Stolen Alexander Hamilton Letter an the Need for Due Diligence

The Washington Post recently published a short article on the a recently discovered 1780 letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette. The letter came to the Potomack Company in Alexandria (full disclosure, I work with the Potomack Company) from a collection and estate in South Carolina. The letter was found to be stolen from the Massachusetts Archives 70 years ago. It has been returned. Potomack did the right thing in researching the letter, discovering issues, in this case it being stolen and contacting the original owners and authorities for proper return.

The article is getting good exposure, with fellow appraiser Xiliary Twil sending me a copy.

The Washington Post reports
The team at the Potomack Company auction house knew they had something special: a 1780 letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette. The Founding Father had written to the French commander warning about the British naval fleet. Given the newfound appreciation of Hamilton (see: the smash Broadway musical), curators estimated the letter could sell for $25,000 to $35,000 or a lot more if a bidding war broke out.

And then, just like Hamilton’s tumultuous life story, there was a dramatic twist: The letter was authentic and a valuable piece of American history. But it was also stolen.

In preparation for sale, books and manuscripts manager Christine Messing discovered that Founders Online, a historical documents website maintained by the National Archives, listed the original letter as “missing.” Turns out the Hamilton letter was one of several papers spirited out of the Massachusetts Archives by a clerk 70 years ago and sold to unsuspecting dealers and collectors.

The South Carolina family that consigned the letter to the auction house last fall — part of their grandfather’s collection — had no clue of its criminal history. Messing called the Massachusetts Archives, the FBI got involved, and prosecutors filed a formal complaint earlier this month asking that the letter be returned to Boston.

“Everyone’s first reaction was, ‘It needs to go back to where it should be,’” says Potomack owner Elizabeth Wainstein. “That was never a question.”

It’s just the latest drama for the Alexandria auction house, which has also handled a stolen Renoir, a Russian painting looted during World War II, an original Andy Warhol and historic urns from Arlington Cemetery. The world of fine arts can be intimidating, puzzling — and sometimes kind of sketchy.

And people want so badly to believe that the dusty old junk in grandma’s attic might be worth millions. It’s the fantasy that launched “Antiques Roadshow” and reality shows about flea markets and abandoned storage lockers: The dream that the ugly painting at Goodwill, the stamp collection in the basement, that funny-looking watch at the flea market, an Action Comics No. 1 (the first appearance of Superman in 1938) marked $1 at a garage sale could be life-changing.

It’s the same fantasy that launched million-dollar fake paintings, counterfeit historical documents and some very sophisticated thieves.
Source: The Washington Post

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