Keeping watch in vault

Discovery: Not expecting to find much, historians in Hampstead unassumingly uncovered valuable watches.

November 24, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

A few history buffs from Hampstead were nosing around for artifacts last week in the old bank building that will soon be the town police station, when they came to the elaborate iron safe inside the bank vault. The safe was locked.

What could be inside? Old railroad stock? Wads of money? Dust?

They found gold.

Antique gold and silver pocket watches-- 49 of them-- were sitting in display trays and covered with just a light coat of dust.

"When you're a kid, you think every safe holds a treasure-trove," said Town Manager Kenneth Decker. "It restores your faith that there are some good surprises left."

The watches had been stashed in the vault -- perhaps 17 years ago -- by Roy Ashe, owner of Roy's Never Stop Clock Shop, which occupied the building until nearly two years ago.

Ashe often bought old pocket watches, refurbished them and sold them. These were tagged with prices, but forgotten in the elaborate iron safe that no one but the now-deceased landlord knew how to open.

The town bought the building for its new police station last year.

"Technically, when you buy the building, you buy the contents, but morally, they were not ours to keep," said Mayor Christopher M. Nevin.

At the Town Council meeting Monday night, Nevin turned the watches over to Steve Ashe, Roy's son and the owner of Roy's Never Stop Clock Shop.

Roy, 82, started the business in 1940 but has retired and moved to Florida. Steve Ashe moved the shop up the street when the town bought the building.

Steve Ashe, 57, said that in moving about 600 timepieces from the old bank building to his shop at 1150 Main St., the 49 watches in the 19th-century safe were forgotten. His best guess is that his father put them in there in 1982, when they moved into the old bank building. They had probably never been taken out since, Ashe said.

The safe is inside a vault the size of a bathroom. For years, the shop didn't have a locked display case, so pocket watches were kept on trays, locked in the vault until someone wanted to buy one.

Steve Ashe had an idea something was in the safe, but never got around to trying to get inside, he said. He didn't know how to open it, he said.

"Everyone says how could that dummy forget 49 watches, but when you've got this many watches, it's easy to do," Steve Ashe said. Add to that the chaos of moving his shop two years ago when the town bought the building, and he isn't at all surprised he left something behind.

"It took us 18 years to move everything in there, and we moved it all out in 30 days," he said.

Estimates

The pocket watches are antiques -- the oldest is dated 1854 and has a tiny key to wind it and set it. Most are from the late 19th century. The price tags range from $30 for an as-is silver watch that doesn't work, to more than $600 for a gold-plated Seth Thomas. Steve Ashe estimated the 49 watches to be worth $10,000 to $15,000, but said he plans to go through them and determine the value of each.

Yesterday, he pulled them from the evidence box that Hampstead Police Chief Kenneth Meekins had sealed them in for safekeeping after they were found.

Ashe held up each one and read aloud dates and brand names. Elgin, Waltham and General Watch Co.

"This is a salesman's watch," Ashe said, showing how it had a crystal on the back and the front. The salesman could show the movement of the new model to a jeweler without removing the back. A few tags bore Roy Ashe's distinctive, angular handwriting.

"This one has Pop-Pop's chicken scratch on it," said Kari Thomas, 37, Steve Ashe's niece, who learned to repair clocks from Roy before he retired.

By yesterday, Steve Ashe hadn't had a chance to call his father in Florida to tell him about the find.

"He'll be tickled to hear about it," Ashe said.

The hiding place

The old safe that held the watches, and the vault in which the safe stood, were both desirable features in the old bank building that Roy had rented for 18 years.

"It's like something you see in cowboy movies," Steve Ashe said of the safe.

Sometimes collectors who looked at clocks and watches asked about buying the door to the vault, or the globe safe inside the vault, said Thomas.

The heart of the safe is a spherical iron compartment that rotates around a pole, inside an outer spherical shell. The compartment doors can be rotated so they face the closed back of the outer shell, then locked in place with a combination. The sphere was not locked in place, but the compartment doors were, said Larry Why, construction supervisor for James F. Knott Construction Co., which has a contract to renovate the building into a police station.

The globe has three compartments. The first door held the watches. The other compartments were empty. To remove the doors, Why pulled out the screw that held the hinges in place.

Decker said he wasn't on hand for the safe opening -- and never thought to alert media to be there. After Geraldo Rivera's anticlimatic opening of Al Capone's old safe on live television, Decker said, who wanted to risk inviting reporters and cameras?

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