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January 9, 2010updated Feb 07, 2013

Thomas Jefferson’s Personal Keepsake to be Offered at Christie’s

By Pardhasaradhi Gonuguntla

Memento Mori Engraved Gold Watch Key with Lock of Hair of Martha Wayles Jefferson / Christie's Images Ltd. 2010A highlight of the upcoming Americana Week 2010 sales at Christie’s in New York is a rare personal keepsake that belonged to one of America’s most revered presidents, Thomas Jefferson. Conceived as a memento mori, the keepsake is an engraved gold watch key containing a braided lock of hair from Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson, who died at age 33. A devoted watch collector, Jefferson likely commissioned the watch key as a poignant reminder of his young wife in the years following her death. It is estimated to sell for $40,000 to 80,000.

Born in 1748, Martha Wayles married Thomas Jefferson on New Year’s Day in 1772. Unable to recover from the birth of the couple’s sixth child, she grew increasingly ill over a period of months and died on September 6, 1782. Two months after her death, Jefferson’s continued grief is documented in a letter to the Marquis de Chastellux, in which he wrote that he was, “emerging from the stupor of mind which had rendered me as dead to the world as [she] was whose loss occasioned it.” He never remarried.

Jefferson was known to have a special interest in timepieces, and considered small personal timepieces ideal for remembering loved ones. The front of the key is beautifully engraved with Martha Jefferson’s birth and death dates, and the reverse bears a clear case through which the braided lock of hair is visible. Made in England or France, this watch key could have been acquired abroad, when Jefferson served as Commissioner and Minister in Paris from 1784 to 1789, or from American retailers who imported European watches. While Jefferson himself wore a silver watch, he owned and gifted a number of gold examples and from 1783 to 1819, scholars have found over 30 references to Jefferson purchasing or repairing watches and watch parts. In Paris, Jefferson favored the watchmaker Louis Chantrot, whom he described as, “the best and most faithful hand in Paris,” and as recorded in Jefferson’s account books, purchased from him several watches, including a gold watch and key on June 1, 1786.

The watch key has been independently examined and scientific analysis has revealed that the braided lock is consistent with a sample of hair also noted to be from Martha Jefferson, which is in the collection of the James Monroe Museum and Memorial Library. It is consigned for sale by Mrs. Jane Bortman Larus, daughter of the noted Americana collector Mark Bortman. Bortman was the late President of Bortman Plastics and the Blaxton Corporation, and Chair of the committee organized to raise funds to acquire Paul Revere’s Liberty Bowl for the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Mr. Bortman gave the watch key to his daughter Jane as a graduation gift.

The watch key is just one of several intriguing items of historical Americana in Christie’s upcoming sales. Also to be offered in the upcoming sales on January 21, 22 and 25 is a scrimshaw whale tooth from an 19th century whaleship inscribed with a poem to the sailor’s sweetheart Amelia (estimate: $30,000-50,000).

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