A special grouping of more than 100 lots directly related to America's first president, George Washington - including his personally owned and used Gunter Scale (estimate: $30,000+) and Compass (estimate: $40,000+), utilized by Washington when he was a young surveyor in Virginia, and consigned by his descendants - will open Heritage Auctions
' May 21 Grand Format Americana & Political Memorabilia Auction.
"We've seen some terrific Americana auctions here in the past," said Tom Slater, Director of Americana Auctions at Heritage, "but in many ways this one breaks down as the most exciting."
The majority of the pieces in the grouping are contemporary with Washington's life and death, with a series of eight lots consigned by the Washington family, including the surveyor tools mentioned above and an important archive consisting of hundreds of Washington family papers dating from 1662 through 1835 (estimate: $85,000+).
"The family artifacts have marvelous provenance," said Slater, "having been consigned by a direct descendant of Washington's nephew Bushrod. As Washington himself had no heirs, it was Bushrod who became custodian of Mt. Vernon after the great man's death in 1799."
A perfect companion piece to the surveyors' tools is one of Washington's actual signed land surveys, written in his own hand and signed by him at the bottom (estimate: $85,000+). Amazingly, the piece has been framed together with the original letter from William Fairfax commissioning Washington to make the survey.
"The two documents reportedly descended together through an old Virginia family," said Slater. "We can only speculate as to how they came to possess both the survey and letter generations ago."
The Washington relic with the highest minimum opening bid - $150,000 - is reserved for an extremely important patent document signed by Washington as President in 1796.
"This patent represents a landmark development in the commercial history of the fledgling republic," said Slater. "It was for a major refinement to Eli Whitney's famed cotton gin by one Hodgen Holmes. While Whitney's machine was patented first, it was Holmes' more efficient version that made possible the profitable growing of cotton in the South on a broad scale, thereby extending - perhaps for decades - the life of slavery in the South."
The patent also represents a landmark episode in the early history of American commercial law. Whitney felt that manufacturing a gin using Holmes' improved technique was an infringement on his own patent, and he brought an aggressive legal action to block its sale. Ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Whitney's favor, but it was an empty victory. The ruling did not come until 1808, when Holmes' machines were in widespread use across the South, and Whitney's own patent was approaching expiration.
Western Americana makes a strong showing in the May 21 sale. Included are 10 lots relating to George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Big Horn, important photographs by Carlton Watkins (estimate: $25,000+) and A.J. Russell (estimate: $5,000+), a superb half plate daguerreotype of California gold miners (estimate: $40,000+), and a copy of the sought-after "Pony Express Bible" (estimate: $15,000+), as well as rare cabinet photos of "Wild Bill" Hickok (estimate: $20,000+)) and "Calamity Jane" Canary (estimate: $15,000+) and a group of photos and personal effects of William F. "Doc" Carver, renowned 19th century trick shooter and the first Wild West show partner of "Buffalo Bill" Cody - even including an autographed pair of the famed showman's boots (estimate: $5,000+).
Among the significant Western autographed items are a rare early 1870 document signed by lawman Wyatt Earp (estimate: $20,000+) and a remarkable autograph book signed in 1873 by Hickcok, Cody, and other Western figures who assembled in New York City to appear in the stage play "Scouts of the Plains" (estimate: $15,000+).
"Hickok's autograph is a rare one among early Western figures," said Slater, "and notoriously hard to authenticate, but he signed this book twice and the context clearly validates the signature."
Perhaps the most dazzling Western items in the auction are a series of eight rare gold-headed presentation canes and walking sticks, several with beautiful gold quartz inlay. Among the most important is a rare 1855 San Francisco walking stick presented by James "King of William" King to journalist Abel Whitton (estimate: $25,000+), and an incredible 1869 cane marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad (estimate: $20,000+).
James King and his associate Whitton published a muck-raking newspaper that incurred the enmity of the corrupt San Francisco establishment, and his brutal murder in 1856 led to a resurgence of the then-dormant Vigilantes, who seized, tried, and executed King's killer.
"The tragic event catalyzed at last the rooting out of corruption in the notorious city," said Slater, "and is considered one of the most important events in early San Francisco history."
The 1869 cane was commissioned by David Hewes, brother-in-law of Leland Stanford, to celebrate the epic joining of the rails at Promontory Point. The wood in the cane is from the piece of California laurel used for the ceremonial final railroad tie, and the gold is from the same batch used to cast the legendary "Golden Spike."
"What makes this cane particularly important," said Slater, "is the fact that the final tie was destroyed, along with the railroad's corporate offices, in the fire which followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Accordingly, it is the only surviving sample of the wood from which the tie was crafted."
Political Americana is always a featured section of every Heritage Americana auction, and the May 21 sale is no exception. The standout offering is a very rare, full color 1900 campaign pinback button showing the Democratic ticket of William Jennings Bryan and Adlai Stevenson "eclipsing" the Republican candidates, William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt (estimate: $12,000+). While the button proved a poor prognosticator - McKinley won in a landslide - this rare pinback remains a classic collector favorite. The last example to appear on the market was sold by Heritage for slightly over $20,000 in a 2006 auction.
"One of the most interesting, and ingratiating, political items in the sale is an utterly unique item presented to outgoing president John Quincy Adams in 1829," said Slater. "It's a copper bed warming pan (estimate: $8,000+) decorated with a federal eagle and inscribed to Adams 'from a warm friend.'"