By Laura Beach
NEW YORK CITY – Riding a wave of post-September 11 patriotism, American flags brought record prices at Sotheby’s on Thursday, May 23. The 75-lot consignment, assembled over a number of years by Philadelphia-area collector Thomas S. Connelly, reached $1.3 million in heated bidding. Most of the flags sold to private collectors or their agents.
The top lot, a hand-sewn banner decorated with a 13-star American shield, said to have been used at Washington’s presidential inauguration in 1789, sold for $262,500 (est $25/30,000) to Audrey Isselbacher, an agent for a private collector.
Isselbacher, who acquired ten lots and was the day’s largest buyer, paid $47,800 for a 25-star flag commemorating Arkansas’s statehood in 1836, and $32,862 ($10/15,000) for a 31-star American national flag said to have been used in the 1860 campaign of Abraham Lincoln.
Westport, Conn., Americana specialist William Guthman purchased the shield-decorated banner from a visitor to the Winter Antiques Show in 1993. After having it conserved at the Textile Conservation Workshop, he resold it the following year, for about $10,000. “I’m delighted with the results of the auction,” said Guthman. “Historical Americana has always had a devoted following, but it is good to see an awakening of interest in a broader audience.”
An anonymous buyer bidding by phone paid $163,500, a record for an American flag at auction, for a hand-sewn Grand Union, or Continental, flag dating to about 1790-1810. Cyr Auction Company in Grey, Maine, sold the flag in 1996.
About a quarter of the flags in the sale had been acquired by Connelly from Dr Jeffrey Kenneth Kohn, the Elkins Park, Penn., specialist in antique American flags. Kohn also worked closely with Sotheby’s and the collector in cataloging the auction.
“It was a terrific sale,” said Kohn. “It is the largest flag auction ever and, if you don’t count Confederate flags, it broke some records. It shows that people are recognizing flags as an original folk art form that is truly American.”
Kohn said that he was pleasantly surprised by some of the prices, which went higher than he predicted. “My estimates were right 80 percent of the time,” he said. The dealer said that the sheer number of bids had contributed to the high prices. “The market is broad but the supply is limited. If there had been ten Texas and ten California flags, they all would have sold.”
The success of the sale is a credit to Sotheby’s skillful marketing. On Tuesday, May 21, folk art specialist Nancy Druckman appeared on the Today Show with Katie Couric and a CNN camera crew recorded the auction. Footage from the latter is expected to be part of a CNN special on the American flag, produced to coincide with Flag Day on June 14.
In all, Sotheby’s Americana sales reached $4.7 million on 320 lots. Look for a complete report in an upcoming issue of Antiques and The Arts Weekly.