Washington artifacts go up for auction
Thursday, May 19, 2011
DALLAS (AP) — Pieces of George Washington’s original coffin, instruments he used to survey land as a county surveyor and a collection of documents that include letters, land deeds and wills are expected to be part of an upcoming auction in Dallas.
The items will be among hundreds relating to the nation’s first president offered Saturday during an event held by Heritage Auctions.
“There’s kind of a very big interest in founding fathers, of which he’s the key one,” said James Gannon, Heritage’s director of rare books.
Tom Slater, Heritage Auctions’ director of Americana, said that while items related to Washington aren’t rare, it is unusual to have pieces up for auction that have been kept in the family for so long.
Items offered by Washington family relatives include original coffin pieces: a wood fragment with a screw still in it, three small pieces of wood from the coffin bound with a string, a corroded handle from the coffin and fragments of an embossed decoration. Each is expected to fetch a few thousand dollars.
The family also is offering a compass that’s expected to sell for more than $40,000. A Gunter’s Scale, a 24-inch wooden ruler that was a precursor to the slide rule, is expected to raise more than $30,000.
Family members say parting with the collection of papers will be most difficult.
“People can read these to get a sense of the times: There’s a recipe for making cement,” said Tom Washington, 62, a career counselor in Kirkland, Wash and a descendent of George Washington’s brother, John Augustine Washington. He said his father, Nat Washington, a longtime state senator in Washington who died in 2007, had said in his will that he wanted the items sold.
Nat Washington kept the items in a dining room sideboard, occasionally taking them out for the children to look at.
Tom Washington said the documents, which have been transcribed and can be read at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library in Williamsburg, Va., cover a variety of topics, with many pertaining to Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington, who was George Washington’s nephew.
“There is ... some sadness,” Tom Washington said. “There’s just various kinds of emotions.”
His cousin, Sarah Brown, a 59-year-old bass player who lives in Austin, said she took time to study the items and learn details of her history as they were being prepared for sale.
Saturday’s auction also will feature a letter commissioning George Washington to do a survey and his signed survey description for a piece of land in Virginia. The framed items are expected to sell for more than $85,000. A wine glass used by George and Martha Washington during and after his presidency is expected to sell for about $12,000.
Slater said he thinks the surveying equipment will be of particular interest to those interested in Washington’s early life, before he became commander-in-chief of the continental army during the Revolutionary War and the nation’s first president in 1789.
Mary Thompson, research specialist for Mount Vernon Estate & Gardens, Washington’s estate located just south of Washington, D.C., said when Washington died in 1799 at the age of 67, he was put into a family vault at Mount Vernon that had been built on the side of a hill with underground springs. Washington wanted a new vault built and upon its completion in 1831, he and other family members were moved to Mount Vernon. During that move, it was discovered that his coffin was falling apart and was replaced.
Pieces of Washington’s coffin are not unusual, and have occasionally come up for sale, Slater said.
“At that point, people took handles and pieces of wood as souvenirs. We have a number of coffin fragments in our collection and other people have them in their collection,” said Thompson, adding that the body was moved again in 1837 when it was placed in a marble sarcophagus in that vault.