Important historical items regularly come up for auction, so a full list of lots is extensive. Artifacts from the Titanic, all manner of wars from across the world, ancient tribal and pre-Columbian artifacts and iconic pieces of history, all have been seen at auction somewhere at some point in time. The things I have been able to see here at Heritage are almost mind-blowing! The quality of artifacts lost in a kitchen drawer, stuck out in a field or passed down from generation to generation – all in the hands of private citizens – is amazing. Compiled here are just a few of my absolute favorites from American history.
1. The Rosa Parks Bus: The legendary story of Rosa Parks and her refusal to move to the back of the bus rings through history as one of the most defining moments in America’s civil rights movement of the 1960s. I recently had the chance to visit The Henry Ford Museum – famed for many things, including the Rosa Parks Bus – in Dearborn, Michigan. While I was there, a docent in that part of the museum wasted no time in grabbing my attention and regaling me with the full story of Parks and the bus incident. She showed me where Parks sat and explained different features of the small interior. We chatted for a few minutes and I happened to mention that I work at Heritage Auctions. “Oh!” she said. “Then you will love how we obtained this specific bus!” When a bus is decommissioned, it usually is sold in a small, local auction. Of course, no one realized at the time what a defining moment of U.S. history this rebellion would become, and so the bus in which Parks took her rightful stand against segregation was decommissioned in due course and sold at auction. A gentleman from Alabama bought the bus, along with one other, stripped both of their engines and seats and used them as tool sheds.
According to the gentleman’s daughter, he always claimed it was probably the Parks bus, but didn’t care to have it validated. When he died, a local auction house verified that the bus was, in fact, the bus on which Parks made her stand and put it up for auction for $50,000. The Ford Museum and the Smithsonian stayed up into wee hours of the night bidding against each other until the Ford Museum won with a bid of $492,000. The bus was restored and now is in a beautiful exhibit at the museum, which invites guests to climb aboard and marvel at such a significant slice of history.
2. K. Rowling’s Chair: I do realize that J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter are British. However, there is no denying the huge impact that the Harry Potter books have had on American culture, so it has made my list. Rowling wrote both Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets while seated in a single chair. According to Rowling, the chair was part of a set given to her when she was a young, single mother in Scotland. She took the most comfortable chair and used it as her writing chair for the first two books in her famous series. The author painted the chair herself with different phrases like “I wrote / Harry Potter / while sitting / on this chair.” The goal was to make the chair a piece of literary history instead of just a chair. In 2002, Rowling donated the chair to a children’s charity along with a note that reads, “Dear new-owner-of-my-chair, I was given four mismatched dining room chairs in 1995 and this was the comfiest one, which is why it ended up stationed permanently in front of my typewriter, supporting me while I typed out ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’. My nostalgic side is quite sad to see it go, but my back isn’t. J.K. Rowling”. It originally sold for $21,000 and later was sold at auction again for $29,000. Most recently, Heritage Auctions consigned the chair and auctioned it for $394,000, 10 percent of which was given to charity! What a magical piece of wizarding history for a muggle to own!
Chair Used by J.K. Rowling whilst Writing the First Two Harry Potter Books,
Later Hand-Painted and Signed by Rowling Herself
3. Kennedy License Plates: The country reeled Nov. 22, 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was shot while visiting Dallas. The spot in the road where the fateful event occurred still is marked – I have seen it myself many times. The world watched the tragedy unfold, as Jackie Kennedy tried to save her dying husband. The vehicle that drove Kennedy through Dallas was taken to Hess & Eisenhardt for improved security features like bulletproof plexiglass and better armor on the car. While the car was being updated for future presidents, a package arrived with new license plates. The old plates were discarded by the mechanic and then salvaged by Willard C. Hess, owner of Hess & Eisenhardt. He knew they would be of significant value one day and saved them, storing them on a bookshelf and passing them down to his daughter. His daughter kept them in a kitchen drawer in Ohio until 2015, when she consigned them with Heritage for auction. All of the daughter’s family thought the plates should be kept in a safe deposit box, but she knew if that happened, no one would know their significance or where they had originated. The lot was sold – along with pictures of Hess holding the plates in front of the vehicle now on display at The Henry Ford Museum as provenance – in 2015 for $100,000.
4. Robert E. Lee’s Terms of Surrender: Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant fought a bitter civil war in the U.S., both fueled by the love of their people rather than the desire for war. They fought a gentleman’s war and both generals had the utmost respect for each other. The war was bloody and brutal, but in the end, Grant, Lee and then-president Abraham Lincoln all had the healing of the nation at heart, rather than revenge. In the unconditional surrender of the Southern army, soldiers were required to lay down their arms and uniforms and simply return home. Grant wrote up the terms of surrender based on a series of letters the two had exchanged. Lee signed it and the men shook hands, after which Grant announced, “The war is over; the rebels are our countrymen again; and the best sign of rejoicing after the victory will be to abstain from all demonstrations in the field.” The original letters are lost to history but Lee had true copies made of each letter. In the true style of the battlefield, penmanship and eloquent wording was discarded for the task at hand and each copy is signed “True Copy, R. E. Lee.” He gave these to General Henry Wise, who had a great esteem for history and who Lee knew would keep the letters and treasure them for history’s sake. From Gen. Wise’s descendants, these came to auction. Again, Heritage Auctions auctioned the Terms of Surrender – the communications that ended the greatest and most costly conflict on American soil – for $537,750 in 2007.
5. Peale’s Washington: The last piece for this list that caught my eye was Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of George Washington. Peale’s mission in life had been to paint “the national portrait and standard likeness” of Washington. Rembrandt met Washington in 1787 as a boy and in 1795, had his first sitting with the president. The portrait is an accomplished capture of an aging but noble man and a very elegant naturalistic study focused on the features of the man rather than symbolism in his clothes or background, making it one of the iconic portraits of the first president. Over the next decades, Peale continued to paint Washington obsessively and found a valuable market for his Washington portraits. He sold quite a few original oils that were copies of the original and even adapted them into different sizes like the porthole I am using in this example. This painting solidified Peale’s reputation as the foremost Washington painter and catapulted him into American history. This particular painting was sold, along with a portrait of Martha Washington, through private collections to the Dallas collector who brought it to Heritage Auctions. The portrait of the first president sold for $662,500, and Martha Washington’s for $158,500, in 2013.
REMBRANDT PEALE (American, 1778-1860)
George Washington, circa 1856
Oil on canvas
REMBRANDT PEALE (American, 1778-1860)
Martha Washington, circa 1856
Oil on canvas
History can be found in everything, but certain items define particularly important moments in history that can only be relived through artifacts like these.
Written by: Kathryn Hoogendoorn
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