Washington-Lafayette Medal Brings $5,305,000
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink
It was an exciting auction. On Tuesday, Dec. 11, shortly after 4:00 PM, this Washington-Lafayette medal, more specifically an Order, sold in a one-lot auction in the Sotheby’s building in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The $5,305,000 result is the all-time second highest auction price for a numismatic item. Numismatics is a field that certainly includes coins, medals and paper money, and is generally thought to include such items as tokens and privately issued paper items that served as mediums of exchange.
This Washington-Lafayette Order was purchased by la Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun, which is located in Paris and owns two castles in the countryside, the Chateau de Châteldon, which is not related to Lafayette, and the Chateau de La Grange, where Lafayette lived during a sizeable portion of his adult life. The Chateau de La Grange is about thirty miles east of Paris. Lafayette’s bedroom is carefully preserved and features both a painting and a bust of George Washington.
Before discussing the particulars of this foundation, it makes sense to focus upon the importance of the auction result. As the result itself has already been widely reported, the purpose here is to analyze the reasons why this Order (medal) sold for $5.3 million and analyze how this result relates to numismatics.
The Society of the Cincinnati is an Order, and the badges of Orders are themselves termed Orders! Originally, all American and French officers who served in the Revolutionary War were eligible for membership in this society. Afterwards, and in the present, particular descendants of these officers are eligible for membership.
Most ‘Orders and Decorations’ are medals, though only a small percentage of medals are Orders or Decorations. A majority of medals are shaped like coins and are not meant to be worn. This medal, an Order of the Society of the Cincinnati, was worn by both George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, represents the close bond between these two historical figures, and is indicative of French support of the American Revolution.
There are several variations of Orders of the Society of the Cincinnati that were actually made in the 1780s, and there are many variations of ones that have been made between then and the present. At this society’s headquarters in Washington, there are two other unusually valuable Orders. One is worn by the President-General of the society for certain occasions. It contains diamonds and rubies. Originally, it was given to Washington by officers of the French navy, according to the Sotheby’s catalogue. Another Order (medal) was made in 1832 or so, using the Washington-Lafayette Order as a model, and is also in the possession of the Society in Washington. It is sometimes referred to as a ‘copy’ of the Washington-Lafayette Order, though, in actuality, it appears markedly different.
The Order (medal) that sold for $5.3 million on Dec. 11 was specially made for George Washington in 1784 and, for it, Washington had to pay three times the price of the Orders (medals) that were available to other American and French officers who fought for American Independence. Washington was the first President-General of the Society of the Cincinnati. He held this post from 1783 until he died in 1799. I discuss the society a little more in my first CoinLink article on this Washington-Lafayette Order.
Lafayette, as a commissioned Major General, played an important role in the Revolutionary War through his direct involvement in military campaigns, and by being instrumental in obtaining additional French support for the cause. The close friendship between Washington and Lafayette has been well detailed by historians. Washington’s adopted daughter gave this Order (medal) to Lafayette in 1824.
So, as an Order that was manufactured in 1784 specifically for Washington, this Order (medal) is unique. It is true that other Cincinnati Orders, made in 1784, have sold, over the last several years, for less than $50,000 each, maybe even for less than $10,000. Of course, in numismatics, a slightly different item may be worth many multiples of an item that looks the same to someone who is not familiar with the pertinent details.
Consider that a Proof 1913 Liberty Nickel is worth from $1.5 to 5.0 million, while a Proof 1912 Liberty Nickel would be worth between $100 and $4000, depending upon its condition. Someone who is not knowledgeable about nickels might think that a $200 Proof-62 grade 1912 Nickel is not much different from a $2 million Proof-62 grade 1913 Liberty Nickel.
Also consider that the finest known 1893-San Francisco dime was auctioned for $63,250 in May 2007, while the finest known 1894-San Francisco dime sold privately for $1.9 million in July 2007. The worst known 1893-S dime would be worth less than five dollars, while the worst known 1894-S dime would probably realize at least $200,000 if auctioned in the near future. To someone who is not familiar with dimes, an 1893-S dime in Good-06 condition and an 1894-S dime in Good-06 condition might appear to be equivalent.
Likewise, a PCGS graded MS-65 1932 ten dollar gold coin might sell for $6250 or more while a PCGS graded MS-65 1933 ten dollar piece may sell for one hundred times as much, $625,000 or more! Such 1932 and 1933 ten dollar pieces might seem identical to someone who does not understand them.
The Washington-Lafayette Order (medal) actually does look quite different from other 1784 period medals. The overall point of the coin comparisons above is to prove that, even though other Society of the Cincinnati Orders from the 1780s may be worth less than $10,000 each, it still makes logical sense (and is unsurprising) for this one to be worth more than one million. Does the $5.3 million result make sense?
Curiously, the auction record for a numismatic item was set in the same Sotheby’s building, on July 30, 2002, when Sotheby’s auctioned Stephen Fenton’s 1933 twenty dollar gold coin (Double Eagle) for $7.59 million. The Sotheby’s employee, who then put forth the final bid in 2002, while communicating with the buyer by telephone, was Selby Kiffer, who is the primary cataloguer of the Washington Lafayette Order that just sold for $5.3 million. Kiffer is a Senior Vice President at Sotheby’s and is an expert in the ‘Books and Manuscripts’ department, which will offer an original 13th century Magna Carta tonight, Dec. 18.
The third highest auction price for a numismatic item is $4.14 million. My guess is that a New York City dealer and I are the only two people to have been in attendance for all the top three single numismatic item auction records. Generally, he does not wish for his name to be mentioned. While I do not remember seeing him on July 30, 2002, I am guessing that he was there. I am certain that he attended the other two record-setting events.
While all of the top three numismatic auction records for single items were set in New York City, Sotheby’s had nothing to do with the third. On Aug. 30, 1999, Bowers & Merena (New Hampshire) sold the Childs family 1804 dollar, PCGS certified Proof-68, at the Park Lane Hotel on Central Park South. This coin was formerly part of a Proof set given by the U.S. government, in the 1830s, to the Emperor of the Arab State that is now called ‘Muscat & Oman.’ It had been in the Childs family of Illinois since the 1940s. It is the finest of fifteen known 1804 silver dollars.
The second finest 1804 dollar, PCGS graded Proof-67, is in the ‘King of Siam’ Proof Set. This set of mostly 1834 dated, gold, silver and copper coins, was purchased by Steve Contursi for $8.5 million in a private transaction in Nov. 2005. This is the highest price ever paid for a set of coins. Ira and Larry Goldberg acted as agents for the seller. Contursi still has it. Like the Childs 1804 dollar, it has historical significance as this set was a diplomatic gift from the U.S. to the King of Siam (Thailand). Proof sets were minted in 1834, with 1804 dollars, as a consequence of a detailed request by U.S. President Andrew Jackson.
Two coins have sold for $2.99 million each at auction. At the January 2005 FUN auction extravaganza, in Fort Lauderdale, Contursi was the successful bidder for the Brasher Doubloon, a 1787 American gold piece. It is the only one with Brasher’s punch mark on the eagle’s breast. On the six other known doubloons from Brasher’s original dies, the punch mark is on the wing. This piece is jointly owned by Steve Contursi and Don Kagin, and is on display at the ANA museum in Colorado Springs. It was part of the Heritage auction of a fabulous gold type set that was assembled by an unnamed collector under the guidance of Georgia dealer Al Adams.
Unfortunately, I missed the November 2005 event when an Ultra High Relief 1907 Double Eagle, PCGS certified “Proof-69,” sold for a reported ‘$2.99 million’ at the Heritage auction of the Philip Morse collection. This coin was privately acquired by Certified Assets Management during the Summer of 2007.
In the context of auction results for coins, it is not easy to interpret the $5.3 million result for the Washington-Lafayette Cincinnati Order. Auction records for numismatic items typically involve extremely rare coins that are used, or logically could be used, to complete sets. I am certain that some of the bidders for the Fenton 1933 Double Eagle were interested in completing a set of business strike Saint Gaudens Double Eagles, or in selling it to someone who would like to complete such a set. With the purchase of the Fenton 1933 Double Eagle, a collector who has all the other dates could announce that he had completed a set, and could even publicly exhibit a ‘complete’ set of business strike Saints. Undoubtedly, some bidders or possible buyers were interested in this 1933 Double Eagle for other reasons. My point here is that its logical role as potentially part of a collection of business strike Saints is a large determinant of its value.
Likewise, the BRS 1894-S dime is part of a complete set of Proof Barber dimes. In many other cases, collectors have sought an 1894-S to complete a set of all Barber dimes, both business strikes and Proofs. The late Allen Lovejoy acquired the Norweb 1894-S for this exact purpose.
A New Jersey collector acquired the Mickley-Hawn 1804 dollar at a Stack’s auction in 1993 so that he could have a complete set of all U.S silver dollars from 1794 to 1935. Many other collectors have sought an 1804 dollar for this same purpose, or to complete a set of Bust type silver dollars.
It was novel for a collector to seek multiple Brasher gold coins as components of a gold type set. Previously, Brasher doubloons had been sought after by collectors of colonial coins or U.S. patterns. The relatively recent hypothesis that Brasher doubloons are coins, rather than patterns, suggests that they might have much more historical significance than was previously thought. Further, Brasher was, in ways, connected to some of the Founding Fathers. Maybe Brasher doubloons will in the future be valued more as historical relics than as coins?
Clearly, 1804 dollars of the first type and Brasher doubloons have important historical elements. Yet, in the past, these have been primarily evaluated in terms of how they fit into collections, rather than as historical items separate from numismatic collections.
In contrast, the Sotheby’s cataloguers and the buyer regard this Washington-Lafayette Order primarily as an historical “relic,” and, secondarily if at all, as a numismatic item. There are many collectors who specialize in early American medals, and quite a few who collect early military memorabilia. There are even a few who collect Orders of the Society of the Cincinnati. Ron Fischer collects all three of the above. I conjecture that none of the collectors of military memorabilia, early American medals in general, or specifically Cincinnati Orders would be willing and able to spend more than $2 million for this Washington-Lafayette Order (medal).
What is its numismatic value? I asked Dave Wnuck, who is a specialist in early American coins and medals. He said that, if it was offered “in a coin and Americana auction, with advertisements limited to numismatic print publications, then it would have brought from $300,000 to $600,000”! Wnuck wonders if “Sotheby’s did a brilliant job of marketing.”
I like Wnuck’s analysis, as his thinking on the matter is very similar to mine was when I first read about this Order (medal). I have since revised my interpretation of its numismatic value and especially of its value as a philosophical symbol.
When I inspected it, the day before the auction, I had a more favorable reaction than I thought that I would. Both the workmanship and condition of this Order are even more impressive in actuality than in pictures. The fine details are pleasing. There are no signs of a wiping, or of a moderate dipping. The luster of the gold is even and very appealing. The ribbon, in shades of sky blue, though worn, looks distinguished. The designs in enamel are cool. I like the piece. I do not like it as much as I would like a superb gem U.S. gold coin from the 1790s. I could understand, though, how a medal collector might be very enthusiastic about it, much more so than for other early American medals.
It is my belief that there are two to four coin or medal collectors that would be willing to spend more than $1 million for it. Its numismatic value, however, is almost certainly less than $2 million. Its historical value is much more difficult to analyze. Other than coins, paintings, and furniture, are there many other, privately owned, 18th century American items that are worth millions? Even handwritten and signed letters by George Washington tend to sell for much less than $100,000. Would a particularly important Washington letter be worth $1 million? I do not know.
Are there now collector-owned letters written by Washington to Lafayette, or from Lafayette to Washington? Would many history-minded collectors rather have several of those than this Order (medal)? It is true that paper items typically do not survive in pristine form, and are often unsightly, while an artistic gold medal may remain attractive for thousands of years. Did Washington and Lafayette really consider this Order (medal) to be that important? Did either of them really wear it often, on their own time? The answers to these questions may be beside the most important point.
Its value comes largely from the concepts that it symbolizes, and is thus harder to explain than the values of most historical relics. In my preview article, I emphasized that 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 in the Revolutionary War for America’s Independence. In sum, it symbolizes key historical relationships and philosophical ideals.
In my first article, I point out that both Cincinnatus, in Ancient Roman times, and Washington, in the eighteenth century, had opportunities to obtain far more power than they had, and both chose less power, apparently for philosophical reasons. Lafayette, too, had such as characteristic.
Lafayette was invited by Napoleon to hold a powerful position in Napoleon’s reign. Lafayette refused, and chose to have less power, because he regarded Napoleon as a tyrannical ruler. Like Cincinnatus, Lafayette returned to his farm. Lafayette’s political career, though, did not end until he died.
Lafayette worked hard, mostly behind the scenes, to influence French politics and to advocate individual rights for all. While Lafayette felt that France was not ready to become a democratic republic, he actively sought to bring about a regime where a monarch would share power with a legislature, as was the case in Britain. He neither envisioned, nor favored, a perennial monarchy. Lafayette maintained that the chief of state of France should, eventually, be an elected position. Lafayette worked hard on behalf of freedom of the press and for an independent judiciary.
When the monarchy was restored in France in 1814, Lafayette tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to influence the selection of Kings so that the reigning monarch would be respectful of individual rights and would tolerate a balance of powers in government. Lafayette was part of a political force that forced King Charles X to abdicate in 1830. Lafayette was particularly infuriated by King Charles efforts to control the content of newspapers and curb the national legislature. Charles X was replaced by King Louis-Philippe, who was very disappointing to Lafayette.
An overall theme is that Lafayette’s thinking regarding individual rights was similar to that of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, with whom he corresponded many times. His ideology was much closer to that of the American Founding Fathers than to the noblemen of France.
When Lafayette volunteered to join the army of the American Revolution, it was partly because he believed in a philosophy of individual rights. Though a nobleman by birth, he held that all men had natural rights.
The Washington-Lafayette Order (medal) of the Society of the Cincinnati is symbolic of the birth of a nation and of the ideology of the founders. It is distinct from any one or series of letters, and it is not analogous to relics like Washington’s guns, flags or houses. It represents a philosophy and an historical reality. The Society of the Cincinnati celebrates both the men who fought for independence and the philosophical ideals for which they fought. Plus, the revolutionaries might not have been successful without support from the French Government.
So, this medal symbolizes a combination of historical facts and philosophical ideals and that is primarily why it sold for $5.3 million. It has more elements than other numismatic items or historical memorabilia. It has more aesthetic and emotional impact than paper documents. Further, the Founding Fathers wrote many letters. Thomas Jefferson, for example, wrote many thousands of letters. Lafayette certainly wrote hundreds. Yet, there is only one Order (medal) that was owned by both Washington and Lafayette, plus it is literally and philosophically connected to the American Revolution.
The total value of this Order (medal) is greater than the sum of its numismatic, historical, political and philosophical components. It is a unique and forceful combination of these components.
Bidding started at more than $2 million. I saw only three bidders, though there could have been a fourth. Two bid by telephone via Sotheby’s employees. My sources suggest that, at least one, maybe both, of the telephone bidders were communicating bids from institutions.
The successful bidder was Christophe van de Weghe, an art dealer who has a gallery in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. He was acting as agent for la fondation of Josée and René de Chambrun. During and right after the auction, van de Weghe was talking, in French, to the chief executive of this foundation on his cell phone.
This foundation was recognized by the French government in October 1959. Josée was René’s wife. She died in 1992 and he died in 2002. René is a descendant of the Marquis de Lafayette. His full name was Count René Aldebert Pineton de Chambrun. His mother was an American, Clara Longworth, sister of Nicholas Longworth, who was Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1925 to early 1931.
For most of his career, René de Chambrun was a prominent lawyer in Paris. In the early 1930s, he spent considerable time in the United States, and became a practicing lawyer in the State of New York. Chambrun’s involvement in politics is too complicated to summarize here.
In 1935, René de Chambrun married. He and Josée purchased Lafayette’s castle, Chateau de La Grange, from one of René’s cousins, who was also a descendant of Lafayette. In 1955, René de Chambrun found a massive collection of Lafayette’s papers hidden in the attic. Years later, the foundation allowed for most of the papers to be microfilmed, and copies are in the United States at the Library of Congress and at Cleveland State University. The collection includes more than 64,000 feet of microfilm.
In 1960, René de Chambrun succeeded his father as president of the crystal firm Baccarat. In 1989, a majority stake in Baccarat was sold to the Taittinger family, of champagne fame. Afterwards, la Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun had thirty-four percent of the stock of Baccarat.
Starwood, an American firm, became majority-owner of Baccarat when Starwood bought the Taittinger conglomerate for 2.6 billion euros. In June 2007, Starwood, through a French affiliate, purchased the 34% share of Baccarat that was owned by la Fondation Josée et René de Chambrun, which received the current U.S. dollar equivalent of more than $70 million dollars then and a delayed payment of the balance, amounting to $25 million or so, in 2009.
It is extremely curious that Baroness Meunier du Houssoy, a descendant of Lafayette, decided to sell this Order (medal) in the same year that a French foundation that is largely devoted to Lafayette became flush with more than $70 million in cash! Is it a coincidence?
In any event, the Chambrun foundation has announced that the Washington Lafayette Order (medal) will soon be on display at the Chateau de la Grange. Further, the chief executive of this foundation has expressed willingness to allow it to be displayed in the United States.
Is the $5.3 million result extremely high? From the point of view of a numismatist, it is much too much for a medal that does not logically complete a collection. Consider, though, that a large number of paintings, with minimal historical or philosophical significance, have been auctioned for more than $5 million each! Maybe $5.3 million is too low a price for an attractive item of great numismatic, historical, political and philosophical importance!
©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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