18th-century Banneker items to be auctioned Museum organizers hope to buy rare artifacts

August 01, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

A selection of rare items used by Benjamin Banneker, noted black American scientist, is to be auctioned early next month, but organizers of the planned Banneker museum and park in Baltimore County hope to raise money to buy the artifacts first.

The items -- which include a William and Mary drop-leaf table, candlesticks and molds, and several documents -- are scheduled to be put on the block at Sloane's Auction House in Bethesda.

Jean Walsh, a member of the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, said the items had been in the possession of a descendant of George Ellicott, who at age 17 befriended the much older Banneker -- known as "the first black man of science."

"George was interested in astronomy, and he loaned a number of things to Banneker, including the table and several books," Walsh said.

"Maj. Andrew Ellicott, George's cousin, was commissioned by George Washington to survey the land that was to become the District of Columbia and he wanted George to go along, but he couldn't and he suggested Banneker be given the job."

Groundbreaking is planned for September for the long-awaited Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, and Walsh and other supporters would like to exhibit the items there.

Gwen Marable, president of the organization, said an attempt had been made to persuade the owner, Elizabeth Wilde of Indianapolis, to donate or sell some of the artifacts to the museum.

"We want to spearhead an effort to keep these things here in Maryland," said Marable, a descendant of one of Banneker's three sisters.

Samuel Hopkins -- a descendant of the Ellicott family, who were mill owners and co-founders of Ellicott City -- said he encouraged Wilde to turn the artifacts over to the museum.

"I spoke to her some time ago and told her I thought it would be fine if she gave some of the stuff to the museum," Hopkins said. "I suggested to her that, if she did not give it to the society, that she might let the society make copies of the documents for display."

Patrick O'Neill, who is helping to arrange the auction for Sloane's, said the items are being appraised. Appraisal of historic pieces can be difficult, though officials expect the table to sell for $10,000 to $30,000.

"We have several documents with significant signatures, including a signature by James Monroe when he was attorney general for Thomas Jefferson," O'Neill said.

According to Silvio A. Bedini, author of "The Life of Benjamin Banneker," the scientist instructed his nephews to return the table and books to the Ellicott family and give them some of his effects. The day of his funeral in 1806, Banneker's log cabin burned to the ground. It is on that site where the museum and park are to be built.

Bedini said the artifacts are especially valuable because they are among the few remaining privately owned Banneker items.

Pub Date: 8/01/96

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