POE, Edgar Allan (1809-1849) – French. An 18k gold key-wound quarter repeating open-face pocket watch with metal guilloche dial Roman hour markers and spade hands. The cuvet (dust-cover) is engraved, “Echappement A Cylindre En – Aiguilley – Edgar A. Poe – Pierre Huit Trous En Rubis.” The inside case-back cover is engraved with the case number 21705. The case is 51mm.
"Yet the sound increased – and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound – much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton." – "The Tell-Tale Heart"
Edgar Allan Poe's pocket watch: a rediscovered relic of the great author.
It is an artifact worthy of Poe, foremost a poignant symbol of his fleeting commercial success in the face of nearly lifelong debt. Born in Boston in 1809 to traveling actors and orphaned by the age of three, he was separated from his siblings and taken in by John Allan, a wealthy but miserly tobacco merchant in Richmond, Virginia. Allan sent young Poe off to the newly-founded University of Virginia in 1826 with only a fraction of his tuition resulting in his time there being marked by not only academic excellence but also his first encounter with creditors, having amassed gambling debts while trying to pay his way. He famously burned furniture to keep warm and soon dropped out to return home before leaving for Baltimore, where he would meet his future wife Virginia. Poe and Virginia married in 1836 and moved to Philadelphia in 1838. Their existence was hand-to-mouth and after a series of editorial jobs and a failed venture to start his own magazine, Poe would eventually file for bankruptcy before leaving for New York in 1844.
Poe's time in Philadelphia, however, was not all for naught. From February 1841 to April 1842 he experienced a modicum of financial success during his employ as an editor at Graham's Magazine. While the position effectively thwarted his dream of starting his own literary journal, the annual salary of $800–with additional pay for contributions–was the highest of his professional life and would have provided a brief window of financial security. It is perhaps during these months that he had the means to acquire a gold watch, for after he departed his post at Graham's his personal finances quickly petered out, culminating in his 19 December 1842 bankruptcy filing. The bankruptcy document itself provides a long list of creditors, with debts totaling just over $2,000. At the top of the list is one J.W. Albright, the Philadelphia merchant tailor to whom Poe apparently gave the present pocket watch as part collateral or payment. The nature of Poe’s debt to Albright is given as "note of hand" and is in the amount of $169.10; an 18-karat gold quarter repeating pocket watch such as this one would have retailed at this time for roughly $120-150. An 1880 newspaper article headlined "The Gold Watch of Edgar A. Poe" by R.W. Albright corroborates Poe's debt to J.W. Albright as sometime between 1841-42: "[Poe] had given several notes for the settlement, together with the watch in trust, which remained in my brother's hands until 1845." According to 19th- and early 20th-century newspaper articles, the watch stayed in the Albright family for more than fifty years until it was sold c.1894 to a Wisconsin jeweler. It changed hands twice more before being sold in 1977 to the Schmidt family and thence inherited by the consignor. Also included with the lot is a c.1920s letter from Mrs A.C. Fisk, an early chairwoman of the Poe Cottage in New York. Fisk mentions learning of the watch "some time ago [...] from a gentleman," but that "several letters were written at that time trying to locate it but nothing satisfactory came of it."
It is difficult to envision a literary artifact more evocative of Poe's work than his personal pocket watch, chiming every quarter hour. Time itself is, of course, a recurring motif across his body of work, and clocks and watches in various incarnations appear as literal mechanical instruments, as place-names or titles, and as looming abstractions taunting the reader. There are the satires "The Devil in the Belfry," first published in 1839 and set in the town of Vondervotteimittiss, and "Peter Pendulum" (1840); there is the "gigantic clock of ebony" in the "Masque of the Red Death" that earns not only a full paragraph of description but also numerous mentions throughout–it is ultimately its own character. There is, perhaps most memorably, the oppressive beating felt in the "low, dull, quick sound" of "The Tell-Tale Heart" (1843); and there is the poem "The Bells" (1848) and its repetition of "keeping time, time, time" and the "rolling" of the "bells, bells, bells." Whether implemented as horror or satire, time's relentlessness appears again and again.
Provenance: Edgar A. Poe, with engraved inscription – acquired by John W. Albright, merchant tailor of Philadelphia and one of Poe's creditors c.1840-1842 – given to his brother, H.A. Albright in 1845 – on his death bequeathed to his mother, Sarah Albright – on her death in 1866 bequeathed to her son, Robert W. Albright – on his death in 1887 or 1888 bequeathed to his daughter, Catherine Staubus of Port Madison, Iowa – sold by the Staubus family c.1894 to Adolf Michaal (c.1850-1924), jeweler of Green Bay, Wisconsin – on his death in 1924 bequeathed to his nephew, G.A. Michaal – on his death sold by his widow to the antiques dealer Bob DeWitt also of Green Bay – sold by DeWitt to Major A.W. Schmidt of Crivitz, Wisconsin in 1977 – by direct descent to the current owner.
This provenance derives from the following documentation which is included with the lot: newspaper article from 1880 delineating the Albright provenance as recorded by the original creditor's brother, Robert W. Albright; newspaper article from 1894 updating provenance and noting "not long since [Mr. Staubus] was offered quite a sum of money for it by a Chicago jeweler" (printed scans); 1910s inventory of Adolf Michaal's collection listing the watch including case no. 21705; 1920s correspondence between A.T. Newman, G.A. Michaal and Mary Fisk of the Poe Cottage concerning the watch (originals); notarized proof of ownership of the watch by G.A. Michaal, dated 1934 (original); receipt and canceled check transferring ownership of the watch from Bob DeWitt to Major Andrew W. Schmidt, dated 1977 (originals); newspaper article, c.1980, describing Major Schmidt's ownership of the watch, with photograph.