Letter-perfect pieces of Americana go to auction


When you peek into letters 200 to 400 years old, instead of the guilty pleasure of reading somebody else's mail, you feel good about connecting to living history.

That dancing "N" signature at the end of the letter seeking supplies for officers encamped at Valley Forge in 1778 belongs to Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, George Washington's quartermaster.

George Washington signed "GWashington" to a bill of lading for 10 barrels of shad and 40 of herring at Mount Vernon on May 29, 1788, connecting the G and W with a flourish and crossing his t with a trademark curlicue.

These letters are among the treasures in the Ed and Jean Siskin collection of American Colonial and Early U.S. Mails from 1662 to 1799 that will be sold tomorrow evening in New York City by Timonium's Matthew Bennett International stamp auction company.

Harvey Bennett, president of the company and son of the founder, thinks the auction of 342 items at the Four Seasons Hotel will bring about a million dollars. This is a stampless philatelic collection with all the postage fees handwritten or handstamped. The world's first adhesive postage stamp, the famous British Penny Black, wasn't issued until 1840.

This collection was assembled by Ed Siskin, a New Jersey engineer and postal historian, and his wife, Jean. Siskin acquired his first Colonial "cover" - an envelope, or sometimes only a folded letter - more than 50 years ago. He began to collect seriously in 1974, often buying mail from earlier collectors.

"All these things actually went through the mail - as opposed to [being] just documents," Bennett says. He estimates there are only about 2,000 pieces of this kind of mail in private hands.

"[Siskin] acquired about a third of it," Bennett says. "It's amazing for one person to have a third of anything. Very little of it becomes available. This is the watershed.

"Over the typical course of the year, we might sell five or 10 pieces," he says. "And we're pretty big. We're actually No. 1 in the country saleswise at this point for U.S. postal history. We just don't see a lot of it. ... But to have 300 pieces - and there's more. ... This is great mail."

Much of the interest for collectors is in the postmarks and the routes the mail traveled.

"But a lot is of great interest because of the historical content." Bennett says. "If you like U.S. history, you're going to be fascinated."

For postal historians, the best piece is the first handstamped postmark in all of British North America. It's on a letter mailed from Philadelphia in June 1712.

"To the ordinary person, that probably doesn't mean much," Bennett says. "To the postal historian, this will be fought over."

With a faded address, some postal fee calculations and the New York handstamp, it's not very flashy. But it's expected to bring $50,000 to $75,000.

Bennett also likes an envelope from Ben Franklin, the colonial postmaster general at the time, forwarding a 1765 business letter to John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, then a merchant in Boston.

"There are probably not more than 10 total free franks where [Franklin] signs his name and puts `free'," he says. "I love this one `free from Ben Franklin to John Hancock.' What a piece of Americana that is!"

The same free franking system, of course, exists today for official letters of members of Congress and other government officials.

Many of the historical letters offered in this sale are truly amazing Americana.

A British officer describes Washington's assault on Trenton, N.J., on Dec. 26, 1776, in a letter to the Earl of Lauderdale in Edinburgh, Scotland:

"The rebels crossed the river in extreme bad weather and in the morning about nine they drove in [a Hessian colonel's] regiment and entered the town."

The historian David McCullough is said to have drawn on the same account in his work about the Revolution, 1776.

An amusing 1771 letter from a young fellow in Philadelphia to a friend in Lancaster talks about legal matters then ends with a personal note: "Do you think you could recommend a Tolerably handsome Dutch lass with some money to a Young Irish Friend of yours. Finally began to think of Matrimony seriously."

Bennett finds "terribly exciting" a 1755 letter from Virginia to England describing Gen. Edward Braddock's defeat and death at the battle with French and Indian forces on the Monongahela River, near modern-day Pittsburgh.

"The point is how it goes on and on about Washington," he says, "how he was such a hero and did such a great job, and when you think about it, he was 23 years old at the time. That's an incredible firsthand account; you want to talk about living history, that's amazing."

Bennett says he's prejudiced against buying stamps as an investment: "I don't like seeing good stamps being put into a safe deposit box."

But he explains that Siskin bought the premium early handstamp 10 years ago for $45,000. If it sells for just $50,000, the lower estimate, Siskin could have done better putting his money in a bank.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.