American Flags: collecting symbols of freedom

A “For President, Abraham Lincoln” parade flag earned $34,004 in July 2017 at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

NEW YORK — Most people picture the American Flag in its modern incarnation with 50 white stars on a blue background in the upper left corner surrounded by horizontal red and white bands but this was not always the case.

Before 1912, there was no standardized design for the flag, and flag makers had complete freedom to interpret its design as they saw fit. There are nearly limitless variations in the number of stars depicted or the patterns, including stars forming a circle, a flower or a larger star. Sometimes flags had words like “Union” spelled out or included portraits. Even flag experts today will sometimes come across new patterns and designs they’ve never seen before.

Did Betsy Ross sew the first American Flag? Some say it is a myth. Ross was a seamstress known to have been hired to sew flags, and she had some familial connection to George Washington, but there are no actual historical records to support the theory that she designed the 1792 flag still commonly known as the Betsy Ross design. This particular design has 13 five-point stars in a circle, representing the 13 original colonies.

Collectors with a passion for American history as well as artistic design are drawn to early American Flags because they tell a story about the country’s battle for independence. There are many different types of flags. Campaign and militia flags are among the most collectible. So are flags that were used at key historic moments.

This 48-star flag that led the first Americans to Utah Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, sold for $514,000 at Heritage Auctions in June 2016. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Among the highest-selling flags was a 48-star flag that led the first American troops who stormed Utah Beach from the water on D-Day, June 6, 1944. It later sold for record price at Heritage Auctions in June 2016: $514,000 . This flag flew from the stern of a US Navy vessel, Landing Craft Control (LCC) 60 — the only guide boat at Utah Beach — and was kept by its skipper, Lieutenant Howard Vander Beek, for more than 60 years before he died in 2014. It sold to a Dutch art collector who lost family in World War II. In a postsale press release issued by Heritage Auctions, the collector, Bert Kreuk, was quoted from an email he wrote to the company, “This is one of the most important historical American Flags ever to come to auction — a symbol of our freedom. And with our freedom I mean that of Europe in particular.”

This American flag flown over Pearl Harbor naval base during the December 7, 1941 attack sold for $90,000 in September 2017 at Alexander Historical Auctions LLC. Photo courtesy of Alexander Historical Auctions LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Another flag that was displayed at a pivotal moment in American history was a 48-star flag that flew over the Pacific Fleet headquarters of Commander-in-Chief Husband E. Kimmel at the Pearl Harbor Naval Submarine Base during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It brought $90,000 at Alexander Historical Auctions LLC in September 2017.

Ted Hake, founder of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles in York, Pennsylvania, said, “Flag collecting was an often overlooked area during the 20th century but one that has spectacularly come of age in the 21st century.”

This fine 1856 campaign flag for James Buchanan brought $220,000 in May 2017 at Heritage Auctions. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Here are a few record prices for various types of flags: over $500,000 for the flag used in World War II at Utah Beach on D-Day June 6, 1944; $275,000 for an 1856 presidential campaign flag picturing James Buchanan [one of only two Buchanan portrait flags known]; nearly $200,000 for a flag signed by the astronauts and flown on Apollo 11 to the moon in 1969; over $100,000 for a Confederate battle flag, and a record of over $40,000 [held by Hake’s] for an 1860 Lincoln and Hamlin text flag.

A Stephen Douglas 1860 portrait flag, one of three Douglas portrait flags known, made $14,520 in November 2017 at Hake’s Americana & Collectibles. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Americana & Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

“Flags greatly appeal to those who appreciate both American history and graphic design. Before the American Flag was standardized in 1912 and before Congress prohibited the use of words and portraits on the US flag in 1905, a vast number of both hand-sewn and printed flags were produced in an amazing variety of star shapes and patterns” Hake said. “Because most flags were intended for outdoor use, this is a collecting field where rarity trumps condition. The most important factors determining an investment-quality flag’s value are historical significance, graphic appeal, rarity and size.”

Much can be learned about the materials and designs encountered in flag collecting, so a most important rule is to patronize experienced dealers who provide an unconditional guarantee of authenticity, Hake said. Likewise, proper display methods are essential, and flags should be mounted and/or framed only by people with specific expertise in textile conservation.”

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, flag etiquette dictates that the flag never be flown when the weather is inclement, and displayed only from sunrise to sunset [or if at night, it must be illuminated]. The flag should also never touch the ground, and no flags should be hung above it. When hung vertically, the blue part, called the canton or Union, must be at upper left.

The American Flag, in its many iterations, has flown for centuries over our nation. The one thing they all have in common is that they are cherished symbols of hard-fought freedom.

The American Flag recovered by Secret Service in Dallas from the presidential limousine that John F Kennedy was riding in when assassinated fetched $155,000 in January 2017 at Manor Auctions. Photo courtesy of Manor Auctions and LiveAuctioneers