Remnants of Revolution, $17 MillionNEW YORK REGION | June 15, 2006, Remnants of Revolution, $17 Million. Four rare Revolutionary War battle flags, which had been captured from Continental troops and taken to England, were sold on American soil in a Flag Day auction for $17.3 million.
Remnants of Revolution, $17 Million
Monica Almeida/The New York Times
Re-enacters of the Second Regiment Light Dragoons stood at ease near a battle flag that was captured by the British from American troops during the Revolutionary War and sold Wednesday for a record price at Sotheby's.
By GLENN COLLINS
Published: June 15, 2006
Two and a quarter centuries after they were captured from Continental troops and spirited away to England by a British officer, four rare Revolutionary War battle flags were sold on American soil in a Flag Day auction yesterday for $17.3 million.
The price set a record for flags as well as for any sale of a Revolutionary War artifact, independent experts said.
The buyer was anonymous, and Sotheby's, the auction house that conducted the sale in New York City, declined to say whether the individual was American or even whether the flags would remain here.
However, before the sale, the auctioneer, David N. Redden, a vice chairman at Sotheby's, said, "I'll eat my hat if they don't remain in the country." After the bidding, he commented, declining to elaborate, "I won't have to eat my hat."
The fiercely contested 14-minute auction between at least six bidders was followed with silent intensity by an audience of 150 collectors and history buffs and a contingent of six Revolutionary War re-enacters in full uniform, five of them with cavalry swords. The winner, who bid by telephone, could not be seen or identified by those in the auction room.
The $17.3 million purchase price for the flags, which included Sotheby's commission, wildly exceeded the pre-auction estimate of $10 million, and "was more than the cost of the entire Revolutionary War," said Evelyne H. Ryan, executive director of the Bedford Historical Society in Bedford, N.Y.
The previous record for the sale of a single flag was $700,000, set earlier this year in Dublin, according to one nonbidding expert, Whitney Smith, director of the Flag Research Center in Winchester, Mass.
The sale "establishes a new standard for Revolutionary War artifacts," said an audience member, Thomas M. Daly, president of the American Revolution Center at Valley Forge, Pa., which has a large historical collection.
Given the patriotic symbolism of the flags, speculation about the buyer and the flags' permanent home was intense. "We were not bidding on the flags, but we believe the winner was an American," said Richard Gilder, co-founder, with Lewis E. Lehrman, of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, which has lent the New-York Historical Society its renowned collection of historical documents and created a $1 million vault to house it at the society's Central Park West building.
One of the flags, believed to have been captured from a Connecticut cavalry regiment on July 2, 1779, in Westchester County, was sold for $12.33 million. The three other flags, from a Virginia regiment, were thought to have been captured at the Battle of Waxhaws, near the border of North and South Carolina, on May 29, 1780. They sold for $5.05 million.
The improbably high price for a few fragile pieces of hand-painted and hand-stitched silk was a consequence "of their rarity, their historic value and, to some collectors, their sacredness," Mr. Redden said.
Only 30 or so flags from the era are known, said Dr. Smith, of the Flag Research Center, and all - save those auctioned - are in public or institutional collections. The hammer price for the four flags was $15.5 million. The Sotheby's commission was 20 percent of the first $200,000 and 12 percent of the rest.
All the flags are believed to have been seized and then shipped to England by a celebrated - and, by some, hated - British cavalry officer, Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton. Under the name Col. William Tavington, he was the model for the villainous British commander in the 2000 film "The Patriot," starring Mel Gibson.
The sudden re-emergence of the flags caused a stir in military and historical circles when they arrived in New York last October.
The original Tarleton was reviled by Continentals as "the Butcher" for what was widely believed to have been the slaughter of Virginia troops after they hoisted a surrender flag at Waxhaws. The colonel later said the troops had been offered quarter and declined, and he attributed the mayhem to his redcoats' angry reaction to false rumors of his death in the battle.
"I'm somewhat overwhelmed and very gratified," said the flags' seller, Capt. Christopher Tarleton Fagan, 70, after the bidding was over. A former British Army grenadier, Captain Fagan said that his great-great-great-great-uncle was Banastre Tarleton. The flags adorned the walls of Tarleton descendants' homes for more than a century, he said, and were never publicly displayed.
Captain Fagan added that he could no longer afford to insure and protect them. "Of course I'll miss them," he said.