Freelance Historian
The World of Historical Manuscripts and Ephemera

George Washington Letter Sold for $3.2 Million

Posted in Old Stuff in the News  by Steven on December 14th, 2009

An emotional letter from George Washington to his nephew Bushrod, written soon after the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 has sold at Christie’s for a record $3.2 million dollars (including buyer’s premium.) This smashes the previous record of $834,500 set in 2002 for a Revolutionary War military report in his hand.

In the letter, Washington praises the positive qualities of the Constitution to preserve and strengthen the young United States, until then struggling for survival under the Articles of Confederation.  He says in part “If . . . the Union of the whole is a desirable object, the parts which compose it must yield a little”. Washington had presided over the Constitutional Convention, and was an ardent supporter of the document. Answering critics and foes of a stronger central government, he writes

“The power under the Constitution will always be with the people… It is entrusted for certain defined purposes and for a certain limited period to representatives of their own chusing; and whenever it is exercised contrary to their interests . . . their servants can, and undoubtedly will be, recalled.”

The letter, sold by an unidentified British descendant of the first President, was given an estimate of $1.5 million to $2.5 million, not only because of the author, but also because of the historically important content.  Some observers expressed skepticism at the estimate, citing the depressed economy, but the results showed that items as historically significant as this one will sell well in any market. The bidding rapidly rose from the opening of $950,000 and concluded in a duel between two phone bidders, with the hammer coming down at $2.8 million. The buyer’s premium (auction fee) brought the final price to $3.2 million.

This sale continues a trend that started gaining momentum in the late 1990s, where content can play as significant, or in many cases, a larger role in the price of a manuscript than the author’s signature. This is readily evident in the US Civil War market, where letters with good content from an enlisted man can fetch more than a signature of the average general.  Even “camp letters” that are not written about a large battle can fetch good prices with the right research presented to the buyer to put the letter into context.

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Possible New Da Vinci Painting Found

Posted in Old Stuff in the News  by Steven on December 10th, 2009

Spectroscopic analysis of a painting long thought to be from an anonymous 19th Century artist has produced a fingerprint image from the painting matching that of Leonardo Da Vinci.  Work done at Lumiere Technology of Paris for the anonymous Swiss owner, as well as analysis of the canvas and pigments, has convinced art experts that the painting is indeed the first “lost” Da Vinci to be discovered in over a hundred years.

Profile of a young fiancée, now attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci (Lumiere Technology image)

"Profile of a Young Fiancée", now attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci (Lumiere Technology image)

Forensic art expert Paul Biro of Montreal proclaimed the painting an authentic Da Vinci after analysis of the styles, technique and materials used in the painting, noting that the fingerprint, which matches one on a Da Vinci painting of St Jerome in the Vatican, was the clincher.  “Leonardo used his hands liberally and frequently as part of his painting technique.  His fingerprints are found on many of his works,” Biro said.  “I was able to make use of multispectral images [from Lumiere] to make a little smudge a very readable fingerprint.”

The painting was purchased on behalf of an anonymous Swiss collector by art dealer Peter Silverman for approximately $19,000 from the Ganz gallery in New York in 2007.  The seller, Kate Ganz, had purchased the painting for near the same price a little over a decade earlier.  The Swiss collector had seen images of the painting, and asked Silverman to check it out, as it did not seem to be a 19th Century painting.  Silverman says that although he thought it looked like a Da Vinci, he initially thought the idea far-fetched.  “Of course you say, ‘Come on, that’s ridiculous. There’s no such thing as a da Vinci floating around,'” Silverman said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Nevertheless, he knew he had found something, and quickly purchased the painting for his Swiss client.  He immediately began researching it and says “I started looking in the areas around da Vinci and all the people who could have possibly done it and through elimination I came back to da Vinci.”

He consulted with Nicholas Turner, a former curator of drawings at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the British Museum, who declared it a Da Vinci. The same sentiment was expressed by other art experts who examined the paining.  Any doubt has been removed by the discovery and identification of the fingerprint, Silverman says.

The painting has been estimated at $150 million by one art expert.  Silverman says his wealthy Swiss client has promised to buy him “lunch and dinner and caviar for the rest of my life” should the painting be sold.

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Why Good Research Matters

Posted in Shop Talk  by Steven on October 30th, 2009

Here’s an example of why the quality of your research (and researchers) makes a difference.

While browsing a recent auction at a noted auction house, I came across the following:

Timothy Pickering Autograph Letter Signed T. Pickering” as secretary of state. One page, 9.75″ x 8″, January 10, 1799, n.p. The letter, addressed to Dwight Foster, asks, “Have you got the Bridget? – Please let me know by the Beaver.” Both the Beaver and the Bridget were undoubtedly ships. At the time Pickering was involved in procuring ships for the United States Revenue Cutter Service to limit smuggling. Folds and wax seal marks, else fine. Estimate: $400 – $600.

Screen shot of listing at Heritage

Screen shot of listing

Now, aside from the fact that the Secretary of State wouldn’t likely be out buying ships for the Treasury Department (the US Revenue Cutter Service was started by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton in 1790,) it took ninety seconds of research to determine that the recipient of this letter is Congressman Dwight Foster of Massachusetts, Chairman of the House Committee on Claims, thereby illuminating the correct reading of the letter:

“Have you got the Budget? Please let me know by the Bearer (of this letter)”

Scan of letter from heritage website

Scan of letter from auction website (click for full size)

Pickering was known for his strong pro-British sympathies, and was negotiating with Britain regarding the claims of Loyalists who lost property when run out of the Colonies during the Revolutionary War.  He is writing Foster, who as Chairman on the Committee on Claims, has finalized the budget for settling this year’s claims.  Coincidentally, the closest Pickering came to involvement with the US Revenue Cutter Service was having a cutter named for him since he was Secretary of State at the time it was built.

Unsurprisingly, the letter did not sell.

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Wonders of the Art Business

Posted in Old Stuff in the News  by Steven on July 29th, 2009

I of course had to share this! 😀
(image removed by host)

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John F Kennedy Inaugural Program

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on March 20th, 2009

Just a quick update, as I had large shipment of clipped autographs and letters come in late today, and I’m still sorting them.  I had to take time out to get this listed right away, however.  This is a beautiful John F. Kennedy Presidential Inaugural Program, still in its original mailer!  Absolutely wonderful condition.




See the listing on eBay here!

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Secret Message Found in Lincoln’s Watch

Posted in Old Stuff in the News  by Steven on March 11th, 2009

Secret Message in Lincolns Watch National Public Radio reports on a family legend about Abraham Lincoln and the start of the Civil War that turns out to be true!

Watchmaker Jonathan Dillon as an old man told his family that he had been employed at a Washington DC jewelry store in 1861, when the recently-elected President sent his favorite pocket watch in for repair:

Dillon told his family that as he held the watch in his hands, the store’s owner rushed up and shouted, “Dillon, war has begun.” Dillon was a Unionist — he lived in a city that bordered the South but was loyal to the North and the federal government — and as the story goes, he brashly opened the watch and secretly engraved the words: “The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”

Or words to that effect, Dillon told his family. And in 1906, Dillon, by then an elderly man, also told his tale to a reporter from The New York Times.

Doug Stiles, Dillion’s great grandson, was researching his family history when he came across the story in the New York Times (apparently the story had been forgotten by the family.)  He tracked down where the watch was now- the Smithsonian- and asked the curator if the story was true.  No one there had heard of the story, and no one had opened the 150 year-old watch, so it was decided to find out if there actually was a secret message in Lincoln’s watch, inscribed upon the dawn of the Civil War:

Smithsonian officials invited a group of journalists to bear witness as a master watchmaker carefully opened Lincoln’s watch to the inner workings. When he spied scribbles lightly engraved onto the back of the watch face, he handed the magnifying goggles to Stiles — so he could have the honor of being perhaps the first man to read them in almost 150 years.

“Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date. J Dillon,” his great-great-grandfather had written, followed by “April 13-1861 Washington. Thank God we have a government. Jonth Dillon.”

The inscription wasn’t precisely the way Dillon remembered it when telling the tale to family. But the moral still holds: Sometimes tall tales are true.

More photos and the complete story at  NPR’s “All Things Considered”.

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1864 Union Soldier’s Letter: “Fighting Rebs & Copperheads”

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on January 27th, 2009

This is the complete transcript to a letter home written by Corporal Erastus Winters of the 50th Ohio Infantry in General Tecumseh Sherman’s army.  He talks about the fall of Atlanta and fighting General Hood’s Rebels across Georgia, and his feelings about the Rebel sympathizers back home.  This letter is currently up for auction on eBay (see the link at bottom)

Decatur Georgia Sept 28, 1864

Dear Parents
Your kind letter received a few days ago reminds me of my duty of writing to you in which I have been too negligent.  With duty pressing me I am to apt to forget that you may feel lonely without me , but rest assured that I never cease in my affection nor forget for a moment how much I am indebted to the best of Parents.

I am in very good health at this time, our campaign is over and we are resting from out labors. In the last four months we have performed a great work one that we may well feel proud of and indeed we do feel proud that we have gained so noble a victory as we have.

I may also point to the splendid success of Farragut at Mobile and of General Grant’s victory on the Weldon Railroad and of Sheridans and Averills grand success in the Shenandoah Valley.  Summing all those great victories up it is enough to rejoyce the heart of every true American Citizen and especially of the careworn Soldiers who have been fighting for the Union for the last four years. We have been fighting two armys you may say one in the rear and one in the front. Hood and Johnson Commanded the Army in our front and Vallendingham Pendleton and Pugh the army in our rear and as much as I dread to meet Hood’s vandals I believe there is whiter hearts among them than there is in those poisonous Copperheads of the North.

The 23 Corps was the last to withdraw from the works in front of Atlanta and so we was on the left flank of the army and did not get to see any of the fighting but the army of the Tennessee the 18th and 16th and 17th corps and the Army of the Cumberland 4th and 14th Corps got in it pretty hot. The Rebs charged them three or four times in which they was badly used up our men then charged them capturing two Batterys and many prisoners. We retook Loomis’s old Battery which they took from us at Chicamauga. They left all their dead and wounded in our hands but as we were not in the fight of course I can give no particulars but I suppose you have read the full account of it before this in the papers. We followed the retreating Rebbels till we reached Lovejoy Station where we found them strongly fortified and in a Splendid position so we built strong works to protect us from shells and rested two or three days and then withdrew and left them and they did not dare to follow us. That shows that they was used up pretty bad.

Click here for Auction: Ends February 2, 6:15pm Eastern

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1831 Annual Return of 2d Brigade of 7th Division GA militia

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on January 25th, 2009

Here is a bit of history you don’t see every day. This is the annual “return” (report) of the 2nd Brigade of the 7th Division, Georgia State Militia. At this time in our nation’s history, most of the armed forces were state militias, and in Georgia’s case, their troops were for anything but show. Tensions and outright war between Georgia and the indigenous Indian tribes was almost constant until the tribes were forcibly expatriated west of the Mississippi River in the infamous “Trail of Tears.”

In 1829, gold was discovered in Georgia, which resulted in the first “gold rush” in the United States. The problem was, the gold was mostly on land belonging to the Cherokee Indians. This didn’t stop most people from invading their lands in search of fortune, and hostilities soon broke out. The 2d Brigade, 7th Division, stationed in Decatur, Georgia, would have remained on a high state of readiness during this time.

Annual Return 2d Brig 7th Dvision GA Militia

On this Annual Return, dated August 10, 1831, William Ezzard is listed as Brigadier General Commanding,  Thomas Akins is Brigade Major, Cyrus Chance is Adie de Camp and William J Howard is Brigade Quartermaster.   Brigade strength is 3,008 infantry, 105 cavalry, and 58 artillerymen.

Link to this auction on eBay: Ends February 1st, 9:30pm Eastern Time

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Confederate Veteran Writes Former Commander

Posted in Interesting Items  by Steven on January 19th, 2009

May 26, 1900 letter written by BP Haynes, late Second Sergeant of the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, to his former brigade commander, General WL “Old Tige” Cabell.

In part:

“My Dear General and Friend — It is with pleasure I acknowledge the receipt of three copies of your report of the part that Cabell’s Brigade took in Gen Price’s raid to Mo in 1864. I have read and reread it, and being an eye witness to most all the engagements you describe, I give it my hearty endorsement, and prize it very highly…

I belonged to Col. Monroe’s Regt and was on duty all the way round and as you know the “Raw-hide” Regt was always on hand when there was any fighting to do. I was slightly wounded at the charge on the fort at Pilot Knob where our beloved Col was badly wounded but our gallant Lieutenant Col Reiff was still with us and led us the balance of the way and after your capture he being the senior officer that was left Commanded the Brigade until we got back to Washington Ark.

I have often wondered that any of us escaped with our lives. I was in line not more than ten feet from you when your horse was killed at the fort in the fight at Pilot Knob. I was in all the battles of note that you recount and most of the skirmishes.”

He goes on to say that he regrets not being able to attend the United Confederate Veterans reunion in Louisville, and urges Cabell, as Commander of the Trans-Mississippi Department of the UCV to organize an effort to bring the reunion to Arkansas,

“…as we have never had it here and Ark was a veritable battle-field as you know.”

Signed “B.P. Haynes 2nd Seargt Co E 1st Ark Cavl (Col Monroe’s Regt) late of the Confederate Army in the Trans-Mississippi Department”

This letter is part of an archive kept by General Cabell after the war.

Letters of Confederate Veteran of Price's Raid

Link to auction of this letter, ending January 26, 9:10pm Eastern

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Famous People You’ve Never Heard Of: Capt. George Fried

Posted in Famous People You've Never Heard Of  by Steven on January 19th, 2009

George Fried was American ocean liner captain of the United States Lines who commanded several at-sea rescues over his career. As Captain of the SS President Roosevelt he and his crew were given a ticker tape parade through New York City on February 16, 1926 for their daring rescue of the crew of the French ship Antinoe the month before.

Frequently described in newspapers as “Captain George Fried, hero of several sea rescues,” other rescues he made were of the Italian freighter Florida in a terrible Atlantic storm while Captain of SS America on January 22, 1929, and of a pilot testing the feasibility of trans-Atlantic airmail, whose crippled plane had the luck of crashing in bad weather within sight of the President Roosevelt:

From Time Magazine, May 23, 1932:

Toward a spot on the Atlantic 47 mi. west of Fastnet Light, off the tip of southern Ireland, three men were hurrying last week. They had no rendezvous. It was sheer luck that when Louis T. Reichers set his crippled monoplane down in a sea whipped up by a nasty blow, Captain George Fried of the S. S. Roosevelt, famed for his North Atlantic rescues, was there with his equally famed Chief Officer Harry Manning to send overside in a lifeboat. Chief Officer Manning yanked Pilot Reichers out of his foundering plane, unharmed save for a broken nose, a lacerated face. After they clambered back on board, Captain Fried abandoned the lifeboat, pointed his ship toward Manhattan, wrote a signed dispatch for the Associated Press.

He was Captain of the SS Manhattan, who, along with her sister ship Washington, were the largest liners of their day, and whose First Class cabins were so luxurious that other cruise lines were forced to reclassify their First Class accommodations as “Cabin Class”

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