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A watch once buried for a century returns to its heir thanks to Mattituck couple

Nearly seven decades ago, a Mattituck teenager named Cono “Dick” Borrelli left the Main Road house where he grew up to enlist in the Marine Corps. The U.S. was becoming involved in the Korean War, and he served for six years, eventually becoming a pilot. He went on to a 32-year career as a pilot for Eastern Air Lines, flying “just about every airplane ever made.”

Mr. Borrelli settled in Georgia and through the years would return to the North Fork for occasional visits.

His local roots ran deep and he kept in touch with old friends, including longtime pharmacist Larry DePetris, who had been a classmate in Mattituck High School’s Class of 1948. It was Mr. DePetris who sent his old friend a copy of an article that ran Oct. 28, 2010, in The Suffolk Times — and that has stuck with Mr. Borrelli ever since. It told the story of Victor and Barbara DiPaola of Mattituck, who renovated a century-old barn on their property and, in the process, discovered a number of artifacts buried beneath it. 

When Mr. Borrelli saw the article, a picture at the top right corner of the page stood out: a pocket watch bearing the name “T.J. Maguire.”

All those years earlier, he’d grown up in the house next door. And Tom Maguire was his great-uncle.

He said to himself: “Someday, I’m going to get that watch.”

The barn pictured as it is now after undergoing a renovation in 2010. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)

Mr. Borrelli, now 87, returned to Long Island for a visit last fall. He hadn’t forgotten about the watch. He drove to Mattituck and decided to knock on the door of the DiPaola house, at the corner of Maple Avenue and Main Road. They’d never spoken and he didn’t know what to expect.

When Ms. DiPaola answered the door, Mr. Borrelli introduced himself as Tom Maguire’s last living relative. 

The DiPaolas bought the house in 2000. They’d married later in life, a second marriage for both of them. After retirement, Mr. DiPaola, a former New York City police officer and an avid clock collector, completed a 120-hour course on antiques and appraisals at C.W. Post and began restoring furniture for their home. When one of his great-grandsons recently tried to count all the clocks in the house, he came up with the number 52.

“I said, ‘You missed some!,’ ” said Mr. DiPaola, 86.

When Mr. Borrelli arrived that fall afternoon, Mr. DiPaola was working out back in the barn. They ended up spending most of the day together. It was the watch that had drawn Mr. Borrelli back to Mattituck, so he asked if he could see it. Mr. DiPaola said he couldn’t recall where it was, and thought perhaps he had given it away.

While disappointed, Mr. Borrelli knew it was a long shot that he could get the watch back.

He left the house, thanking the couple for their time, and headed to Jamesport for dinner at the Elbow Room, his favorite steakhouse. His phone rang and he handed it to his sister in the passenger seat. It was Mr. DiPaola. He had found the watch. He asked if Mr. Borrelli could return the next day to see it.

“We spent the day with them again and Victor brought the watch out and I said, ‘Victor, I would really like to buy that watch.’ And he said, ‘Well, I really didn’t call you here to see it. I called you here to give it to you.’ ”

The restored watch. (Courtesy photo)

The watch, made by Waltham Watch Company, had been buried under the barn for a century — and its condition reflected that time. 

Ms. DiPaola said she knew that one day the watch would likely be tossed if they held onto it. 

“It was old and beat up, so it didn’t mean anything,” she said. “But it meant a great deal to him.”

Mr. Borrelli returned to Georgia and began researching the watch and whether restoration was possible. He determined that it had been made in 1879, when his great-uncle was only 9 years old. Mr. Borrelli assumed the watch had actually first belonged to Tom Maguire’s father, Jim, of New Suffolk, and had likely been under the floor of the barn since it was built around 1900. Tom had likely inherited the watch, he said.

During his research, Mr. Borrelli discovered Carignan Watch Co., a restorer in Belmont, N.H. He sent the watch to be examined by Denis Carignan, one of a dwindling number of people with the expertise to tackle such a job. Mr. Carignan, 46, has never met a challenge he hasn’t conquered in the business, which began as a teenage hobby. 

“It was hard to find people you can count on,” he said, “so I figured out how to do it myself.”

Dick Borrelli of Georgia (left) and his niece Kathy Walsh of Florida look over photos and artifacts at the Mattituck home of Victor DiPaola (right) last fall.

After examining the watch, Mr. Carignan reported that he could restore it, but the cost would exceed its value. He said the watch itself was common for its time, but the story behind it made it special.

The watch was rusted solid, held together by baling wire and missing its crystal.

“The watch has an antique value of about $400,” Mr. Borrelli said. “It has a family value of $400,000.”

He had come this far, so he instructed Mr. Carignan to move forward with the restoration, which ended up costing about $1,500.

“The watch had suddenly taken on a life of its own,” Mr. Borrelli said.

Mr. Carignan worked on the watch for a few months, starting by replacing hinges and repairing the case and lid. He carefully cleaned the dial, which was a challenge because of the rust that stained the enamel. Then he dove into fixing the tiny parts that made the watch move and refinishing the balance. He finished the case and put it all back together.

“It was neat to be able to restore,” Mr. Carignan said.

In January, the refurbished watch was returned to Mr. Borrelli. 

He took photos of the shiny timepiece and mailed them to the DiPaolas, along with a letter dated Feb. 1. 

“The results are absolutely amazing and it looks and runs like a brand-new watch,” he wrote. “I am forever grateful to you both.”

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Photo caption: The recently restored watch was buried under a Mattituck barn for more than a century. (Courtesy photo)