Theodore Roosevelt’s Stolen Watch Winds Its Way Home

CrimeJul 02, 2024

Theodore Roosevelt’s Stolen Watch Winds Its Way Home

It has been returned to the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in New York nearly 40 years after being taken while on loan to a Buffalo museum.

Pocket watch belonging to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt
This pocket watch that belonged to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, has been recovered by the National Park Service and FBI after being stolen 37 years ago.
Oyster Bay, N.Y.—A pocket watch that belonged to Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt has been recovered after being stolen 37 years ago, the National Park Service (NPS) announced last week.

Taken while on loan for a museum exhibition, the watch eventually found its way from New York to a Florida auction house, where an auctioneer’s suspicion that the piece may be connected to the 26th president of the United States led him to research its origin.

NPS special agents, with assistance from the FBI Art Crime team, were tapped to recover the artifact after two historic sites connected to the former president’s estate confirmed its authenticity. 

A repatriation ceremony took place June 27 in New York to officially mark the return of the timepiece to Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, where it had been since Roosevelt’s death in 1919.

Located on New York’s Long Island in the town of Oyster Bay, Sagamore Hill was Roosevelt’s home and was known as the “Summer White House” for the summers he spent there while president from 1901 to 1909.

The watch will be on display in a special exhibit at the historic site, free for public viewing for the next three months. 

It was last on public display at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, New York.

Sagamore Hill had loaned the timepiece to the museum for an exhibition. 

On July 21, 1987, the FBI reported the pocket watch had been stolen.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s pocket watch
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s pocket watch was stolen in 1987 from the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, New York, where it was on loan for an exhibition. (Photo courtesy of NPS)

No suspects were arrested in connection with the theft, and the watch’s whereabouts were unknown for decades until it reappeared at an auction house in Florida last year, NPS said. 

The auctioneer thought the 1800s pocket watch may have belonged to Roosevelt, who had many pocket watches during his life.  

According to the NPS, this particular timepiece was a gift from his youngest sister, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, and his brother-in-law, Douglas Robinson Jr., in 1898, ahead of his departure to fight in the Spanish-American War. 

The Waltham-manufactured pocket watch bears an inscription reading, “THEODORE ROOSEVELT FROM D.R. & C.R.R,” as seen in the photo at the top of the article. 

On May 5, 1898, Roosevelt wrote to his sister, “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.” 

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The watch accompanied Roosevelt, a lieutenant colonel, as he led the 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry and was with him during his charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba and while hunting in Africa.

Roosevelt mentioned the watch while detailing a difficult bayou crossing in his 1914 book, “Through the Brazilian Wilderness,” writing, “One result of the swim, by the way, was that my watch, a veteran of Cuba and Africa, came to an indignant halt.”

The timepiece was repaired following Roosevelt’s overseas adventures, and NPS said it likely went on to accompany him throughout portions of his presidency, including his two inaugurations.

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s pocket watch
Roosevelt’s timepiece is a Waltham 17-jewel watch with a hunter-style case made of inexpensive coin silver. (Photo courtesy of NPS)

FBI Special Agent Robert Giczy, a member of the FBI Art Crime Team who investigated the provenance of the watch, described the timepiece as a “fairly pedestrian” Waltham 17-jewel watch with an inexpensive coin silver case. 

It is a “Riverside” grade, model 1888 with a hunter-style case, meaning it has a lid on either side which fold and encase the dial and the movement.

Giczy praised the NPS, saying the agency does a “great job in enforcing and recovering our national property.”

“The repatriation of the watch would not have been possible without the close collaboration between the FBI and NPS. This partnership ensured that this historic treasure could be returned safely for future generations to enjoy,” he said.

The June 27 repatriation ceremony was attended by NPS Director Chuck Sams, members of the Roosevelt family, and representatives from the NPS, as well as representatives from the FBI, including the New York, Miami, and Tampa field offices and members of the Art Crime team.

“It is an honor to have a role in preserving American history for current and future generations to learn from,” Sams said, according to NPS. 

“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.”

Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s pocket watch
Theodore Roosevelt’s silver watch resting on the desk in his office (Photo courtesy of NPS)

The watch will be featured in an exclusive exhibit at the Old Orchard Museum, part of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, and available for free public viewing over the next three months. 

It is one of thousands of items originally gifted to the NPS by the Roosevelt family through the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1963 and will remain part of the permanent museum collection. 

“The stories this watch could tell over the last 126 years include colorful and profound moments in American history,” said Jonathan Parker, superintendent of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site.  

“Historic objects are powerful because they are literal participants in historic 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.” 

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