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Washington-Lafayette ‘Badge’ Estimated to bring millions

By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink

Washington-Lafayette I would have to admit I was flabbergasted when I heard that Sotheby’s will, on Dec. 11, auction a ‘medal’ that is estimated to bring from four to ten million dollars. To my knowledge, an American medal or ‘Order’ has never realized as much as $500,000 at auction.

This piece is believed to have been specially made for George Washington in 1784. In 1824, long after Washington’s death in 1799, it was reportedly given by Washington’s adopted daughter to the Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman who served as a two-star general in the American Revolutionary army and played an important role in the Revolutionary War against the British.

Such a metal object issued by the Society of the Cincinnati is often referred to as a ‘badge.’ Informally, members of this society refer to them as “eagles.” It is most accurate, however, to include this piece and other society badges in the category of Orders and Decorations.

Ron Fischer is a recognized expert in the field of ‘Orders and Decorations. He is a past Commander-General of the Military Order of Foreign Wars of the United States. Fischer “has been collecting U.S. medals of all types for fifty years,” and he has reviewed literature relating to this piece which he terms “an Order.” Fischer emphasizes that the Society of the Cincinnati is “an Hereditary Order.”

Whether it is called an ‘Order,’ a medal, a badge, or an ‘eagle,’ it features a gold eagle surrounded by a wreath, also made of gold, with an enamel oval object embedded on the eagle’s chest. The Latin inscription in enamel cannot be clearly and unambiguously translated into English. The point that Washington, and other officers, ‘risked everything’ to fight for the cause of American independence is paramount. The cataloguers state that the dimensions of this ‘Order’ are 1.5 by 1.125 inches, and, with its clasp and original ribbon, it is 5.5 inches long. The Society for the Cincinnati arranged for badges (Orders) to be manufactured in France.

According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, after Lafayette’s death in 1834, it remained in Lafayette’s family until the present. The consignor is a great-great-granddaughter of the Marquis de Lafayette, Baroness Meunier du Houssoy.

The value of this item is largely based upon the concept that it was treasured by George Washington himself, represents the personal bond between Washington and Lafayette along with an historical bond between the U.S. and France, and is symbolic of the bravery and ideals of those who fought against the British.

While there are other privately owned Cincinnati Orders (badges) of 1784, it is almost certain that none of the others would be worth anywhere near as much as one that was owned by both Washington and Lafayette. The Society of the Cincinnati was founded, in May 1783, by officers who fought for American Independence in the Revolutionary War. By early 1785, more than two thousand officers had joined.

This society is not directly related to the city of the same name in Ohio. Indeed, in the 1780s, there was not yet a state of Ohio, and the area that now constitutes Ohio was then mostly uninhabited.

The name Cincinnati stems from Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a famous figure in ancient Roman history. Around 458 B.C, he agreed to abruptly leave his life as a farmer, and significant land-owner, in order to lead the Roman army to prevent a foreign power from conquering his nation. He served temporarily in a position that could be best described as a ‘military dictator,’ though he, like Washington, did not wish to be a monarch and did not lust for power. After military goals were achieved, Cincinnatus gladly returned to life as a private citizen. He respected the Roman Senate, his nation’s legislature, as Washington also strongly respected the elected Congress.

Washington and Cincinnatus both had the option, more than once in their respective careers, of having tremendous or even tyrannical power and chose instead to have limited power over relatively short time periods. Importantly, neither Cincinnatus nor Washington plotted to gain power and both wielded power only when asked to do so.

While the Roman State in the times of Cincinnatus is much different from the early era of the United States, Cincinnatus and Washington both strongly believed in a cause that they deemed to be above and beyond their own individual fates. Generally, Americans were motivated by philosophical principles to fight the Revolutionary War.

The society is active in the present and its 2006 annual report reveals that it has “some 3,700 members.” According to TheCincinnati.org, the “members of the Society of the Cincinnati are eligible descendants of commissioned officers of the Continental army and navy and the French army and navy who served in the American Revolutionary War. Membership in the Society of the Cincinnati is governed by the rules of the individual constituent societies, which are headquartered in the thirteen original States and [in] France.” The French constituent society was formally organized on July 4, 1784, and was endorsed by the King of France, Louis XVI. For the first time, French army and navy officers were permitted to wear a foreign ‘Order’ on their uniforms, the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Each of the fourteen constituent societies has, or may have, honorary members, usually individuals who have distinguished themselves with exemplary military or public service. More than a dozen past U.S. Presidents were honorary members. Usually, none of the descendants of honorary members are entitled to membership.

Washington, initially, had reservations about the society. He was, though, persuaded to be the first President-General of the society and he served in this position until his death in 1799. Clearly, he was comfortable in this position. In contrast, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin were all very critical of the ‘hereditary nature’ of the society, and they were generally suspicious of it. Some critics feared that this society would become very politically powerful, though that never happened, as far as I know.

An early objective of the Society of the Cincinnati was to advocate federal pensions for veterans and government benefits for widows and orphans of military personnel. According to its ‘mission statement,’ this society “is organized for patriotic, historical and educational purposes,” including tributes to those who fought in the Revolutionary War and activities relating to the philosophical principles for which the war was fought. The Society of the Cincinnati also aims “to promote unity and fellowship among the descendants of [Revolutionary era] patriots.”

NY Historical Society - Washing Portrait - Unknown ArtistWashington owned multiple gold badges (Orders) issued by the Society of the Cincinnati. I could find a picture of only one portrait that shows Washington wearing an Order of the Society of the Cincinnati. It was painted by an unknown artist and the web page that features it indicates that it is now in the collection of the New York Historical Society. The ‘Order’ depicted in this portrait is clearly different from the one that Sotheby’s will auction on Dec. 11. It could be one of the other Cincinnati Orders (badges) that Washington owned, or the artist could have added an element of fiction?

As for the Order that Sotheby’s will auction, the catalogue states that it was given to Lafayette in 1824. Lafayette was invited to tour the United States by President James Monroe. There is a portrait of Lafayette, at the Gibbes Museum in South Carolina, that was painted during this time period. In this portrait, Lafayette seems to be wearing the same ‘Order’ (badge) that Sotheby’s will auction on Dec. 11, though the depiction of the Order in this painting is not completely clear.

If someone were going to spend millions of dollars for an ‘Order’ (badge), almost entirely for its historical significance, then the potential buyer may wish to be completely certain about its pedigree.

According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, this exact ‘Order’ (badge) was on display at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1892 and ‘93, at an exposition in France in 1934 honoring the hundredth anniversary of the death of Lafayette, and at an exposition at the French national library in 1937. Do photographs exist of this Order on display in 1892, 1893, 1934 or 1937?

Again according to Sotheby’s, it was later exhibited twice at the French national archives, at a Lafayette exhibit in 1957 and at exposition pertaining to the U.S. bicentennial in 1976. A black and white picture, not of high quality, of the Order on display in 1957 appears in a book, “The Insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati,” which was written by Minor Myers and published in 1998. This book includes much previously unavailable information regarding the Orders (badges) of the society.

It seems that, of the original Orders (badges) that were made in France and delivered to the United States in the 1780s, there are six varieties. Ron Fischer “has seen a small number of Cincinnati badges of the 1784 period come up for sale at auction or shows, over the years as well as the parchment diplomas for membership signed by George Washington for the original 2033 veteran members.”

George Harris has been a dealer in military memorabilia for thirty-five years and is an active collector. He “has never seen an original 18th century Cincinnati badge.” He knows that some are “privately owned.” Harris estimates that most of the “original Cincinnati Orders” are “worth from $50,000 to $100,000 each.”

Fischer owns seven Cincinnati Orders (badges), only one of which dates from the 18th century. He “found a 1784 badge with a modern replacement ribbon at a gun show over ten years ago and was able to buy it for $1,000.” Fischer guesses that he “was the only one at the show who” had any idea as to its true nature. Fischer “believed it to be an early New York [constituent] Society badge for years, and was only able to positively identify it as a 1784 period piece” after he “acquired the Myers book.”

Fischer disagrees with Harris’s estimate of the market price range for most original Cincinnati Orders. He acknowledges that he was lucky to buy one for only $1,000. In recent years, Fischer says, original Cincinnati Orders (badges) “auctioned in the United States” realized “from $5,000 to $30,000. The bottom number would be for an unattributed badge with a replaced ribbon. A badge and diploma along with letters to a known Revolutionary War Officer would” be worth much more than $5,000, but typically not more than $25,000. An Order (badge) that was once owned by a Revolutionary War “commander” or even by a “later political personality” would be worth $25,000 to $30,000 or “even more.” Fischer remembers a 1784 Cincinnati Order (badge), accompanied by historical documentation, that “sold at auction in Pennsylvania for around $17,000, not too long ago.”

It was surprising to me that both Fischer and Harris find the Sotheby’s estimate of four to ten million to be unsurprising, especially since another 1784 Cincinnati Order (badge) could be acquired for so much less. They emphasize the importance of George Washington, and the fact that the design of this one is much different from the other privately owned Orders (badges). Harris declares “where else would someone have the opportunity to acquire something of great artistic and historical merit,” directly connected to the Revolutionary War, “that George Washington personally treasured”?

Both Fischer and Harris strongly believe that the piece that Sotheby’s will auction is truly George Washington’s special Cincinnati Order (badge) that was later given to Lafayette. They believe that there are several logical reasons to conclude that it is authentic and as Sotheby’s describes it. Most of these reasons cannot be summarized.

Fisher points out that additional Cincinnati Orders could always be obtained from the society by members, and it is unlikely that anyone would “go to the trouble and expense of making a secret copy of an original.” Harris says that, until the late 20th century, such Orders “did not have much collector value.” No one would have made quality fakes in the past. Later period Cincinnati Orders have never been extremely expensive. Fischer remarks that a very early 20th century Cincinnati Order (badge) “can sell for $2,000 to $3,500” in the current market and much less in the past. Neither Fischer nor Harris knows of any forgeries of 18th century Cincinnati Orders.

Fischer and Harris also agree that the ribbon is a strong factor in determining that this Cincinnati Order is genuine. There was a special art to making such ribbons, and much is known about the sources. Harris emphasizes that there are scientific methods employed now that assist in categorizing ribbons according to time period. Harris and Fischer believe that it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to credibly duplicate such an 18th century ribbon in the 20th century or even in the late 19th century. It might not even have been possible to do so in the early 19th century!

Fischer emphasizes that this ribbon is in “excellent condition” and it is “very unlikely” that the fabric, style and arrangement could have been successfully copied. Moreover, Fischer points out that this “ribbon and double trumpet button hole suspender” is “unique to original 1784 badges” [Orders]. Fischer “feels that the badge [Order]” that Sotheby’s will auction “is no doubt 100% genuine.”

Both Fischer and Harris stated that they cannot afford to buy it. I asked each of them, in separate conversations, “supposing that you had $40 million, would you then be willing to pay as much as $8 million for this Order?” They both answered “Yes”!

Of all auctions of coins, paper money or exonumia (including Orders), this is certainly one of the most curious and fascinating. I look forward to the event.

©2007 Greg Reynolds

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About the Author

Greg Reynolds is a numismatic writer, researcher and analyst. Greg has examined almost all of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest type coins and patterns, He has extensively researched the pedigrees of important numismatic properties, and he has written about and analyzed numerous auctions, private sales and collections.

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