Auction News

US historic documents sale led by $6-million revolutionary protest sign


a protest placard against the British stamp act that was posted in New York in 1765

A major sale of US historic documents could realize as much as $12.7 million at a January 17 sale in New York.

The star item is a 1765 placard denouncing the Stamp Act, a major grievance of Americans in the lead up to the Revolutionary War and independence.

The item is one of only two known such surviving placards from the period. It carries an estimate of $1.2 million.

As recently as 1980 the only other known such sign was sold at auction in Boston for less than $1,000. Its provenance took it back to the collection of renowned antiquarian Joshua Brookes, who died in 1859. It ended up in the British national archives.

The sale, “Fine Printed & Manuscript Americana” contains over 150 lots spanning early Revolutionary history to the Civil War.

The lowest total estimate is $8.5 million and the sale could raise $12.7 million.

Among a catalogue full of notable rarities are the earliest record of Robert E. Lee’s 1865 surrender at Appomattox. That’s recorded in a document written by Ulysses S. Grant’s chief of staff, and carries an estimate of $600,000-800,000.

An 1861 letter by President James Buchanan defends his decision to send troops to protect Lincoln’s inauguration. In another letter, Louisiana’s 1861 secession is declared.

The sale includes a rare map from Quebec’s founder Samuel de Champlain’s travel journal. And a near-complete set of 17th century Jesuit Relations on early Canada.

A map by Samuel de Champlain, similar to the one being sold on January 17.

The Stamp Act placard is a historically significant piece that may well end up in a museum collection. It is almost certainly the work of a member of the Sons of Liberty, a group of radical New York merchants.

In plain language it threatens anyone who deals with taxed papers newly arrived in the United States.

“Pro Patria. The first Man that either distributes or makes use of Stampt Paper, let him take care of His House, Person & Effects. Vox Populi, We Dare”­

Historians now believe the Stamp Act placards are a vital moment, the first in a chain that led to the Revolutionary War and independence.

“No one seemed to notice what they had,” said Peter Klarnet, of the auctioneers. “When the present owner showed it to me, I was just blown away—you just don’t find documents like this.

Mr Klarnet says the high expectations for this sale reflect market conditions. “We’ve seen a market uptick over the past few years for important documents relating to the American Revolution and founding of the United States.”

In 2021 a copy of the United States constitution sold for $43 million. It was believed to be the only survivor in private hands. However, many historic documents are held by owners who don’t know exactly what they are. If you do have old documents in your possession it’s a good idea to seek out expert advice before disposing of them.

While this document is much less well known than the Constitution it carries an air of excitement and danger to it that adds another dimension to its attraction.

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