Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2019 Issue

Alexander Hamilton Letter, Stolen 80 Years Ago, Finally Located

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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

  • <center><b>Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers<br>The Collectors’ Sale<br>July 7 – 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> O'Fihely, Maurice Abp. <i>Questiones subtilissme Scoti in metaphysicam Aristotelis</i>, Venice (Octavianus Scoti) 20th November 1497. 8,000 to 12,000 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Pococke (Richard). <i>A Description of the East and some other Countries,</i> 3 vols. in 2, L. (W. Bowyer) 1743. 2,250 to 3,500 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Keogh (John). <i>Botanalogia Universalis Hibernica, or A General Irish Herbal Calculated for this Kingdom, giving an account of the Herbs, Scrubs…</i>, Corke (George Harrison) 1735. 1,000 to 1,500 €
    <center><b>Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers<br>The Collectors’ Sale<br>July 7 – 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Perry (Charles). <i>A View of the Levant particularly of Constantinople, Syria, Egypt and Greece,</i> L. (T. Woodward) 1743. 800 to 1,200 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Shaw (Thomas). <i>Travels, or Observations Relating to Several Parts of Barbary and the Levant,</i>, Oxford (The Theatre) 1738. 600 to 700 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> [French (Nicholas) Bishop of Ferns] Attributed, <i>Recit Exact et Fidele de la Vente et Partage du Roiaume d'Irlande Fait Sous Charles II…,</i> Milan (Chez Charles Joseph Quinto) 1724. 500 to 700 €
    <center><b>Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers<br>The Collectors’ Sale<br>July 7 – 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> [French (V. Rev.Dr. Nicholas, Bp of Ferns.)] <i>The Unkinde Desertor of Loyall Men and True Frinds,</i> 12mo, n.p. 1676. 500 to 700 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Yeats (W.B.) <i>Plays and Controversies,</i>, N.Y. (The MacMillan Company) 1924, Signed Limited Edn. 500 to 700 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Barrie (J.M.) & Thomson (Hugh) illus. <i>Quality Street, a Comedy in Four Acts,</i> L. (Hodder and Stoughton) 1901, Limited Edition, signed by the artist. 500 to 700 €
    <center><b>Fonsie Mealy Auctioneers<br>The Collectors’ Sale<br>July 7 – 15, 2020</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Molyneaux (William). <i>The Case of Ireland's being bound by Acts of Parliament in England Stated,</i> [London 1719]. 200 to 300 €
    <b>Fonsie Mealy, Jul. 7 – 15:</b> Johnston's (W. & A.) Map of South Africa, to illustrate the Military Operations 1900. 100 to 150 €
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b><br>N.C. Wyeth, <i>The Black Arrow,</i> oil on canvas, for the book by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1916. $150,000 to $250,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b> Laurent de Brunhoff, mixed media color study for <i>Babar’s World Tour,</i> 2005. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b> Hilary Knight, <i>Eloise with Valentine,</i> watercolor, ink & pencil, 2015. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b> Howard Pyle, <i>It was a Comrade from His Own Regiment,</i> oil on canvas, for <i>Harper’s Monthly Magazine,</i> 1909. $20,000 to $30,000.
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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b> Vince McIndoe, <i>Villainous Last Supper, DC Comics,</i> oil on canvas, 2016. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries July 16:</b> Arthur Getz, <i>Rooftop Party,</i> casein tempera, cover illustration for <i>The New Yorker,</i> 1970. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 1. Albertus Magnus, De Natura Locorum, 2nd edn, 1515. £3000 to £4000.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 22. George Cooke, Scenery of the East India Islands, 1811-13. £4500 to £5500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 23. J.M. Crozet, Nouveau vouage a la Mer du Sud, 1st edn, 1783. £4000 to £6000.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 27. J.P.J.Du Bois, Vies des Gouverneurs Generaux, 1st edn, 1763. £1200 to £1800.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 28. Wm Ellis, Authentic Narrative...Captain Cook, 1st edn, 1782. £2500 to £3500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 31. Thomas Forrest, Voyage to New Guinea, 1st edn, 1779. £1500 to £2000.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 32. Forster & Forster, Voyage round the World, 1st edn, 1777-78. £4500 to £5500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 38. Gianetti, Elogy of Captain James Cook, 1st edn, 1785. £2500 to £3500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 46. Otto von Kotzebue, Entdeckungs Reise, 1st edn, 1821. £3500 to £4500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 52. Alejandro Malaspina, Viaje politico-scientifico, 1st edn, 1885. £2000 to £3000.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 60. Sydney Parkinson, Journal of Voyage to the South Seas, large paper, 1773. £4500 to £5500.
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 16:</b><br>Lot 64. Nathaniel Portlock, A Voyage round the World, 1st edn, 1789. £4000 to £6000.
  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>The Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript<br>Online Auction 8-15 July
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    <b>Sotheby’s:</b> Catherine II. Empress of Russia Letter signed to Prince Grigori Aleksandrovich [Potemkin] 1784. £2,000 to £3,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s:</b> Nelson. Autograph letter signed, to Captains of Egyptian Club, 3 August 1798. £12,000 to £18,000,
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