A rare Washington letter goes on the auction block today

December 13, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

A rare, forgotten letter that George Washington wrote from his Army headquarters at New Windsor, N.Y., to his old Virginia friend Bryan Fairfax in June 1779 will be sold today at the Alex Cooper Auction Galleries in Towson.

Richard Hall, a Cooper appraiser with a special interest in documents and paper ephemera, recently found the letter in the possessions of a "Baltimore lady" from "an old Maryland family with connections to Virginia." She moved from an apartment in North Baltimore to an assisted-living facility and was condensing her holdings and dearly desired anonymity, he said.

In preparation for the auction, Hall went through the apartment, selecting salable items. On the day his selections were to be moved to the auction house at 908 York Road, he noticed a scrapbook on the top shelf of a bookcase. On first glance, he saw brittle letterheads and curiosities and mainly Baltimore-related material taped in, the kind of stuff that often gets thrown out.

"I brought it in," he says. "And a few days later, looking through it ... I sort of opened a page and sort of [thought], `I remember this handwriting. Oh, my God!' And there it is, a letter that George Washington wrote in the late spring of 1779 to Bryan Fairfax, in Fairfax County, Va."

Washington was a trustee of the estate of Fairfax's brother, and he and Fairfax corresponded for more than 30 years.

Fairfax County has published transcriptions of 69 letters between them. This letter makes 70, and it is mentioned in the earlier correspondence, says Hall, who studied history at the Johns Hopkins University and worked at the Peale Museum.

"I would think it's a very important letter," says Donald Sweig, one of the editors of the Fairfax-Washington correspondence. He thinks the four-page letter, which has its original envelope and seal, could bring much more than the auctioneers' estimate of $30,000 to $50,000.

Hall pretty much agrees.

"Because it's historically significant and such an appealing kind of letter, in relatively good shape, it could do stronger," he says.

And it's a discovery.

"When something is brand-new to the market it often brings more than something that has been seen and known about," Hall says. "And opportunities to get a letter like this are much, much rarer than they would have been ... 30 years ago."

In The Fairfax Family in Virginia: A Brief History, Sweig, the co-author, says Bryan Fairfax (1736-1802) served in the Virginia Militia under Washington and acquired nearly 30,000 acres in Fairfax and Fauquier counties in Virginia. He became an Episcopal clergyman, inherited the British title of Baron Fairfax of Cameron and was a "principal mourner" at Washington's funeral.

"Because they were pretty much lifelong friends," Hall says, "[Washington] was fairly open with him, too. Washington could be quite reserved. He was the sort of person when he lost faith with people he would never talk to them again. He was ... very proud."

The letter talks about a broad range of things, Hall says. Washington laments "the unhappy situation" of a Mrs. Savage, who was apparently robbed and abandoned by her husband.

He rages against the prolongation of the Revolutionary War by "a want of public virtue - Speculation, peculation, forestalling, monopolizing, with all their concomitants seem to have taken place of everything else."

He notes the movement of British troops up the Hudson River to within 12 miles of where his Continental Army was encamped north of West Point.

Hall thinks the letter may have gotten into the family papers of the Baltimore lady through an aunt who corresponded with Edward Fairfax, a scion of the Fairfax family.

He has no doubts about the letter's authenticity.

"It's pretty clear-cut," he says. "It's 18th-century handwriting, but it's very, very distinctive. It's very rounded and it has [Washington's] particular kind of flourishing character."

As for himself, Hall says, "It's a lot of fun to find something that really had been lost and could as easily gone into the trash."

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