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First US President's Belongings Up for Auction

Pieces of American history will be up for sale later this month, as a descendent of George Washington auctions off pieces of the first president's silver collection. Specialists at the auction house say the silver carries excellent documentation and provides a glimpse into the life of America's founding father.

When the first president of the United States entertained, he did so in a grand fashion, with heavy sterling silver tablespoons engraved with his family's eagle crest, or handsome silver coolers to chill bottles of wine.

These are just some of the pieces to be sold at Sotheby's auction house in New York City May 19.

As Sotheby's silver experts explain, it is not simply the quality of the pieces, nor the esteem of their original owner that makes such an auction rare. Silver specialist John Tierney explains this silver has been passed down through Washington's family since the late 1700s.

"What is totally so great is the direct line of descent," he explained. "You can imagine a lot of things have putative connection to Washington. You have to tie it down completely to be sure the truth of it, and, secondly, to frankly justify the high prices paid for these things. Here, we have it, and it could not be more clear, totally documented."

The pieces were important enough to the Washington family to be specifically referred to in wills, and to be buried for safekeeping during the nation's Civil War. Sotheby's John Ward spent the past year researching the pieces, and says journals, bills of sale and other documents show the silvers' use through history.

"It is listed in inventories, been discussed by visitors, illustrated even. This is ironclad and that is a rare thing in Washingtonia, a lot of it is 'probably' or 'said to have been.' Here, to have it in the family, so superbly documented is very reassuring," he said.

While the provenance is reassuring, the estimated bids would leave most people gasping for breath. Sotheby's estimates the single tablespoon could command $50,000. The two-bottle wine cooler is estimated to bring about one-half-million dollars.

If Mr. Washington himself were alive, it is not likely that he would be bidding at those levels. The plantation owner-turned-president himself was rather thrifty.

And a platter that is up for auction attests to that fact. Mr. Washington commissioned a well-known silversmith in the city of Philadelphia to create the expensive tray, called a salver. He commissioned similar trays from a local silversmith, who charged less.

"Because Washington was frugal, shall we say, he takes that Philadelphia salver to his local silversmith in Alexandria, Virginia, and sort of says, can you copy this for me and do two more, smaller," he explained.

A total of 10 pieces are up for auction, four owned by Washington himself, six owned by his descendants. Sotheby's specialists expect the pieces to sell swiftly, possibly within 15 minutes.

Mr. Tierney adds that the buyers could be individuals, who might loan the pieces to institutions, such as the museum at George Washington's home, Mount Vernon.

"It is very rare, and as time go on, these things get more and more rare, because they go to Mt. Vernon, go to an institution, not to come back on the market," he said. "You will see in catalogs an occasional piece, but again, frequently, it is 'is it really associated with George Washington?' Here we know for certain, which is a big plus."

Mr. Tierney says the enthusiasm surrounding these pieces is somewhat comparable to the excitement generated by the auction of another first family's belongings, the Kennedys.