind left today.’

The Audemars Frères hunter case pocket watch is thought to have been given to Franklin D. Roosevelt by his bride, Eleanor, on their wedding day. His initials are engraved on the back of the case

The Audemars Frères hunter case pocket watch is thought to have been given to Franklin D. Roosevelt by his bride, Eleanor, on their wedding day. His initials are engraved on the back of the case

Inside the case is a portrait of the young Eleanor. ‘Their marriage was truly remarkable, when you think what they went through,’ says the specialist. It was a partnership that was radically modern for the times: Eleanor, a fiercely intelligent woman with an autonomy rare for the First Lady, was her husband’s tireless supporter, and helped him to win the Presidency even after a crippling illness that left him paralysed.

Through the Great Depression, 12 years in the White House and the burden of leading the country during the Second World War, their marriage remained surprisingly solid.

Thirty-two years after their wedding, FDR recalled that day in 1905. Describing the marching bands and the boisterous, limelight-hugging Theodore, he said the couple had been entirely overshadowed, and yet the day remained one of ‘particular tenderness’.

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The original consignor of the watch in 1988 was the couple’s eldest son, James Roosevelt. Since then it has remained in private hands. ‘We thought it had been lost in 2012,’ reveals Ross, ‘so it’s wonderful that it has re-emerged. It is a rare and valuable piece of American history.’