Part of the Union Jack flag that flew from the HMS Victory during the battle of Trafalgar has sold for more than $400,000 at auction in London.
The historic relic from the flagship of Admiral Horatio Nelson was the star lot of Sotheby’s ‘Of Royal and Noble Descent’ sale, which achieved a total of £2.6m ($3.5m).
At the time of the battle in 1805, ships traditionally flew flags bearing their squadron colours; but just days before they faced the French fleet, Nelson issued a new order that his ships should fly the British national flag.
“When in the presence of an Enemy, all the Ships under my command are to bear white Colours [i.e. St George’s Ensign], and a Union Jack is to be suspended from the fore top-gallant stay”.
The British fleet scored a famous victory, but Nelson paid with his own life. He was shot by a French sniper during the battle, and died onboard the Victory a few hours later.
Nelson’s body was returned to England and he was granted a full state funeral, during which his coffin was escorted to St Paul’s Cathedral by a precession of 10,000 soldiers.
During the service, members of his crew from the HMS Victory placed the ship’s two flags over his coffin. But in a final outpouring of grief over their lost leader, the men then tore the flags to pieces and each took a fragment as a memento.
This fragment, the largest known to exist, was believed to originate from Captain William Hugh Dobbie (1771-1830) who served in the East Indies Station from 1790 to 1808.
He later gifted it to the Museum, of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defence organization founded in 1831 by the Duke of Wellington to study naval and military science.
Having previously sold back in the early 1960s, then again at Sotheby’s in 2005 for £120,000, the flag soared past its estimate to realize £297,000 ($408,761).
The Sotheby’s sale featured more than 80 lots relating to Nelson’s remarkable life and career.
“Many of the objects in the collection had irresistible stories to tell and would have been with Nelson at his final hour, making them even more desirable to collectors,” said a spokesperson for Sotheby’s.
Most notable of these was an important portrait of Emma Hamilton, Nelson’s mistress with whom he shared a scandalous seven-year love affair.
Painted by the renowned Irish neo-classicist Gavin Hamilton in 1786, the portrait sold for £369,000 ($507,855).
Further top lots included Nelson’s grog chest containing set of fine decanters, which he kept in his cabin whilst at sea, which sold for £68,750 ($94,621); and a pair of silver sauce tureens bearing Nelson’s coat of arms, presented to him by Lloyd’s Coffee House following the Battle of Copenhagen, which sold for £106,250 ($146,232).