Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2019 Issue

Alexander Hamilton Letter, Stolen 80 Years Ago, Finally Located

Letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette (U.S. Attorney's Office photo).

A letter written by Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette, stolen years ago from the Massachusetts Archives, has been found. An action has been taken by the U.S. Department of Justice in Massachusetts for forfeiture of the letter back to the Archives. It almost certainly will be making its way back. The letter was written by Hamilton to Lafayette on July 21, 1780 in the midst of the Revolutionary War. It is a warning to the leader of French naval forces aiding the Americans concerning the movement of British troops.

 

The letter was stolen from the Massachusetts Archives sometime between 1937-1945 by a former employee, according to the charges. The Hamilton letter was not alone, the employee also stealing papers from George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and Benedict Arnold among others. The theft was not noticed for several years. In 1950, the employee was arrested and most of the documents were recovered, but not all.

 

The Hamilton letter made its way to a books and manuscripts dealer in Syracuse, New York, who sold it to an ancestor of the current holders. It devolved to that Buyer's son and eventually to his children in South Carolina. They recently decided it was time to sell the letter. They brought it to an auction house in Virginia, which estimated the value at $25,000.

 

As appropriate for an auction house with a valuable document such as this, they did some research and discovered it on a list of stolen material, this one taken years ago from the Massachusetts Archives. They called in the FBI, which took control of the letter and turned it over to the Justice Department. About two weeks ago, the Department of Justice began proceedings to have the letter returned to the Archives.

 

The South Carolina family which possessed the letter reportedly has not decided whether to contest the forfeiture action. They would like a bit more proof of ownership, but it seems hard to imagine they will fight this one for long. The title to an item does not change hands when it is stolen, so the thief had no title to sell to the dealer. Likewise, the dealer had no title to transfer to the collector, nor the collector to his descendants. The title and all rights to the property remains with the original owner, in this case evidently the Massachusetts Archives. Since the current possessors apparently have no title, they must return the document to the original owner and are not entitled to any compensation.

 

Since the Archives reported the theft when it was discovered years ago, also notified booksellers to be on the lookout for it, and had a photostatic copy, it is hard to imagine they will have much difficulty proving to a court they are legitimate owners. Added to this is that holding onto government documents is particularly difficult for private collectors, even in cases where the original transfer was legitimate. The burden of proof generally falls on the collector. If the archivist had honestly purchased the letter from the Archives but kept no receipt or other proof, the collector would most likely still be out of luck. If the Archives had tossed it away as part of a housecleaning years ago, and the dealer picked it out of a trashcan but there was no proof of this, the collector again would most likely have to forfeit it. The presumption is that government documents belong to the government and the burden is on the possessor to prove his possession is legitimate. This letter is almost assuredly going back to the Massachusetts Archives.

 

The letter from Hamilton was a warning to Lafayette that the British were sending forces to Rhode Island, where French naval vessels were waiting. Those forces would later make their way down to Virginia to participate in the final battle at Yorktown. It is a good thing for Americans that Hamilton warned his friend to be prepared for an attack on the French fleet. The letter reads:

 

"My Dear Marquis

 

We have just received advice from New York through different channels that the enemy are making an embarkation with which they menace the French fleet and army. Fifty transports are said to have gone up the Sound to take in troops and proceed directly to Rhode Island.

 

The General is absent and may not return before evening. Though this may be only a demonstration yet as it may be serious, I think it best to forward it without waiting the Generals return.

 

We have different accounts from New York of an action in the West Indies in which the English lost several ships. I am inclined to credit them.

 

I am My Dear Marquis   with the truest affection   Yr. Most Obedt

 

A Hamilton   Aide De Camp"

Rare Book Monthly

  • ALDE, May 28: KIPLING (RUDYARD). Le Livre de la Jungle. – Le IIe livre de la Jungle. Paris, Sagittaire, Simon Kra, 1924-1925. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: NOAILLES (ANNA DE). Les Climats. Paris, Société du Livre contemporain, 1924. €50,000 to €60,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MILTON (JOHN). Paradis perdu. Quatrième chant. S.l., Les Bibliophiles de l'Automobile-Club de France, 1974. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LEBEDEV (VLADIMIR). Russian Placards - Placard Russe 1917-1922. Saint-Petersbourg, Sterletz, 1923. €1,000 to €1,200.
    ALDE, May 28: MARDRUS (JOSEPH-CHARLES). Histoire charmante de l'adolescente sucre d'amour. Paris, F.-L. Schmied, 1927. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: TABLEAUX DE PARIS. Paris, Émile-Paul Frères, 1927. €2,000 to €3,000.
    ALDE, May 28: LA FONTAINE (JEAN DE). Les Fables illustrées par Paul Jouve. S.l. [Lausanne], Gonin & Cie, 1929. €4,000 to €5,000.
    ALDE, May 28: SARTRE (JEAN-PAUL). Vingt-deux dessins sur le thème du désir. Paris, Fernand Mourlot, 1961. €1,500 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: [BRAQUE (GEORGES)]. 13 mai 1962. Alès, PAB, 1962. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MIRÓ (JOAN). Je travaille comme un jardinier. Avant-propos d'Yvon Taillandier. Paris, Société intenationale d'art XXe siècle, 1963. €1,000 to €2,000.
    ALDE, May 28: MAGNAN (JEAN-MARIE). Taureaux. Paris, Michèle Trinckvel, 1965. €3,000 to €4,000.
    ALDE, May 28: PICASSO (PABLO). Dans l'atelier de Picasso. 1960. €15,000 to €20,000.
  • Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Winston Churchill. The Second World War. Set of First-Edition Volumes. 6,000 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: A.A. Milne, Ernest H. Shepard. A Collection of The Pooh Books. Set of First-Editions. 18,600 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Salvador Dalí, Lewis Carroll. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Finely Bound and Signed Limited Edition. 15,000 USD
    Sotheby’s
    Modern First Editions
    Available for Immediate Purchase
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ian Fleming. Live and Let Die. First Edition. 9,500 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter Series. Finely Bound First Printing Set of Complete Series. 5,650 USD
    Sotheby’s, Available Now: Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. First Edition, First Printing. 4,200 USD
  • Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Potter (Beatrix). Complete set of four original illustrations for the nursery rhyme, 'This pig went to market', 1890s. £60,000 to £80,000.
    Forum, May 30: Dante Alighieri.- Lactantius (Lucius Coelius Firmianus). Opera, second edition, Rome, 1468. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, May 30: Distilling.- Brunschwig (Hieronymus). Liber de arte Distillandi de Compositis, first edition of the so-called 'Grosses Destillierbuch', Strassburg, 1512. £22,000 to £28,000.
    Forum, May 30: Eliot (T.S.), W. H. Auden, Ted Hughes, Philip Larkin, Robert Lowell, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes, & others. A Personal Anthology for Eric Walter White, 60 autograph poems. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum, May 30: Cornerstone of French Enlightenment Philosophy.- Helvetius (Claude Adrien). De l'Esprit, true first issue "A" of the suppressed first edition, Paris, 1758. £20,000 to £30,000.
    Forum Auctions
    Fine Books, Manuscripts and Works on Paper
    30th May 2024
    Forum, May 30: Szyk (Arthur). The Haggadah, one of 125 copies, this out-of-series, Beaconsfield Press, 1940. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Fleming (Ian). Casino Royale, first edition, first impression, 1953. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, May 30: Japan.- Ryusui (Katsuma). Umi no Sachi [Wealth of the Sea], 2 vol., Tokyo, 1762. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Computing.- Operating and maintenance manual for the BINAC binary automatic computer built for Northrop Aircraft Corporation 1949, Philadelphia, 1949. £8,000 to £12,000.
    Forum, May 30: Burmese School (probably circa 1870s). Folding manuscript, or parabaik, from the Court Workshop at the Royal Court at Manadaly, Burma, [c.1870s]. £8,000 to £12,000.
  • Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Marx, Das Kapital,1867. Dedication copy. Est: € 120,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Latin and French Book of Hours, around 1380. Est: € 25,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Theodor de Bry, Indiae Orientalis, 1598-1625. Est: € 80,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviary, Latin manuscript, around 1450-75. Est: € 10,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    G. B. Piranesi, Vedute di Roma, 1748-69. Est: € 60,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    K. Schmidt-Rottluff, Arbeiter, 1921. Orig. watercolour on postcard. Est: € 18,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Breviarium Romanum, Latin manuscript, 1474. Est: € 20,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    C. J. Trew, Plantae selectae, 1750-73. Est: € 28,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    M. Beckmann, Apokalypse, 1943. Est: € 50,000
    Ketterer Rare Books
    Auction May 27th
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Ulrich von Richenthal, Das Concilium, 1536. Est: € 9,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    I. Kant, Critik der reinen Vernunft, 1781. Est: €12,000
    Ketterer Rare Books, May 27:
    Arbeiter-Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) / Die Volks-Illustrierte (VI), 1932-38. Est: €8,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions