Owning George Washington: The Auction

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Growing up in the tiny town of Ephrata, Wash., Tom Washington and his older brother Nat, blood relatives of George (yes, that George) were surrounded by family lore. There were more tangible connections as well: family papers going back to 1662, tools George Washington used in his early years as a surveyor, even bits of his coffin. Now, after generations of safekeeping, the family is selling its treasures at auction starting Thursday, creating a buzz of excitement among Americana experts.

Not only is such a sale by an old family unusual, those experts say, but the size of the collection and the variety of items provide a window on the life and times of both outsize and ordinary Americans in pivotal centuries.

Part of the collection, the Bushrod Washington Family papers, includes correspondence, legal documents, land deeds and other items, among them letters from and about the widow of Alexander Hamilton, inventories of slaves, and a recipe for cement sent to Washington at Mount Vernon. In a family that included a Supreme Court justice (Bushrod) as well as the first president, there are letters from George Wythe (who signed the Declaration of Independence) and Richard Peters, Washington’s secretary of war. They are being offered by Heritage Auction Galleries in two sales, with books being auctioned in New York on Thursday and other items being sold in Dallas on May 21.

“It is quite remarkable when a steward of the collection is able to keep it together,” said Carol Borchert Cadou, the vice president for collections at George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens. “It’s fairly rare to have a large amount of material survive together in family hands. An object, if it can be divided, often is. A piece of fabric, for example, might be divided into five pieces, and the one piece that survives is tiny and frayed.”...

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