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The Greatest Sale Of George Washington Historical Documents Ever Conducted

on Dienstag, 17 März 2015. Posted in General Autograph News

by Nathan Raab

Would you pay $1,250 to be the proud owner of George Washington’s original daily prayer book?  How about his Last Will and Testament?  Would that be worth $1,400 to you?   There are also Washington documents for $30.  Seem too good to be true?  It is not, but to cash in you would need to have been bidding in 1891.
This week, 124 years ago, Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s heir, effectively swore away before a notary public the Washington family’s rights to a portion of their inheritance: hundreds of artifacts, keepsakes, and important historical documents owned and signed by George Washington.  Some of these were from the future President’s childhood, some during his time as General, and others during the Presidency.   Lawrence testified before a notary public that, “the articles offered by me in this sale as relics of General George Washington are genuine.”   Lawrence then requested that the sale catalog make clear that, “This catalog embraces all the relics of Gen’l Washington…. They [family members] have held nothing back for mementos, every item that was in their possession which had any relation to Gen’l Washington has been placed in this catalog, to be sold absolutely, without any reserve whatever.”  In other words, Spring house cleaning.  Washington’s heirs, over the course of 2 days, sold the remaining material he had passed down for generations and that had not been previously sold or gifted.  With these declarations began the greatest sale of autographs, historical documents, and relics of the former General and President.

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Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

The sale, conducted by Stanley Henkel in Philadelphia in April of 1891 was staggering, totaling 953 lots. After the first day of the sale (April 21), The Times of Philadelphia ran a story under the headline, “Effects of the ‘Father of his Country’ Disposed of.”   The second headline: “Patriots Pay High Prices.”  Maybe back then the prices were high.  But the prices realized at this public sale would make today’s collectors blush with envy.  They would undoubtedly fetch millions in 2015. Below is a small sampling, as reported by The Times:

- George Washington’s Last Will and Testament, 29 pages in his hand, with his autograph appearing 28 times, sold for $1,400;
- The original survey of Mount Vernon sold for $100;
- Many documents owned by Washington with his notations on the back sold for less than $30 each;
- An autographed letter of Washington at the age of 17, among the earliest known to exist, dated 1749, sold for $350;
- Washington’s account book as President, showing what he bought and whom he paid, sold for $775;
- Washington’s manuscript prayer book sold for $1,250;
- His cane sold for $50;
- George Washington’s Violin sold for $355;
- A portrait of Louis XVI , given by the Monarch to General Washington as a token of solidarity between the two countries, sold for $1,800.

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29-Year-Old George Washington’s original accounting and receipt for the rent of Mount Vernon and use of its slaves for the years before he took inheritance of the estate. From a private collection. On loan to Mount Vernon.

These prices are a small fraction of what they would be worth today, even accounting for inflation.  To put this in perspective, Washington’s copy of the Constitution sold for approximately $10 million in 2012.  A letter with little historical interest would go for thousands today.

You can browse the original catalog here.

Can you imagine the outrage if a President’s family conducted a similar sale today? It could never happen for many reasons.  Public sentiment would prevent it.  And in some areas the law would forbid it.  The Presidential Records Act, which makes Executive Department papers the property of the public, would consume a small part of the sale (since most of the material pre-dated the Presidency).  But that only took effect during the Carter Administration.  Much would end up at a Presidential library, run by the National Archives.

An interesting side note appears in The Times article.  Lawrence Washington had purportedly offered to sell the entirety of the collection to the US Government for $20,000, but that offer had been declined.  It turns out that would have been a steal, as the first day alone broke the $20K threshold.

So where are these pieces now?  Most are long since in museums, institutions, or libraries.  But on rare occasion, one surfaces publicly.  Last year, my company, The Raab Collection, was fortunate to find an important one.  We sold 29-Year-Old George Washington’s original accounting and receipt for the rent of Mount Vernon and use of its slaves for the years before he took inheritance of the estate (it is pictured above).  The buyer is a private collector, who has placed it on loan at Mount Vernon, where I am told it will be on display later this Spring and through the Summer.

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