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"Like Pearl Harbor or 9/11, this was the reaction he had (to the Civil War,)" Stiles said of the inscription.

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It was Lincoln's everyday pocket watch, one of the president's only valuable possessions he brought with him to the White House from Springfield, Ill., said Harry Rubenstein, curator of the museum's politics and reform division.

"I think it just captures a bit of history that can transform you to another time and place," he said.

The stolen items were valued at more than million at the time; among them was a watch commissioned for Marie Antoinette that had taken 44 years to complete. As for the unsolved crime, there has been speculation that the thieves were hired by an overzealous collector, perhaps in the Middle East. "Pocket watches are more than pieces of functional art," says Henry B.

Fried, a leading American horologist (scientist who measures time), watchmaker and collector.

"Jonathan Dillon April 13 - 1861," part of the inscription reads, "Fort Sumpter (sic) was attacked by the rebels on the above date." Another part reads, "Thank God we have a government." The words were etched in tiny cursive handwriting and filled the the space between tiny screws and gears that jutted through the metal plate. Jonathan Dillon, then a watchmaker on Pennsylvania Avenue, had Lincoln's watch in his hands when he heard the first shots of the Civil War had been fired in South Carolina.

The Irish immigrant later recalled being the only Union sympathizer working at the shop in a divided Washington.

Dillon had a fuzzy recollection of what he had engraved.

He told the newspaper he had written: "The first gun is fired. Thank God we have a president who at least will try." For years the story went unconfirmed.

"They are watches with a soul." The parts of a pocket watch are often compared to the human body, with the dial its face, the escapement (the ticking element) its heart, the movement (the mechanism as a whole) its brain and the case its skin.

"It is a marriage of art and technology," remarks Osvaldo Patrizzi, director of Antiquorum, the Geneva-based auction house specializing in watches and clocks.

And their raison d'ĂȘtre was as talisman rather than timekeeper. The watches were mechanical jewels, tiny embodiments of the decorative techniques of the time," New York antiquarian Jonathan Snellenburg explained.