Coveted Banneker items going, going . . . gone Dismayed local group outbid by Va. banker

September 09, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

Supporters of Baltimore County's Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum were outbid yesterday at an auction of rare artifacts used by the famed African-American scientist.

The local group could only watch in dismay as a Virginia businessman bid $55,250 for the antiques the group had hoped to keep in Maryland and display at the museum under construction at the site of Banneker's home in Oella.

"We are very disappointed," said Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture and chairman of the Banneker Artifact Consortium, which was backed by private donations and a promise of matching funds from the Maryland Historical Trust.

"Things did not go at all as we had hoped," Sharps said after the two-hour session at C. G Sloan and Co. auction house in Bethesda.

The consortium had hoped to buy a maple and pine drop-leaf table believed to have been lent to Banneker by the Ellicott family, two candlesticks and a candle mold, a ledger from the Ellicott & Co. general store noting purchases by Banneker, and several documents and letters pertaining to Banneker and the Ellicotts -- a white family that forged a strong friendship with the scientist, who died in 1806.

Emanuel Friedman, an investment banker and chairman of Friedman, Billings and Ramsey in Rosslyn, Va., made winning bids of $32,500 for the table, $7,500 for letters, a scrapbook and personal papers from the Ellicott estate, $6,000 for the candlesticks, and $3,750 for the ledger.

But hope remained that some of the items might yet be displayed in Oella. Friedman said he planned to keep some for a personal collection and donate the rest to a new African-American Civil War Foundation museum being planned in Washington, which he believed would be willing to share the artifacts with the Banneker museum.

"Things will be donated [to the Washington museum] in honor of Frank Smith, a councilman from D.C. whose vision the museum has been," said Friedman, who also spent several thousand dollars more on smaller items associated with the Ellicott family.

"I'm sure [the museum] will loan things out. Everyone is on the same team."

Media attention swirled around the auction, and more than 100 people came to witness the sale of the artifacts associated with Banneker, a self-taught mathematician, astronomer and surveyor who has been dubbed "the first black man of science."

Bidding went quickly, and auctioneer Patrick S. O'Neill said: "New York had Jackie O, we have Benjamin B."

"It's far exceeded the normal publicity that usually surrounds Sloan's auctions because of the historical significance of Mr. Banneker," O'Neill said. "He represents so much in regards to how our country started."

Richard B. Hughes, chief of the Maryland Office of Archaeology, said the consortium still wants to buy other artifacts such as a book containing Banneker's scientific notations that Elizabeth Wilde -- an Ellicott descendant who owned the artifacts -- did not include in yesterday's auction.

"Because of the involvement of public money, we had to set limits on what we could spend based on the advice we received from appraisers," Hughes said of the consortium, which put in winning bids only on two books with accompanying manuscripts -- for $75 -- on the settlement of Ellicott Mills and the history of the mills.

"We were just outbid," he said.

Gwen Marable, president of The Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum and descendant of one of Banneker's three sisters, said she remained hopeful the group would be able to display the artifacts in Oella.

"I have every faith we will receive those artifacts at some point," she said.

Pub Date: 9/09/96

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