An anonymous bidder paid nearly $17.4 million on Wednesday, Flag Day, for four rare flags from the American Revolution. The remarkably intact regimental standards captured by a British officer in 1779-80 were put up for auction by one of his direct descendants 225 years later.
"These are inspirational, an extraordinary window into the birth of our country," said David Redden, a vice chairman of Sotheby's, which conducted the sale.
Redden said that during wars of the 18th century, the primary targets in a battle were the opposing commanders and their units' flags, as trophies of victory.
"You can imagine the soldiers carrying them, who suffered grievous wounds and made sacrifices to defend what were sacred objects," he said. "You look at them, and you really get a sense of looking at something that has a great deal of spiritual significance."
The final sales price for the four flags was well over Sotheby's pre-sale estimate of $4 million to $10 million. The buyer, who bid by telephone, asked not to be identified, Sotheby's spokeswoman Lauren Gioia said.
Only about 30 Revolutionary War flags are known to exist, and all except the four sold at auction are in museums or other institutional collections, Sotheby's said. Most are in fragments, with only bits of historic information available about them.
The four flags, by contrast, are in good condition and their histories were well documented by Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton, a firebrand British officer who captured them in battles nearly a year apart.
On July 2, 1779, the 24-year-old Tarleton led his cavalry unit, known as the Green Dragoons, in a surprise attack on the Continental Army's 2nd Light Dragoons, a Connecticut regiment also known as Sheldon's Dragoons, at Pound Ridge.
The redcoats routed the Americans, capturing supplies, weapons and the unit's battle flag — a banner with 13 red and white stripes and a field with a painted thundercloud.
Nine months later and almost 600 miles to the southwest, Tarleton did it again on May 29, 1780, capturing three flags belonging to a Virginia regiment led by Lt. Col. Abraham Buford, in a clash at Waxhaws, on the border between North and South Carolina.
In a postwar memoir, Tarleton said "upwards of 100 officers and men were killed," and "three colours ... fell into the possession of the victors."
The three flags, Sotheby's said, are "the only intact set of American battle flags surviving" from the Revolutionary War.
The main flag is of gold silk, depicting a beaver gnawing on a palmetto tree, the state symbol of South Carolina. The others are gold and blue silk, bearing the word "Regiment."
Sotheby's identified the seller of the flag collection as Capt. Christopher Tarleton Fagan, a direct descendant of the officer whose forces captured them.
The Connecticut Dragoons flag, with an estimated presale value of $1.5 to $3.5 million, was sold for $12.36 million. The group of three Buford flags, known as the Waxhaws Colors, went for $5.056 million, after a presale estimate of $2.5 to $6.5 million.