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

  • <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. Sold for $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing after pledging support to King George III against American rebels, 1776. Sold for a record $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sonia Delaunay, <i>Ses Peintures</i> . . ., 20 pochoir plates, Paris, 1925. Sold for a record $13,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Diana, Princess of Wales, 6 autograph letters signed to British <i>Vogue</i> editor, 1989-92. Sold for $10,400.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alexander Hamilton, ALS, as Secretary of the Treasury covering costs of the new U.S. Mint, 1793. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. Sold for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Barbier & François-Louis Schmied, <i>Personnages de Comédie,</i> Paris, 1922. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli,</i> Paris, 1897. Sold for a record $13,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ralph Waldo Emerson, <i>The Dial,</i> first edition of the reconstituted issue, Emerson’s copy with inscriptions, Cincinnati, 1860. Sold for a record $3,250.
  • <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 14. [CRIMEAN WAR] HAMLEY. <i>The Story of the Campaign of Sebastopol.</i> 1855. £150 to £200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 17. JONGH & D'ALMEIDA. <i>L’armee Russe...</i> c.1898. Colour plates and many illustrations. £500 to £600
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 18. [RUSSIA] LE PRINCE. <i>Oeuvres. 1782.</i> Rare folio format with 80 etchings and 74 aquatints. £4000 to £6000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 21. [RUSSIA] MORNAY. Set of 8 hand-coloured aquatints of carriages, sleighs and occupants. c.1825. £1200 to £1800
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 33. BOWDICH. <i>Excursions in Madeira and Porto Santo.</i> 1825. A fine copy. £800 to £1200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 37. QUIN. <i>An Historical Atlas.</i> 1836. 2nd edn, 21 hand-coloured maps revealing civilisation. £800 to £1200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 39. LE BRUN. <i>Voyages [...] par la Moscovie, en Perse...</i> 1718. 300+ engravings, panorama. £4500 to £5500
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 48. BRIERLY. <i>The English and French fleets in the Baltic.</i> 1855. Colour lithographs. £7000 to £9000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 60. DELLA VALLE. <i>Reise Beschreibung... in Turckey, Egypten, Palestina[...].</i> 1674. £1500 to £2000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 77. MURRAY, Mrs. Watercolour Album of Heaths. c.1860. 55 original watercolours. £750 to £1000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 91. ADDISON. <i>Works...</i> 1721. 4 vols, large paper copy, English red morocco. £2500 to £3500
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 96. HOLBEIN. Imitations of original drawings. 1792-1800. Exceptional copy. £4000 to £6000

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