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Revolutionary War Flags for Sale at Sothebys

For more than 225 years, a series of four flags hung on the walls of a family home in southern England. As they passed through generations, so did the story of what the flags were, whom they belonged to, and how they came to hang on the walls. But, as VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports, the descendants of one of Britain's most celebrated and feared military officers are returning the oldest known examples of the Stars and Stripes back to the land they were taken from more than two centuries ago.

Flag Day this year was a bittersweet occasion for Captain Christopher Tarleton Fagan. "My wife was wondering if it might not be a good idea that I come, but I said, 'No, come on, we've got to see it through.'"

What he's seeing through is the sale of his family's historic heirlooms at Sotheby's auction house --- a set of four American Revolutionary War battle flags that has been in the family for more than 225 years.

Captain Fagan recalls, "Right from the day that I was born I would have seen them, and obviously we often talked about them, and we talked about the fact that one of the flags had stripes on them and another had stars and that they represented the 13 colonies before those two stars and stripes were amalgamated to make America's national flag."

Captain Fagan is a descendant of Banastre Tarleton, the British officer who captured the flags around the year 1780 in New York and South Carolina.

Only through his decision to sell the flags did he come to learn their true significance.

They are the only Revolutionary War flags that exist, and two of the flags are the earliest known examples of the Stars and Stripes.

Another flag carries a bloodstain, most likely from the American standard bearer who died trying to keep the colors at the Battle of Waxhaws in South Carolina in 1780.

Fagan says he has one regret. "One of the regrets is I didn't know as much as I know now while we had them… because I would have loved them even more."

Banastre Tarleton was here at Sotheby's for the auction… both spiritually and physically. Captain Fagan proudly displayed a set of cufflinks he wore for the occasion, which contains a piece of Tarleton's hair.

In the end, the four flags sold for more than $17 million, more money than the United States government paid to fight the war in which they were captured.

"I personally rather hope that they will go to private hands, and that those private hands will love them and respect them as much as we have, and that they will allow them then to be seen in museum so they can be exhibited and so that they can see them."

The flags went to an anonymous bidder. At the close of the auction Captain Fagan didn't know if he would have the chance to meet the flags' new owner. He was also coming to grips with the fact that he would soon say goodbye to four pieces of cloth and silk that had become such large pieces of his family history.

Fagan remains hopeful. "I am afraid to say that it might be today… so I shall say goodbye to them and tell them I hope to see them again."